Cognitive Load, Cognitive Overload and Course Design

The human brain. Decoration only.
This is your brain on eLearn.

Distributed Education facilitated a new professional development workshop in January, entitled “Building a Learning Path in eLearn”.

We kicked off this new workshop talking about a few ideas behind cognitive load, cognitive overload and the way our memory works.

Cognitive load is the idea that our working memory has limited capacity; working memory can only handle so much information in a limited amount of time.

Of course, to understand cognitive load, one needs to know what working memory is. Working memory is the place where learning starts. Working memory refers to the temporary storage of information (short term memory) AND the cognitive processes of moving information from working memory to long-term memory for permanent storage. Working memory holds around four to five bits of information simultaneously and lasts approximately ten seconds.

Why are instructional designer’s facilitating a workshop based on this theoretical stuff? Well, this theoretical stuff has real application in course design.

If we design our courses poorly, we run the risk of impairing our students’ learning processes by creating cognitive overload. Cognitive overload may be defined as providing so much information to the learner so quickly that the learner is unable to process the information and move it from working memory to long term memory. Poor course design impairs learning.

There are three kinds of cognitive load which together may add up to cognitive overload:

  • Germane cognitive load: cognitive load created by the learner processing information and moving it from working memory into long term memory. Germane cognitive load creates schema (reusable cognitive structures) which help a learner efficiently move information from working memory to long-term memory.
  • Intrinsic cognitive load: cognitive load placed upon the learner by the difficulty of the information.
  • Extraneous cognitive load: cognitive load placed upon the learner by the way information is presented to the learner. Course design impacts extraneous cognitive load.

We cannot do much about germane cognitive load in course design. Fortunately though, a learner’s schema may help her learn new material quickly. We cannot do much about intrinsic cognitive load in course design either–the nature of the material being learned can be difficult, easy or perhaps “just right” ( to quote Goldilocks of three bears fame).

Fortunately, course design can have a very significant impact on extraneous cognitive load. If we design our courses correctly, we can provide information clearly and progressively, without clutter or distractions. We can design our courses so students can concentrate on the material, not the medium. Quality course design can enhance the learning process by neutralizing extraneous cognitive load.

One of the ways we can do this is by designing a course with an effective learning path. A learning path is a route a learner takes through a variety of e-learning activities. eLearn gives you many tools you can use to build an effective learning path in your courses.

What are these eLearn tools? Well, to find out, please come to one of our two upcoming “Building a Learning Path in eLearn” workshops (February 16th or March 25th). To enroll, log into My Volstate and click the Professional Development tab.

We look forward to learning with you!


A couple of nice resources:

What is cognitive load? by Connie Malamed. A very short, informative blog.

Effective educational videos. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Good discussion of the impact of cognitive load and producing video that enhances learning.

Please email the author of this blog, Bryan Saums, Instructional Design Specialist in Distributed Education, at