In a complex world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by a deluge of complex information. This shouldn’t be surprising, as working memory (our mental work space), has a limited capacity for processing information.
If the demands placed on working memory, known as cognitive load, are too high, learners may give up in frustration or fail to comprehend. According to cognitive load theory, some inherent cognitive load must occur during the process of learning. In fact, learners can benefit from friction, difficulties and challenge.
What is not a benefit is excessive or extraneous cognitive load, which is under the control of the learning experience designer or facilitator. Extraneous cognitive load does not contribute to the learning process. By reducing the extra mental effort required to learn new information, we can assure greater learner success. Here are some ways to reduce that wasteful cognitive load.
1. Maximize the Signal to Noise Ratio
With this strategy, think of the signal as the message you want to communicate and the noise as the extraneous information that detracts from learning. By removing unnecessary complexity and distraction, you will remove some of the extraneous cognitive load.
What elements become noise during learning? Anything that inadvertently complicates learning, such as poor instructions (see Writing Microcopy), a confusing user interface or a visually cluttered layout. Essentially, anything extraneous to the learning task should be transparent to the learner so that it does not use up limited cognitive resources.
In their often quoted article, Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning, Mayer and Moreno (2003) call this approach weeding. It involves eliminating all extraneous content that embellishes the learning, even when it is interesting. The goal is to avoid promoting incidental processing that is not relevant to the learning task.
2. Promote Generative Strategies
Generative strategies place more of the responsibility for learning on the individual. There are several types of generative strategies you can use, one being elaboration, in which learners use their own words and ideas to expand on a concept in a way that relates to their experience and understanding (Jonassen, 1988).
How can you do this in eLearning? Using a technique known as the query method, include a prompt to “stop and think” about the concepts that were just presented. Instruct learners to generate one sentence from a list of key concepts or vocabulary presented in the training and to submit this sentence online.
In one study, embedding low level elaboration queries into online training resulted in “improved organization, integration, and application of task-relevant knowledge and higher instructional efficiency” (Cuevas & Fiore, 2014).
3. Write Concisely
Although it takes more effort to write with fewer words than with many words, concise writing is a straightforward way to reduce cognitive load. Long-winded explanations, obtuse instructions and irrelevant content make unnecessary demands on cognitive resources. A general guideline is to use only the words that are needed to explain or define a concept or principle.
One study asked participants to read passages of different lengths about a weather process. Subjects learned the least from the passage with 500 hundred words not accompanied by a brief summary. Retention and transfer were greatest for those who read passages that had very short summaries (Mayer, Bove, Bryman, Mars, & Tapangco, 1996).
4. Provide Scaffolding (Supplantive Strategies)
Another way to reduce cognitive load is to provide assistance during the learning task, then eventually withdraw the assistance when the learner can perform the task independently. Educators use the metaphor of scaffolding (a temporary support) to refer to this strategy.
In adult learning, scaffolding makes sense for learning how to perform complex tasks, such as solving difficult problems. One way to accomplish this in online instruction is to identify the parts of a task that cause the most difficulty. Then embed appropriate assistance into the lesson that users can select if they need help. One weaning technique could be to apply hints rather than explicit help.
Another interesting approach comes from a study that created a computer-based matching service for students studying computer science. The service connected the right type of expert to scaffold a particular student’s learning. Upon finding the appropriate person, the tutor and student would interact online (Greer et al. 1998, 2000). A similar approach could be devised in large international organizations that have a workforce with diverse expertise.
5. Create Opportunities for Collaborative Learning
According to cognitive load theory, as the difficulty of the content increases, individual learning becomes less efficient when compared to learning with a group. The idea is that under certain conditions, group learning divides the cognitive processing across several individuals. Even though the information needs to be re-integrated and the learning coordinated, collaborative learning is considered to be more efficient under conditions that cause high cognitive load (Kirschner, Paas, & Kirschner 2009).
Recommendations for this strategy usually include providing a team assignment to a group of two to five people. Types of assignments might include solving a difficult problem, generating a plan or developing a checklist. The assignment must include input from every individual and should involve interactions that promote discussion, challenging and defense of ideas and reflection on the learning task. Researchers theorize that under conditions of high cognitive load, this richer collaborative learning environment leads to deeper processing and more meaningful learning than individual learning. In an online environment, you can accomplish this through synchronous video conferencing or asynchronous platforms, such as forums.
6. Provide Cognitive Aids
A cognitive aid is any tool or set of materials that can offload some of the demands on working memory. This can be anything from using paper and pencil as a scratchpad to a mobile app that calculates complex measurements. In the workplace, you may use performance support tools as external memory aids. But what about during a learning intervention? To reduce cognitive load while a person is in the process of learning, you can provide external memory supports such as:
- checklists for completing complex instructional tasks,
- worked problems as examples,
- a quick-reference glossary for new terminology (example: Instructional Design Guru), and
- concept maps that diagram concept relationships.
Reducing Cognitive Load Conclusion
According to cognitive load theory, extraneous load consists of the demands on working memory that do not contribute to learning. It is the aspect of instructional interventions that learning experience designers can control. Hopefully, these six strategies are reminders of valuable approaches that can reduce cognitive load in your designs.
- Clark, R., Nguyen, F., and J. Sweller (2005). Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load.
- Cuevas & Fiore (2014). Enhancing learning outcomes in computer-based training via self-generated elaboration. Instructional Science; Vol. 42 Issue 6, p839-859.
- Greer, McCalla, Cooke, Collins, Kumar, Bishop, & Vassileva, (2000). Integrating cognitive tools for peer help: The intelligent intraNet peer help-desk project. In S.P. Lajoie, eds, Computers as Cognitive Tools (Vol.2): No More Walls, Vol. 5, pp. 69–96. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Jonassen (1988). Learning strategies in courseware. In David H. Jonassen (Ed.), Instructional designs for microcomputer courseware, (pp. 151-181). Hillsdale:NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
- Kirschner, F., Paas, F., & Kirschner, P (2009). A Cognitive Load Approach to Collaborative Learning: United Brains for Complex Tasks. Educational Psychology Review, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 31–42.
- Mayer, Bove, Bryman, Mars, and Tapangco (1996). When Less Is More: Meaningful Learning From Visual and Verbal Summaries of Science Textbook Lessons. Journal of Educational Psychology, 1996, Vol. 88, No. 1,64-73.
- Mayer & Moreno (2003). Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43–52.
Find success with online learning with articles, tips and resources delivered to your Inbox once a month.