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Cognitive Load Theory: What You Need to Know to Develop Instructional Tools that Work

A central piece in the puzzle of designing instructional tools is understanding how the human mind learns—how much information can a learner retain, and how should that information be presented? Investment costs in the design, production, and implementation of e-learning in particular makes the effectiveness of such tools even more crucial. A poorly designed course can confuse learners, missing the instructional mark and costing your company dearly.

What you need to consider is cognitive load—in other words, how much effort your learners need to spend to really absorb your content. In the 1980s, psychologist John Sweller came up with a framework for cognitive load. He posited that three load types exist: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Let’s see how Sweller’s cognitive load types can help you design a more effective learning environment.

Intrinsic load

Intrinsic cognitive load refers to the difficulty associated with a particular topic. This isn’t something that the instructional designer can control; rather, recognizing intrinsic load is like understanding the difference between basic arithmetic and calculus.

Let’s say you’re designing an online training program for a new software that is going to be used in a financial firm. You know that the intrinsic load for this new software is fairly heavy—unlike the firm’s old platform, which contained basic information in easily digestible sheets, the new software requires users to review multiple fields to inform the decision-making process. In short: the new software is hard to learn.

What can you do to lessen the intrinsic load? One strategy is to break up the process into smaller steps—for example, creating a software simulation that only presents parts of the new platform’s functions at a time. This avoids a sense of overwhelm in employees, who can learn each piece before later practicing them all together as a whole.

Extraneous load

Whereas intrinsic load is dependent upon the content itself, extraneous load is entirely in the hands of the instructional designer. Extraneous load is dependent upon the way that material is presented to the learners—in the example above, extraneous load was minimized when the content was broken into smaller pieces to help facilitate the training of a difficult topic.

There are some basic rules to creating minimal extraneous load. For one, avoid adorning learning materials with extra illustrations or music if they aren’t serving a direct educational purpose. These elements, while fun, require extra processing on the learner’s part and can detract from total content absorption. Likewise, don’t double-up on the way that information is presented: for example, narrating written text word-for-word forces the learner to process information twice, significantly impacting their cognitive load.

Germane load

Germane load is the good stuff, the instructional schemas that keep your learners engaged and focused. Some basic strategies that are recommended are to maintain a balance of verbal and visual elements, position text close to the image it correlates with, and break up content into more digestible pieces. In the previous example of the software training program, one effective instructional strategy might be to break up video and textual elements by having learners first watch a narrated video on how to log into the system, and then read bulleted instructions on how to input data.

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The most important part of comprehending Sweller’s theory is to think about all three types of load in balance. Each type of load is additive, meaning that that if the intrinsic load of a certain topic is high, the extraneous load needs to be decreased accordingly. Each type—intrinsic, extraneous, and germane—should add up to an overall cognitive load that is not beyond the learner’s capacity. Your best bet, in any case, is to minimize the extraneous load by producing clean, meaningful, and concise materials that take advantage of schemas to create a cohesive and rewarding experience.