Getting InSync » Latest Articles
Mar 07, 2017 Karin Rex

Don't Bog Down Your Learners' Cognitive Load

Access InSync's complete 2017 “50  Modern Blended Learning Blogs" series here.  Subscribe for daily updates.

Cognitive Load in Modern Learning When designing learning for virtual classrooms or a blended learning program, one of your primary missions is to capture and maintain the attention of your learners. 

This can be challenging in a space that is still new to many learners. Think about it: we are asking somebody to sit at a computer for one or more hours, and focus only on the content being taught.

It’s a little like putting a kid in an arcade with a bucket full of free quarters nearby and asking him to sit at a table and play Checkers with you. There are so many things calling to that person sitting at the computer: email, a newly downloaded phone app, streaming cat videos, etc.

What’s a Designer to Do?

Previous blogs in this space have already covered how to maintain attention through a variety of well-spaced, collaborative engagement techniques. Learner engagement is, of course, a key ingredient in any learning experience.

We can also learn a bit about how the brain works and use that information when designing modern blended learning.

As you may recall, there are two types of memory: long term and working/short term.

  • Long term memory is used for storage (such as squirreling away the PEDMAS mnemonic you used when learning the mathematical order of operations).
  • Working/short term memory is designed for actively using in the moment (such as when you are solving a math problem).

Both types of memory work hand in hand to help us learn. Stuff that you store in long term memory comes out when it’s needed.

For example, when I pour my morning coffee, I always do a “sniff test” on the milk to make sure it isn’t sour. Why? Because I have experienced sour milk before and it is not something I want to experience again. This is a learned behavior, based on experience, that comes out only when it’s needed.

However, if there is too much going on in the morning while I am fixing my coffee (the phone is ringing, the snooze alarm upstairs just went off for the third time, the dog is chasing the cat through the kitchen and tips over the water bowl, the toast just popped up, etc.), my working memory becomes overwhelmed and makes me forget to sniff the milk. #coffeefail

As designers, we can use knowledge of these two types of memory to our advantage with the goal of helping to skillfully manage learners’ cognitive load.

Cognitive Load

According to educational psychologist John Sweller, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort your working memory is juggling. In the above example, my brain was challenged with too much information and too many tasks to be able to successfully pull the necessary information from my long-term memory into working memory and remind me to sniff the milk.

So, my brain got overwhelmed, which produced anxiety and stress. (Not to mention tainted coffee.)

In the virtual classroom, we cannot see everything that is challenging our learners’ working memory at any given moment.

We must take charge of the situation by making sure we do not give our learners too much information or too many tasks simultaneously. We don’t want to stress them out because a stressed brain is not a brain that can absorb new content.

Three Types of Cognitive Load

There are three types of cognitive load – one we have no influence over whatsoever from a design perspective, and two that we can use to our advantage when designing.

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

Intrinsic cognitive load stems from the sheer complexity of a topic. This would include content such as calculus, physics, flying a plane, etc. As designers, we have no control over the complexity of our given topic. However, we CAN minimize extraneous cognitive load when presenting such complex content.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load stems from poorly designed learning materials. This happens when the design doesn’t reflect how our brains process information. This is something that designers can certainly exert influence over! For example:

  • Structure documents intelligently
  • Include lots of whitespace
  • Use tables
  • Use bullets instead of long paragraphs
  • Number steps
  • Include a great table of contents and an index
  • Write tight
  • Develop graphics that help create mental models for learners
  • Leave space and time for structured note-taking and practice

Germane Cognitive Load

Germane cognitive load is the productive effort that learners expend to build mental models and make connections. When learners are actively engaged in learning, for example, studying a well-designed visual that contributes to a mental model, they are experiencing germane cognitive load. Again, this is something that designers can exert positive influence over! For example:

  • Help “connect the dots” for learners with practice that directly relates to their work
  • Make certain verbal messages integrate well with graphic messages
  • Aim for targeted training, not “spray and pray”


Balance complex content (intrinsic cognitive load) with flawless document design and fat-free writing (extraneous cognitive load), and create impactful graphics and structured content to enhance germane cognitive load. This is where learners' “AHA” moments happen. It is where they can visualize the wireframing behind your content and feel totally supported within that content. They “get” it.

Related Resources

Blog: Hacking the Forgetting Curve
Oded Ilan, recent BYTE series speaker, explains the forgetting curve phenomenon experienced by modern learners. It's a solid extension of our discussion of cognitive overload. 

Article: Virtually There: Learner Engagement - Why is it so Important? 
Charles Dye presents a compelling argument for the importance of engaging learners in our training programs. The article also defines learner engagement, making it easier to incorporate into our instructional designs. 

Whitepaper: The Pedagogy of Learning Design
Instructional design, for the virtual classroom, face-to-face enviornment, or for an effective blend, requires a scientific approach. Phylise Banner discusses the pedagogy of modern instructional design. 


Published by Karin Rex March 7, 2017
Karin Rex