There are many considerations to keep in mind while designing an e-learning course, particularly the needs of the learner and the demands on their attention. One of the more important techniques to manage and focus on for instructional designers is the concept of cognitive load.
Cognitive load as a theory has its roots in the 1980s (originally developed by psychologist John Sweller) but is becoming more prominent as e-learning progresses. Cognitive load describes how much of a person’s working memory is occupied by a certain task or demand on their attention.
Working memory is the limited amount of information that the brain keeps available for a short period so that it can be manipulated to perform a task, learn or understand facts, or make decisions. All information learned consciously passes through working memory.
Any mental process a person experiences, from memory to perception to language, creates a cognitive load since it requires effort to focus. When cognitive load is high, a person’s thought processes may be compromised.
For example, working memory is in action while having a conversation: it’s what is used to recall what the other person has said and measure it against what a person already knows or believes. Cognitive overload occurs, for example, when two people are talking at once: the increased load prevents focus on any one stream of thought and only pieces of the conversation may be absorbed.
There are three types of cognitive load according to Cognitive Load Theory (CLT):
Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the difficulty of a given topic. Difficulty is determined by how many connections there are within that topic. The more difficult the topic, the greater the cognitive load. Breaking complex topics into easier-to-digest chunks can help reduce intrinsic cognitive load.
Extraneous cognitive load deals with the manner in which information is presented to learners, particularly anything that isn’t directly tied to helping learners achieve the learning outcomes of the course, for example animations or images. Extraneous cognitive load is high when something that is better visualised with an animation or image is being explained through text only. “Extraneous” refers to the medium rather than the topic.
Germane cognitive load is the effort and that happens when learners develop patterns of thought and behaviour, or “schemas”, that organise information. This type of cognitive load reveals itself when the brain develops a process to absorb new information and uses it to overcome problems.
Cognitive overload in e-learning can be caused by several things. Distractions such as social media can draw attention away from the course material, making it nearly impossible to absorb new information (so be careful if integrating social media into a course). The “split-attention effect” occurs when instructional designers create confusing materials, such as when images and text are not well integrated, forcing the learner to divide their attention, creating cognitive overload. Also to keep in mind is the “expertise-reversal effect”, which is the result of instructional designers assuming previous knowledge that learners do not have – no easy connections means the brain will soon be overwhelmed.
Here are some tips for reducing cognitive load in learners:
Mix up visual and verbal: Presenting all a course’s content through the visual channel (ie, text, images, and animation) can be overwhelming. Presenting some information through narration evenly distributes cognitive load between visual and verbal channels, improving overall processing capacity.
Break content into smaller segments: If too much information is presented at too great a pace, learners won’t have time to effectively process the content. By breaking the content into more digestible pieces (micro-learning) the learner is better able to manage the pace of learning and allows them to more efficiently absorb the content.
Write concisely: Concise writing is one the best ways to reduce cognitive load. Overly elaborate explanations, complicated instructions and irrelevant content create unnecessary demand on learners’ cognitive capacity. Use only the words that are needed to convey a piece of information.
Remove non-essential content: Extraneous content such as background music or embellishing graphics may on the surface seem to make e-learning more engaging, but in fact require additional mental processing power and increase cognitive load. If content doesn’t directly support learning goals, it should be cut.
Link words and graphics: When text is not located close to supporting graphics, learners’ eyes are put upon to scan the screen in an attempt to link the text and graphic, which requires extra cognitive processing. Placing the text in the graphic’s immediate proximity aids the transfer of information.
Make opportunities for collaboration: CLT posits that as the difficulty of content increases, individual learning becomes less effective compared to learning with a group. Group learning divides the cognitive load across several individuals, increasing information absorption.
User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design also plays an important role in reducing cognitive load for learners. UI should be simple and without clutter, guiding learners through the content in a straightforward path. Make sure visual design accessible to learners through consistency – if the “next button” is in the bottom right of the first page, it should be bottom right on all pages. Keep necessary actions to a minimum – eliminate anything that is not crucial to learning, such as unnecessary clicking. It is a designer’s responsibility to make things as easy and as straightforward as possible when it comes to navigating content.
When creating an e-learning course it’s important to consider what aspects of design will create a cognitive load on learners. Keep these strategies in mind when building a course to reduce cognitive overload in learners. All aspects of design should contribute to learning outcomes.
Written by Rob Ewart