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Managing Cognitive Load is a Delicate Act of Balance

Cognitive load. What's that? You may not be aware of the jargon, but you are up to your neck in it! Try searching for information on the Internet. Kudos to you, if you can manage to find what you need right away in the midst of spammy websites and pop-up ads. We have to be on top of the cognitive load aimed at us in our daily lives, else we would be lost in the maze of useless information.

Spare a thought for your learners when you create courses for them! Learn about the cognitive load that could creep up in your course (unknowingly, of course) and how to manage it.


Cognitive Load Management

The working memory plays a crucial role in helping us learn. But this part of the brain can only remember so much information or process a limited amount of data at any one time. So you have to design learning such that it optimizes the limited capacity of the working memory while delivering an engaging and effective learning experience

The most effective way to maximize the performance of the working memory is to conserve its powers and direct these to process only the most critical pieces of information. You have to filter out the inessentials from the course and design the learning such that it is readily comprehended and assimilated to manage the cognitive load on the learners' brains. The Cognitive Load Theory has pointers to help you manage cognitive load. 

Types of Cognitive Load

Whenever you ask learners to learn, memorize, and understand a novel piece of information, you place some load on the working memory. But some load HAS to be placed for the sake of learning. The trick is to distinguish what goes into the course and what goes out without disrupting the learning performance.

There are three types of cognitive load. Together they make up the total cognitive load. Your goal is to keep the total load within the grasp of the working memory.

1) Intrinsic Load:

This refers to the inherent complexity of the learning material. According to Sweller, 2010, it can "only be altered by changing the nature of what is learned or by the act of learning itself".

For instance, a simple mathematical problem of adding two numbers places less cognitive load on the brain than a complex algebraic task. Intrinsic load is also determined by the prior learning or expertise level of the learner. An algebraic problem may be extremely challenging, but it may not place a large cognitive burden on an audience who are experts in the subject. You cannot do much with the learning material to reduce this load. 

2) Extraneous Load:

This is the load to be most wary of. Extraneous load is created by the impediments to learning. A poorly-designed course with a complicated interface that makes the learner hunt around for relevant information or a glossary for technical terms that is not easily accessible are extraneous loads that hamper the learning process.

In a nutshell, extraneous load is anything that distracts the learners and makes it difficult for them to achieve the learning outcomes. A cluttered design, the use of distracting multimedia elements that taxes the processing capabilities of the learner, and the presence of irrelevant learning matter can increase the extraneous load of an eLearning course. Fortunately, you can keep this load under a tight rein.

Read more: Avoid Learner Overload: Five Rules for eLearning Course Design

3) Germane Load: 

You will want your course to be heavy with this load! Germane load is created when the course is designed and instructional matter is presented to facilitate effective learning. A course that aims to teach fire emergency responses can either contain a scenario where the learner has to explore to find out the best options or plonk the tips in one long list. Using scenarios is the most effective instructional strategy for such a topic. Such a course has a greater germane load than the one that just lists the content.

At the end, the main idea is for you to reduce extraneous load to maximize the resources of working memory that are free to focus on germane activities. 

The Ideal Optimization Formula

According to Clark et al. (2006), as an instructional designer, your goal is to reduce the extraneous load, maximize the germane load, and manage the intrinsic load.  

How Can You Minimize Extraneous Load in Learning?

To reduce extraneous load in learning, you have to filter out every needless task that is not critical to the learning process, use effective instructional strategies, and present the learning in an easy-to-access and understandable manner. Here are some pointers:

  • Keep in mind the Split-Attention and Redundancy principles. Try to use a single integrated and self-explanatory source of information instead of scattering the bits and pieces throughout the course. This ensures the learners don't have to first forage for the information and then assimilate them to make sense.
  • Don't increase extraneous load by presenting audio, graphics, and on-screen text simultaneously.  According to the modality principle you need to “present words as speech rather than on-screen text (Clark & Mayer, 2011)”The combination of on-screen text and audio overwhelms the visual processing capabilities of learners. Use on-screen text only when it is critical to the learning outcome, like when the learner has to memorize the steps of a process or learn mathematical formula.

How Can You Maximize Germane Load in Learning?

You will want to maximize the instructional efficacy of your course by increasing the germane load. Here's how:

  • Use mnemonics as learning aids to help learners retain more and forget less.
  • Practice makes perfect! Use over-learning and rehearsing strategies to help the learner hone his skills and apply the knowledge he has gleaned from the course. 
  • Chunk the content into bite-sized pieces with clear associations between the various bits of data to help learners comprehend and retain information more effectively.

How Can You Manage Intrinsic Load in Learning?

This is an effective way to reduce overall cognitive load of a course. It is particularly effective for tackling complex learning matter, like technical subjects. Here are two ways to manage intrinsic load to increase germane load:

  • Follow the simple-to-complex strategy. Ensure learners first master the fundamental principles of a task before they move on to its more complex processes.
  • Follow the low-to-high fidelity strategy. Don't overwhelm learners by presenting a range of interactivities woven within a single task. Instead, let them first master the basic principles of a job within a low-fidelity environment or one with low volume of element interactivity. Then he can graduate to high-fidelity environments. For instance, medical students can first learn about diagnoses and treatment through scenarios embedded within the course before moving on to the real world, say the ER of a hospital. 
  • See more examples here.

Managing the cognitive load of an eLearning course is a delicate act of balance. You have to reduce extraneous load; that's a no-brainer. But how do you determine how much is enough for intrinsic and germane loads? One trick is to step into the shoes of your learners and take the course in your mind's eye.

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Research on Cognitive Load Theory and Its Design Implications for E-Learning


A Cognitive Approach to Instructional Design for Multimedia Learning

The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

Managing cognitive load—recent trends in cognitive load theory

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