Working with Cognitive Load

07 Oct

When I first started working as an e-Learning instructional designer I became interested in the learning process and how people learn. I figured that if I knew more about information processing and learning, I could hopefully design more effective courses. I came across a book called Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load by Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen and John Sweller. In this book I discovered – among other things – Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) which is based on studies of human cognitive architecture – how we process and organise information.

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 our long-term memory, information is organised into schemas, which are organisational frameworks of storage (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

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, if possible, increases germane cognitive load (items that assist with information processing). Note: I’ve found that much of the literature tends to focus on reducing extraneous cognitive load.


Mayer and Moreno (2003) conducted research into ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Their research, built on CLT, was based on three assumptions:

  1. Humans possess separate information processing channels for verbal and visual material (Dual Channel).
  2. There is only a limited amount of processing capacity available via the visual (eyes) and verbal (ears) channels (Limited Capacity).
  3. Learning requires substantial cognitive processing via the visual and verbal channels (Active Processing).

They found that designers should do the following to assist learners in processing information:

  • Present some information via the visual channel and some via the verbal channel.
  • Break content into smaller segments and allow the learner to control the pace.
  • Remove non-essential content – this includes background music and decorative pictures that don’t add value.
  • Words should be placed close as possible to the corresponding graphics.
  • Don’t narrate on-screen text.
  • Synchronise visual and verbal content i.e. don’t place them on separate screens.

As instructional designers, we need to be aware of the cognitive requirements our designs impose and ensure that our learners can meet those requirements. We must also ensure that all aspects of our design focus on adding value to the learning experience.


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

Mayer, R. E. & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist. 38, (1), 43-52.


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32 responses to “Working with Cognitive Load

  1. tanyalau

    October 8, 2013 at 5:01 am

    Nice summary Matt! Although I thought the principle of not narrating on-screen text was widely known, it’s suprising how often you see this done in elearning…

    • learningsnippets

      October 8, 2013 at 9:05 pm

      Thanks Tanya! You do still see it a bit and it also gets requested by SME’s as well, until it’s explained why we shouldn’t do it…

      • Gary Wise

        October 8, 2013 at 10:08 pm

        Nicely summarized and very germane to the basics of CLT. Thanks for the post!

      • learningsnippets

        October 8, 2013 at 10:27 pm

        Thanks Gary!

  2. Jolly

    October 9, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    FYI…actually, according to neuroscience, humans have 3 types of memory: Sensory memory, short term memory, and long term memory. To that end, short term memory and long work memory, although used synonymously, are not quite the same, whereas working memory is information/concepts recalled from long term memory, while short term memory is information received from sensory memory. That said, cognitive load affects both short term memory and working memory.

    • learningsnippets

      October 10, 2013 at 6:29 am

      Hi Jolly, thanks for your comments. I wasn’t aware of sensory memory. I’ll check it out!

  3. Dr. Jim Bohn

    October 9, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    One of the reasons my second change management principle is “Simplify to increase adoption.”

  4. Sharon

    October 10, 2013 at 4:14 am

    I like this, but there are some assumptions. I am working with a group of low literacy people, so I’m saying the words as well as having text. There’s also the possibility of our demographic reaching English as a second language learners. This group also need text and narration to boost their learning. SO for these learners i think text and voice together helps. Have others found this or are my assumptions incorrect?

    • learningsnippets

      October 10, 2013 at 10:05 am

      Hi Sharon

      Thanks for your comments, you raise a good point.
      In the Mayer and Moreno article, the researchers describe narrating on-screen text as a redundant presentation. This is because the same information is being presented to both visual and verbal channels at the same time.

      Also, the speed that you read text is usually faster than the speed of the narrator speaking, so you have to slow your reading down to the same pace in an attempt to reconcile it with the narration.

      I don’t have any experience with low literacy or english as a second language learners but I feel that the reverse of this problem may occur. These type of learners may process the narration at a faster pace than they are reading it and may have difficulty trying to speed up their reading to keep pace with the narration?

      I’d be interested to hear the thoughts from others with more experience in this area.

      • tanyalau

        October 10, 2013 at 12:46 pm

        Hi Sharon, Matt – one option is to include on screen text that covers the key points of the narration but does not duplicate word for word (e.g. high level dot points timed to the narration). Additionally incorporating visuals that illustrate what is said in the narration can help facilitate comprehension.
        There is a good demo of 3 dfferent ways of communicating the same content using different combos of audio and visuals on the rapid eLearning blog which illustrates this point. Unfortunately I couldn’t seem to find it just now, but will post a link when I can locate it.

      • Sarit Chaet Hudis

        October 11, 2013 at 1:55 pm

        Hi, I’m just researching this subject to present to my evidence-based learning group in Israel and this summation is great.

        Had to remark, as for learning a second language, I came across an article that deals exactly with that (english as foreign language) and their results suggest that the redundancy effect applies also to learning english – i.e. it is less effective to use both narration and visual presentation also in this domain.

      • Sarit Chaet Hudis

        October 11, 2013 at 1:57 pm

        the article:

        Diao, Y., & Sweller, J. (2007). Redundancy in foreign language reading comprehension instruction: Concurrent written and spoken presentations. Learning and Instruction, 17, 78–88.

