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How to Avoid Cognitive Overload in eLearning Courses


November 6, 2019



Avoid cognitive overload


Firstly, what is cognitive overload?

Cognitive overload is based on cognitive load theory, a theory within educational psychology and information processing. Basically this theory says that our brain can only process so many new things at once, so better instruction should intentionally target our existing knowledge and recognise the limits of our working memory.

Okay, sounds simple right? Let’s go into a little more depth about was this means…

It is widely accepted knowledge that our memory is broken up into ‘working memory’ and ‘long term memory’. Our working memory is where new information is held briefly for processing during a learning activity. Our memories are then transferred into short term and then, into long term memory. Our long term memory consists of many different information groups or collections called schemas. Schemas are where we went our learning content to end up.

Cognitive load theory, therefore believes that in order for learning to be successful, we need to limit the amount and intensity of learning experiences which are encountered at one time, to reduce the strain on working memory and increase the likelihood that information is transferred into schemas.


1. Your learners existing knowledge

It is crucial to be aware of your learners existing schemata, such as

  • What information do they already know?
  • What is the complexity of the information?
  • What skills do they already have?

It requires much less cognitive effort for learners when they can relate new knowledge to something they already know. This may be the foundational knowledge for a similar topic, process or theory, or it may be unrelated process which works in a similar way. For example, a visual arts student learning about a specific Renaissance painting, may be able to link this information to what they have already learned about the Renaissance period in their history class. Linking to existing knowledge means that a student does not need to construct an entirely new schema in their long term memory. 

However, as a teacher, and in particular with a new group of learners, you should not assume that your learners possess existing knowledge bases beyond what you have already taught them. It is important that you undertake prior testing to determine what information your students possess, or depending on the situation, simply begin with the foundational knowledge.

It is also important to consider not only what is learned, but also the nature of the content, and the complexity of thinking required. For example, a student may be able to comprehend the process of writing a business analysis report, through linking it to their understanding of the different sectors and processes of a business. However, they would only be able to write the report after they have established schemas about the relevant business terms and sectors. Attempting to learn about the structure of a business as well as analyse it at the same time could be considered an overload on working memory.

2. Structure of lessons and courses

Content in eLearning should be succinct and to the point. Lessons must have a simple learning objective or goal, as well as a clear link to the previous content. Following that, information should be broken down into explicit topics or segments. 

An adult’s attention span is approximately 18 minutes, thus it is a great idea to keep the length of your lessons within this time frame. It is also crucial that if you are to introduce multiple lessons to a learner, that they are given appropriate time to process the information in the previous lesson before they move on to the next.

3. Presentation of information and data visualisation

Another factor in successful eLearning is visual organisation of information. 

How many times have you encountered poorly designed powerpoint presentations with multiple paragraphs of text on a slide? Not only is that less than engaging for the viewer, but it also does not provide visual cues to what information is important. The learner is overwhelmed with the task of reading all the text whilst simultaneously listening to the presenter. 

As we’ve discussed, learners can only process a limited amount of information at one time, so a simple summary of what the presenter is saying aloud is much more effective. Images and simple graphic explanations are almost always a good companion to textual information, and vice versa. But there should not be so much of either that simultaneous processing becomes challenging.

Data visualisation in eLearning should be uncomplicated and recognise that the learner is looking at the graph or image on a small digital screen. This means that text labels need to be able to read in a small format, and that images may not be comprehensible when their dimensions are reduced. Remember that your data visualisations should represent the information which is crucial to convey, and nothing more. If you are using icons or images to represent a concept or topic, keep them consistent. 

(Also, in terms of creating killer branded content, it is a nice touch if your graphs and pictorial illustrations are designed in a similar style and aesthetic to your company’s branding. Very important for corporate training!)

Simple Tips for eLearning and the Avoidance of Cognitive Overload

  • Have clear links to what students have learned previously
  • Allow students the opportunity to take in and process content as small segments
  • Establish foundational knowledge and let students have time to process this before progressing to more complex knowledge
  • Recognise that learners are learning the information on a device which may not be conducive to long paragraphs of text, or complicated imagery or graphs.

You may also be interested in our article on converting short term memory to long term. Click here to check it out or copy the link, https://training.safetyculture.com/blog/converting-short-term-memory-to-long-term/


Guest Author Daniel Brown

Daniel Brown is a senior technical editor and writer that has worked in the education and technology sectors for two decades. Their background experience includes curriculum development and course book creation.

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