Monthly Archives: April 2013

A Blueprint for Design (part 2)

In my last post, I looked at the fundamentals of cognitive load theory. So, to assist learners in transferring information from their working memory to their long-term memory, we need to present the information in such a way that it reduces extraneous cognitive load (non-relevant items) and increases germane cognitive load (items that assist with information processing).

Several techniques can help to achieve this purpose. While many of them are relevant to technology-based instruction, but I believe they could also be adapted for classroom learning depending on the content to be learned. These effects have been studied over the years so are supported by research. Some effects apply to novice learners while others are relevant for more experienced learners. Also keep in mind that depending on the material/task to be learned, not all of the effects will apply.

Worked Example Effect: Novice learners should study worked solutions of unfamiliar problems to reduce the amount of cognitive processing. This will provide a foundation upon which they can build their expertise. So throwing learners in at the deep end isn’t a good idea.

Split-Attention Effect: This occurs when multiple sources of information must be integrated before they can be understood. For example, a diagram along with text to explain different parts of the diagram is being used; the text should be integrated or placed near to the relevant part of the diagram rather than having the learner try to move back and forth from one source of information to another.

Modality Effect: Working memory has both a visual processor and an auditory processor. As a result, using both processors can effectively expand the size of working memory if the cognitive load is distributed across both processors. This can be achieved when some information is presented visually (e.g. words and images) and other information by using sound (e.g. narration).

Redundancy Effect: Redundant information is any information not relevant to the learning experience. This effect occurs when the same information is presented in different forms e.g. narrating on-screen text or using text that repeats information contained in a diagram. It also includes using decorative pictures, background music or cartoon images that don’t add value.

Expertise Reversal Effect: As expertise increases, previously essential information becomes redundant. Including information that is needed for novice learners in courses for learners with more expertise would place higher levels of extraneous cognitive load on the experienced learners.

Guidance Fading Effect: The level of assistance provided to learners should be reduced as expertise increases. For example, instead of complete worked examples learners would be presented with partially complete problems that need to be solved.

Imagination Effect: Asking learners to imagine procedures or concepts assists with the transfer into long-term-memory. This technique should be used with learners who have sufficient experience in the area being studied (not really suitable for novice learners).

Element Interactivity Effect: Element interactivity is determined by the number of interacting elements that must be considered simultaneously in order to understand the material. More complex material is likely to have higher levels of element interactivity.

Isolated Interacting Elements effect: Where element interactivity is very high it may be too difficult for learners to understand the material because of the large amount of interacting elements i.e. working memory capacity would be exceeded. It may then be necessary to present the information as individual elements and ignore their interaction. As the individual elements have been learned, their interactions can then be emphasised.

So what do these effects mean for instructional designers and trainers?

Firstly, we need to be mindful of the processing capacity our learners and apply a learner-centred approach in the design of training materials and courses. Secondly, we should also take into account the experience level of learners and design courses accordingly. Finally, we need to strip away information that does not add value to the learning experience (this can sometimes be easier said than done!)


Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load (2006) by Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen and John Sweller. Pfeiffer (publisher).

Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, (2008) 3rd ed. Chapter 31. Spector, Merrill, van Merrienboer and Driscoll (editors). Taylor and Francis Group (publisher).


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A Blueprint for Design (part 1)

A little over a year ago while reading Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load by Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen and John Sweller, I came across an interesting instructional design theory called Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). It’s based on knowledge of human cognitive architecture – which is how we process and organise information.

If we can better understand the human cognitive process, we can apply principles of CLT to design better learning instruction resulting in improved outcomes. Plus there is research behind these claims too!

In our brains, we have two types of memory. One is our working memory, which we use to process new information. The capacity of our working memory is quite limited so it can only handle so much before it becomes overloaded. The second is our long-term memory, which is where we store information from our working memory and where we retrieve that information from later. Within long-term memory, information is organised into schemas, which are organisational frameworks (like filing cabinets).

Not exceeding working memory capacity will result in greater transfer of information into long-term memory. CLT proposes that there are three types of cognitive load:

Intrinsic: this is the level of complexity inherent in the material being studied. There isn’t much that we can do about intrinsic cognitive load; some tasks are more complex than others so will have different levels of intrinsic cognitive load.

Extraneous: this is cognitive load imposed by non-relevant elements that require extra mental processing e.g. decorative pictures, animations etc that add nothing to the learning experience.

Germane: these are elements that allow cognitive resources to be put towards learning i.e. assist with information processing.

The three types of cognitive load are additive so according to the theory, for instruction to be effective:

Intrinsic load + Extraneous load + Germane load < Working memory capacity

Where possible, we need to increase germane cognitive load and reduce extraneous cognitive load when we design and deliver training/education/learning. Everything we include in a course needs to have a purpose – it needs to add to the learning experience in some way.

Some questions that I have that I haven’t been able to find answers for yet:

Is each person’s working memory capacity the same?

Does intelligence play a part?

If working memory capacity is not exceeded, how long can someone keep processing information?

Next time I’ll look at some of the CLT effects and how learning can be improved.


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‘In the begining…’

This is my first blog post. I’ve never written a blog before but I figured hey, you need to start somewhere, so here goes.

I’ve been working in Learning & Development since mid 2007. I started as a classroom trainer and a little over 2 years ago, I moved into e-learning instructional design (although I have designed plenty of classroom courses as well). I love instructional design – the challenge of it, the creative process, working with others, the variety, and the (generally) interesting topics. I’m keen to learn more and become a better designer and as a result I’ve become a member of some associations, I’ve joined groups via LinkedIn and I subscribe to the twitter feeds of people from the learning industry.

I was reading an online article the other week and it used a term ‘lurkers’ to describe people who subscribe to information but who generally sit on the sidelines and don’t participate. It some ways it sounds a bit creepy. However, it really summed me up, as I tend not to say very much in discussions but I’m still keen to learn from the experiences of others. For me this blog is about coming out of the shadows and getting more involved in the industry and to share my point of view. Sometimes the hardest part is taking that first step so that’s what I’m hoping to do by writing this blog. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience to me or you’re at the same stage as me in your career.

My intention is to write about topics that relate to learning and what I’m learning as I carve out my own career. So, if you are reading this feel free to share your thoughts.


Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Starting Out


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