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What is Cognitive Overload and how to reduce it in e-learning

We hold many opinions about multi-tasking. The truth is: our minds can’t handle as much as we think. The result of this over-ambitious mindset? It can affect both our productivity and emotions, causing this mindset to work against us and subject us to cognitive overload. Even in a virtual learning environment, it is important to be aware of this and structure training to be sure employees are not being overloaded. By understanding what causes cognitive overload and how to be aware of it, we can reduce cognitive overload in e-learning 

Molly Brooks

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 receive more than they 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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:

  1. Making mistakes – If learners are making silly mistakes that can be avoided, then maybe they are struggling to fully focus due to cognitive overload.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 mind goes elsewhere which makes it difficult to focus.

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Cognitive overload examples

To understand how to create a better learning environment, let’s look at some of the common mistakes employees and even trainers are making that cause cognitive overload:

  1. Too many distractions – It’s important to make our learning environment as fun and interactive as possible, but sometimes this can take away from the key points in the lesson.
  2. Too much to do – Even when a concept is short, it can be easy to drag it out and make the lesson longer than it needs to be. As a result, we can lose the attention of the learners.
  3. Information dumping  – When there is a lot of information to be shared, it can be easy to dump it all at once. This prevents the learner from fully absorbing the new information and storing it for later use.

How to reduce cognitive overload at work

Particularly in the workplace, cognitive overload is a common occurrence. Employees are constantly attaining and processing new information to be effective in their jobs. As a trainer, it’s important to think about reducing cognitive overload for a better user experience, and ultimately creating a better environment for learners. Not only this but the more you can reduce cognitive overload, the better the chances they retain and recall the information shared.

While e-learning is a good way to combat this, it is important to remember that even e-learning can sometimes fall victim to cognitive overload if not properly structured. By following the steps below, you can restructure your e-learning to ensure your learners are getting the most out of the material and that your e-learning does not cause cognitive overload:

  1. Break it up  – Keep the topics short! You don’t want to put too much information in one course, otherwise, key points may get lost.
  2. Simplify – The simpler the better! Sure, we can all use big, fancy words. But the best way to keep your learner’s attention is to make it as basic and straightforward as possible
  3. Slow it down – Everyone learns at different speeds. Let your learners go through the content at their own pace. This way, they won’t feel like there’s too much going on at once.
  4. Vary delivery – You should include a few different visuals and delivery methods. Everyone learns differently, so try to present the information in a few different ways so everyone can relate.
  5. Check knowledge – Let your learners check what they’ve learned in your courses. Create interactive and engaging knowledge checks to put what they’ve learned into practice. This will help learners recognize situations when they should recall the information.

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About the author

Molly Brooks is a copywriter at Easygenerator.  After growing up in America, she moved to the Netherlands in 2019 ready for a new adventure. She enjoys finding Rotterdam’s best restaurants, exploring the outdoors, and cooking.