Cognitive Overload: How to Prevent Learner Meltdown

As a learning designer, a lot of decisions I make around content placement and inclusion are based on reducing cognitive load. Many instructional design strategies, for example chunking, are based on Cognitive Load Theory. In this post I look at the definitions of congitive load and outline some strategies to prevent your learners having a meltdown.

The video below is a short concept I created to help visualise the impact of cognitive load. Watch before reading on!

Much like our bodies, our working memory has its limits too. If you try to carry too much, you become frustrated to the point where you can’t carry anymore. Miller (1956) famously introduced the “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” which suggests that most adults can hold 7, plus or minus 2, pieces of information in short-term memory.

There are different types of cognitive load.

  • Intrinsic – This refers to the topic, how difficult the content is and the amount of thinking that goes into the learning. However, some topics may be inherently more complex than others.
  • Extraneous – How information is presented to a learner. This can be controlled by the learning designer. Imagine you are tasked with explaining to an alien the concept of putting on and wearing a jumper, who by the way has never owned or seen a jumper. How many steps would be needed? The task would be much simpler for the alien to understand if there were pictures, a video or a demonstration!
  • Germane – Associated with how much work is put into creating long term memory and automated skills (also known as a schema). When you learn how to drive a car, the process eventually becomes automatic. For example, have you ever had that feeling when you’ve driven home from work and had no recollection of the journey? It was simply all second nature?

Much like a gym workout, cognitive load is not always a bad thing, but working memory is limited. What is bad is cognitive overload. Cognitive Load Theory suggests that a learners ability to retain information is affected when their mental capacity is overloaded. We’ve all hit that point where you just can’t take in any more information, start making mistakes or reading the same sentence over and over and it just not “sticking.”

Clark and Mayer (2016) explore this in more detail and explain that “people have separate channels for processing verbal and pictorial material” (p. 136) and these channels are limited. A learner who is listening to audio and looking at a diagram are using their eyes and ears with two channels (one channel for the eyes and one for the ears), however a learner who is listening to something (ears), looking at a picture (eyes) and reading text (eyes) have potential to become overloaded as they are trying to process two types of information (picture and reading) through a single channel (eyes).

Adapted from Clark and Mayer, 20016, p. 136.

Steps to reduce Overload

As a learning designer, there are several steps you can take to help reduce overload.

1. Breaking content down (or “chunking”). I’d like to point out here that content should only be chunked if there is a natural breakpoint in the content. A natural breakpoint might be a change in topic or subject. You need to give the learner enough information to be able to understand what they are trying to learn. Microlearning and just-in-time training are theories which can help AND hinder learners if the content has been structured badly. I’ve seen some microlearning examples where the content has been broken down, but halfway through new acronyms and terms are introduced that the learner has not been taught previously, making the content confusing. Watch out for dependencies and prerequisites, introduce concepts and build upon them.

2. Mixing Modalities. Mixing modalities can be a good way to reduce cognitive overload. For example, if the learner has to read something such as a case study, give the learner a break by changing the modality of the next activity to a video or a podcast. However, as mentioned above, try not to mix the modalities in such a way that overloads the learner e.g. a video with repetitive music, narration and reading all at the same time!

3. Be clear. The learning material should be clear and easy to understand. Use plain English if possible. Don’t use confusing jargon and definitely don’t “dumb down” the topic by including analogies that could introduce confusion.

My last piece of advice is to use common sense. If you’re working on a subject that is not your speciality, ask a subject matter expert for help or do some research. Can you provide some further information or clarity? If something doesn’t seem right or make sense, your learners are more than likely going to feel the same too!


References

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), pp.257–285.

Mayer, R.E. and Clark, R.C. (2016). E-Learning and the Science of Instruction. New York, Ny: John Wiley Et Sons, p.136.

Miller, G. (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. The psychological review, 63, p.81-97. ‌‌‌

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