The Impact Of Cognitive Load On Learners

The Impact Of Cognitive Load On Learners
Summary: What is cognitive load and what is the impact it has on what learners can retain?

What To Be Aware Of And What You Can Do

To move from teacher to Instructional Designer, several concepts are important to understand as you teach adults versus children. I am creating a set of workshops for my department that will go over some of those theories and how to apply them.

Cognitive Load Theory

Wikipedia has one of the best definitions for the cognitive load theory: "Cognitive load theory provides a general framework and has broad implications for Instructional Design, by allowing Instructional Designers to control the conditions of learning within an environment or, more generally, within most instructional materials. Specifically, it provides…guidelines that help Instructional Designers decrease extraneous cognitive load during learning and…refocus the learner’s attention toward germane materials, thereby increasing germane (schema related) cognitive load."

Respecting the boundaries of what the brain is capable of when designing training honors your learners’ abilities and their time. Learners will appreciate everything you do to help them add to their knowledge and skills without any distractions. Consider the impact of intrinsic, germane, and extraneous load when designing learning experiences.

1. Intrinsic Load

This has to do with the difficulty of the material. Are you learning how to pilot a space shuttle or are you learning how to create a journal entry? Obviously, the space shuttle is much more complicated. When you are creating training for complicated content, use techniques like chunking, sequencing, and repetition to reduce the intrinsic load on your learner.

2. Germane Load

This has to do with taking new information and putting it together with the knowledge you already have. Adult learners are always taking in new information and incorporating it into what they already know about the subject. Incorporating new information can be difficult when the old schema must be replaced or modified. Replacing or changing old knowledge can be time-consuming, as the reflex is to default to old materials or processes. When creating content to replace or modify the current schema, use reflection, interleaving, and worked examples to help new knowledge stick. When possible, having learners work in groups and have discussions about new content helps to make this new learning a part of long-term memory.

3. Extraneous Load

This has to do with processes that have nothing to do with the actual learning. This includes the UI/UX of the learning program, any distractions in the background or on the screen, the connection to the LMS, and how easy or difficult it is. This is the easiest load for an Instructional Designer to control. Since adult learners want to get to the heart of the content and how they can use it to improve their knowledge and skills, the design, layout, and use of the learning should be carefully considered. If extra information is added, make it optional. Keep the UI clean and consistent if you have multiple lessons that users will work through. Do not make them relearn the navigation for every lesson. Make using the LMS a consistent and streamlined experience for all lessons. If you can work across groups within your organization to decrease the extraneous load on learners by being consistent your learners will get more content into their long-term memory.

As the goal of learning is to create a schema in a learner’s long-term memory, knowing what impacts that and controlling what factors you can will help to increase what your learners retain. Our conversation took an interesting turn when everyone got together to discuss this subject. We focused on what specific steps we could take to reduce the cognitive load on our learners. Ideas included focusing on concise writing: don’t use four words if two will do. One of the participants said that Grammarly has helped her to help develop that skill. Use the active versus passive voice whenever writing to engage more. Use consistency in lists and actions. If your list contains four items, they should all be in the same tense. For example, don’t use singing, hearing, dancing, and slept. Use bullet points whenever possible on slides or manuals, it forces you to use fewer words. The book Slide:ology by Duarte has great examples to develop concise content on slides and everything else you create. It is easy to overwhelm your learners, focus on giving them the content that they can use, and do not decorate it unnecessarily.

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