The Effects of Cognitive Load on Design

Tom DiMartini | 06/18/2015

Remember the old joke about goldfish memory? Not too long ago, it was thought that a goldfish had a 3-second long-term memory (This has since been disputed). The joke centers around a conversation that occurs as two goldfish are swimming around their bowl:

Goldfish 1: oooh look, a castle.

Goldfish 2: what's a castle?

Goldfish 1: dunno, why d'ya ask?

Goldfish 2: ask what?

Goldfish 1: hey look, a castle.

During the 1980s, cognitive load theory was born from the extensive research produced by John Sweller in the area of problem solving. We won’t get into the nuts and bolts of the cognitive load research here, but you are welcome to read Sweller as well as the duo of Richard Mayer and Roxana Moreno. Overall, the theory of cognitive load suggests that learning happens best under conditions that are beneficial to the human’s own cognitive structure. Yes, cognitive load can be an “individual thing,” but there still are common techniques that we, as instructional designers, can use across the board. One simple method is allowing the learner to self-pace so that they can digest the information within their own cognitive structure. Most of us look at memory using three easy terms: Short-term, long-term and working. The cognitive load theory looks into memory as intrinsic extraneous and germane.

Extraneous cognitive load refers to the way information or tasks are presented to a learner. This is short term memory. Obviously, this can be altered depending upon how one presents the material. It is up to the instructional designer to alter extraneous cognitive load so that the intrinsic won’t be overloaded. Things like unnecessary information, animations or images that don’t line up with the instruction, too much information or poorly designed training may cause an overload in the working memory and will negatively affect the learner’s storage of information.The intrinsic cognitive load refers to the effort that it takes to understand a certain topic. This is working memory, where content is being learned. The content is the content…it cannot be altered. The best example of this is a mathematical formula or, perhaps, music.

Omniplex_Blog_Illustration_CognitiveLoad

Speaking of storing information, germane cognitive load refers to the work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge, or a schema. Yes, this is long term memory and it can be altered as well. Germane cognitive load contributes to learning in that it can affect the other two elements. For example, as instructional designers we may request prerequisite knowledge from the learner to place them in beginner, intermediate or advanced academic levels. However, it is tapping into one’s long-term memory storage. This may create “extra information” that would contribute to extraneous cognitive load.

As you can see, managing cognitive load is like a high-wire act. You have to put the right information out there in such a way that it reduces extraneous cognitive load, which will allow the information to be processed in such a way so that the intrinsic and germane loads can facilitate schema acquisition. Now if you understood what I just said, and you began reading this article as a novice, bravo! You’ve just witnessed cognitive load!

Excuse the pun, but it’s a “no-brainer” that extraneous and intrinsic loads need to be reduced in order for the learner to absorb, because the long-term memory is waiting to take it all in. Yes, we want to maximize the germane!

So here are some things to remember (or put aside and go back to later so you don’t experience intrinsic load):

  • Use audio, when available, to reduce working memory. Having people read contributes to intrinsic load.
  • Now that you’re using audio, reduce text. Do not place your script on the slide and have it read to the learner. You can bullet point major points as the script is read. How do I know this? By sitting through a Cognitive Load Theory presentation and having the slides read to me by the instructor. Irony of ironies.
  • Use visuals. Make them reflective of what is being learned, not just to include them to make it “look good.” Place them close to the corresponding text.
  • Learn graphic design. Synchronize the related visual and auditory content to appear together. Use colors that ease distraction. Even just the foundations of graphic design can help your layout in such a manner that reduces cognitive load.
  • One quote that has been attributed to Albert Einstein, as well as many others: “I really don’t remember all of these things, I just know where to look them up.” Review your learning and ask, “What should the learner commit to memory and what should they resource?” Then fill the resource file with job-aids and such.
  • Want to eliminate extraneous cognitive load? Eliminate repetition and redundancy, eliminate repetition and redundancy, eliminate repetition and redundancy. It may be important for baseline knowledge, but it’s a lot more useful if you introduce new information and allow the learner to apply it. It’s called “practice.” That’s that “interactive” thing that we keep talking about.
  • Chunking: Sorry…I know you’ve heard this term a million times, but it doesn’t just mean breaking down the learning into smaller, more memorable pieces. It also means to organize the chunks in a hierarchical manner (simple to complex) so that they are easier to remember.
  • Is there an opportunity to allow the learner to “learn before learning?” If so, give them a little pre-work before they take your lesson.
  • Do they need to memorize something? Use mnemonics when you can.

Overall, be the goldfish and QC your course with this in mind: “If there is too much going on in your design, then the learner won’t learn.”

Tom DiMartini

Tom is Head of Production at Cursim