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.
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Connie Malamed says
I can’t remember if the references in that article covered that, sorry. But I did read a book called The Checklist Manifesto and thought it was great. There are lots of anecdotes there … perhaps some research. There might be some in the medical arena. The book is: Gawande, A. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Picador; Reprint edition, 2011.
Beth Henneman says
Great paper- thank you.
Do you have any suggestions for research studies supporting the use of checklists to reduce cognitive load?
Connie Malamed says
I understand your question. I don’t think the strategy (developed by researchers) implies that anyone would be graded on the response. You are right that someone would have to read the responses if that were the case. Elaboration is really a strategy for the learner to increase understanding and retention by relating new material to their universe (networking new knowledge with previous knowledge to make it meaningful). I would make it optional and let the adult learners take responsibility for their own learning. I think it would work best to incorporate the technique in a course that people really care about, rather than a required course where the person doesn’t have any intrinsic motivation. I am currently including something like this (but a little more practical) in a course teaching what to do if there is an active shooter at work. That’s something people usually care about. Thank you for giving this some thought and questioning how it could be used. And thanks for the kind words too 🙂
kim lindsey says
Hi Connie! I have a question on #2 above.
In typical corporate e-learning, no one would ever read the sentences that learners would write – the only thing that would be reported via the LMS is whether or not the person wrote anything at all.
If this was the case, wouldn’t learners hear about it “through the grapevine” and just type in nonsense characters to complete the activity?
Even if the LMS did report learner entries, someone would have to be willing and available to read them, and it would have to be a person who knew something about the learning points; and then how would that person grade the answers?
It just doesn’t seem like free text questions mesh well with e-learning, which is unfortunate.
Have you seen that format work well in the past? I’d be very interested to know how that went.
Thanks as always for your generosity and leadership towards the rest of us! – kl
Theresa Ainsworth says
Thank you for this valuable article. There are some really great ideas here. I noticed that in your post you did not mention a favorite of mine, which is a very important strategy to use in reducing cognitive load. It is promoting dual channel processing. In an article they wrote about cognitive load in 2013, Greer, Crutchfield, & Woods indicate that it is helpful to consider the modality effect. “The modality effect refers to the positive impact of mixed presentation of information in visual and auditory modes, which reduces the cognitive load…” (Greer et. al., 2013, p.44).
When we give learners information with only audio or only a visual, they are only using one of the two main channels they use to receive input. This results in increased cognitive load in one channel, while the other channel remains unused. By incorporating both audio and visuals into the content, the load of both inputs are more balanced, and both inputs are leveraged. This can be very helpful in reducing cognitive load. Do you have any preferred strategies on how to apply the modality principle effectively in e-learning?
Greer, D., Crutchfield, S., & Woods, K., (2013). Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning, Instructional Design Principles, and Students with Learning Disabilities in Computer-based and Online Learning Environments. Journal of Education, 193(2)
Connie Malamed says
Of course you can share it on your team’s intranet site.
Can I share this with my training team on our team’s intranet site? There are a dozen of us and many of my trainers have had issues with overloading our new employees with too much irrelevant information. I really think this would help them out! I’ll of course site you and your webpage.
Connie Malamed says
You can. I’m going to post it too.
Laurie Cohen says
This is a great concise reminder list, with several new ideas as well. Can I post it on LinkedIn (of course with you as the source)?
Sylvia Wright says
Great article! Thank you for the help!