      • learningsnippets

        October 12, 2013 at 12:50 am

        Hi Sarit
        Thank-you for you comments and for the article, its very informative. All the best for your presentation!

      • Richard Skoonberg

        October 14, 2013 at 2:07 pm

        Matching the text to the narration is much better than not doing that. If the text on the screen does not match the audio, it creates cognitive dissonance in the learner. We can only process one input at a time if they don’t match up, it.becomes a jumble. This is because we can’t read text and listen to someone talking about something else at the same time. Now the text can be a simplified version of the narration, but the text must be anchored narration to prevent cognitive dissonance with the learner. For example, A simple bullet point on the screen with a more detailed narration that might start with “Let’s look at the next bullet point, Determining ROI…” . What happens too often, especially in webinars, is that text and the narration don’t match and nothing is remembered. Advertisers on television, understand this problem and 95% match the audio to any text on the screen because of this cognitive issue.

      • learningsnippets

        October 14, 2013 at 10:55 pm

        Hi Richard, thanks for reading and your comments.
        I definitely agree that the text displayed on screen needs to be related to the narration. In your above example, when they don’t match you are forced to process twice as much information which is very difficult to do.
        Bullet point summaries do work well and I have seen and used this approach myself. If possible, having each point display on screen when it’s being talked about introduces the information gradually. The research that I mentioned in the post is referring to word-for-word narration of on-screen text which causes redundancy for the learner.

  5. Dr. Jim Bohn

    October 10, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    This is really well done, by the way. I really like the way you condensed complex material into readable and manageable segments … you’re demonstrating the very thing you’re writing about! Bravo!

    • learningsnippets

      October 10, 2013 at 12:07 pm

      Thank-you Jim! I did like your 5 principles for managing change, very succinct!

  6. Dr. Jim Bohn

    October 10, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Having worked with executives for many, many years, I understand the need for brevity. Candidly, your work here has applications far beyond the training community. Very often we see ‘Marathon’ powerpoint sessions in industry where people are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data in the slides. You could teach us all a new way to help people gain knowledge! Thanks again.

    • learningsnippets

      October 11, 2013 at 4:50 am

      Thanks again Jim. The powerpoint sessions you describe are a big problem in many industries and are very ineffective for transferring information let alone learning. You are right, the application of CLT to other settings would help imrpove this situation.

  7. Ronald Forbes

    October 13, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    Interesting review. The bit that seems to be left out is the group dynamic. Also attention span that falls during 20 minutes. Stopping and asking people to talk in pairs (or larger groups) about what they’ve learned and getting some feedback from that keeps things alive. Another aspect is the physical. Having people sit for more than half an hour is depressing. Motivation is also key. Why do they want to learn this? ‘What’s in it for me’ (WIIFM)? Have them imagine how they will use it, how they will feel (kinaesthetic llearning is not mentioned here). The things we remember long-term have feelings attached to them. If you don’t have all that, you may as well do it straight off a computer – at least you can get up and stretch whenever you want, or walk around, or review what you’re learning. So, much as cognitive overload may be very important, don’t stop there!

    By the way, these ideas come mainly from Colin Rose and the field of Accelerated Learning, methods adopted by Leaderskill Group over the years.

    • learningsnippets

      October 14, 2013 at 1:36 am

      Hi Ronald, thanks for reading and your comments.
      CLT certainly has application in classroom settings by not overloading learners with irrelevant information. While I was writing the post from an eLearning perspective, you raise some great additional points especially for classroom sessions. You are right about the learners’ attention span, so ideally an online course/module should not go for much longer than that. If it needs to be longer, learners should at least have a break or if possible break the module into a series of smaller modules. In a classroom, we need to incorporate ways to have learners get up out of their chairs and move around.
      I definitely agree that learner motivation plays a big role in the learning experience and ‘WIIFM’ from the learners’ point of view is a great start. Another way to improve learner motivation comes from self-determination theory (SDT). If we can find ways to satisfy the autonomy, competence and relatedness needs of learners as they complete online or classroom courses we can help improve their motivation.

  8. magnetoblog

    October 14, 2013 at 2:04 am

    Hi Matt, great article. Terrific that you’re sharing some of what you’re learning in your studies. Thank you.

    I was thinking about its application to PowerPoint/Keynote presentations when I got to the end
    to see that this has been discussed. It reminded me of what the book ‘Presentation Zen’ espouses. I’m developing a webinar called ‘CPR for PPT: Revive your presentations,’ in which your thoughts here will be a welcome addition!

    • learningsnippets

      October 14, 2013 at 5:54 am

      Hi Paul, thanks for reading and your comments. Another book that I’d recommend for PowerPoint presentations is Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations by Nancy Duarte. It’s all about slide design and not having the slide deck as a prompt for the speaker. It looks at lots of aspects of slide design such as layout, graphics, fonts, transitions and is a great reference (apologies if you are already aware of it!).

      • magnetoblog

        October 14, 2013 at 6:55 am

        Thanks for recommending Slide:ology, Matt. I actually bought Nancy’s other book (‘Resonate’) the other day, so will also check out your suggestion. Sounds good.

  9. John Wassily

    February 4, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    This is a very helpful article .. Thx alot .


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