What is cognitive overload?
Throughout the day, our minds are constantly receiving and processing new pieces of information in our working memory. It’s important to remember, however, that our working memory can only handle so much. When overloaded, it can be difficult to retain information and recall it at a later point. Simply put, cognitive overload is when our minds are receiving more than it can process, affecting productivity. We can understand what contributes to this load by breaking it down into the three types explained by the Cognitive Load Theory:
- Intrinsic – Some concepts are more complex than others. Intrinsic refers to the level of difficulty of the topic. The more difficult the topic, the greater the load.
- Extraneous – Not all elements of a learning experience enhance the content. Extraneous refers to elements that are not directly relevant to the learning experience. Animations or pictures can be an example of this.
- Germane – Certain elements of a learning experience can help increase the understanding of a topic. Germane refers to processes that help our working memory with processing the information.
By finding a good balance of these types of loads, we meet the sweet spot for feeding the working memory what it can handle. This will allow for better memorization, knowledge retention, and, ultimately, better overall results.
While e-learning itself can already help create this balance in a working environment, there are a few steps that you can take to ensure that you don’t hit your learner’s working memory limit.
Cognitive overload symptoms
Before discussing the ways we can reduce cognitive overload in e-learning, it is important to first understand the signs of cognitive overload. This way, we can recognize when we might be subjecting learners to this load:
- Making mistakes – If learners are making silly mistakes that can be avoided, then maybe they are struggling to fully focus due to cognitive overload.
- Regularly forgetting important information – We can all be forgetful, but if learners are regularly struggling to recall information, they may be trying to remember too much.
- Inability to focus on a task – It is important to give full attention to the task at hand, but when the memory is overloaded, the learner’s minds go elsewhere which makes it difficult to focus.