Deskless Work

The Role of Cognitive Load in Learning Design

Elliott Gibb

Designing effective learning materials requires an understanding of cognitive load theory and its role in the learning process. Cognitive load refers to the amount of mental effort required to process information and complete a task. By considering cognitive load when designing learning materials, we can create more accessible and effective resources for learners.

Understanding cognitive load theory

Cognitive load theory suggests that there are three types of cognitive load: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane

Intrinsic cognitive load is the inherent difficulty of the subject matter being learned. It represents the mental effort required to understand and process complex concepts, theories, or principles. For example, when learning advanced mathematics, the intrinsic cognitive load is high due to the abstract nature of the subject and the need to comprehend complex formulas and equations.

Extraneous cognitive load, on the other hand, includes any additional mental effort caused by poorly designed or irrelevant materials. This can include distractions, unnecessary information, or confusing instructions. For instance, if a student is trying to learn a new programming language but the instructional materials are filled with unrelated examples or unclear explanations, the extraneous cognitive load will increase, making it harder for the student to focus on the essential concepts.

Finally, germane cognitive load refers to the mental effort needed to construct new knowledge and integrate it with existing knowledge. It involves actively engaging with the learning material, making connections, and forming meaningful associations. When germane cognitive load is high, learners are more likely to develop a deeper understanding of the subject matter. 

Working memory, a crucial component of cognitive load theory, plays a vital role in the learning process. This cognitive system is responsible for temporarily holding and processing information. It acts as a mental workspace where new information is received, manipulated, and integrated with existing knowledge.

Cognitive overload occurs when the demands placed on working memory exceed its capacity, making it difficult for learners to effectively process and retain information. This can result in decreased learning outcomes and increased frustration. For example, imagine a student trying to learn a new language while simultaneously listening to a lecture on a completely unrelated topic. The cognitive load from both tasks may overwhelm the working memory, making it challenging for the student to absorb and retain the language lessons.

To optimize learning, it is essential to manage cognitive load effectively. This can be achieved by designing instructional materials that minimize extraneous cognitive load, provide clear and concise explanations, and offer opportunities for learners to actively engage with the content. By reducing extraneous cognitive load, learners can focus their mental effort on intrinsic and germane cognitive load, facilitating deeper understanding and knowledge construction.

The importance of cognitive load in learning material design

Cognitive overload can impede learning by overwhelming working memory, making it difficult for learners to absorb and retain information. By understanding the concept of cognitive load, we can design learning materials that optimize learning potential.

When creating learning materials, it is crucial to balance intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load. Intrinsic cognitive load cannot be altered, as it is related to the complexity of the subject matter. On the other hand, extraneous cognitive load can be managed by removing unnecessary distractions and simplifying complex information.

Breaking down complex concepts into smaller, more digestible chunks can help learners grasp the material more easily. Additionally, using clear and concise language can reduce the cognitive effort required to understand the content.

Another aspect to consider when designing learning materials is the use of visuals. Visuals can be powerful tools for enhancing learning, but they can also contribute to cognitive overload if not used appropriately. It is important to choose visuals that support the learning goals and avoid unnecessary or confusing images.

Furthermore, the layout and organization of learning materials play a significant role in managing cognitive load. Clear headings, subheadings, and bullet points can help learners navigate through the content more efficiently. Providing a logical flow of information and using consistent formatting can also contribute to a better learning experience.

Moreover, it is essential to consider the prior knowledge and experience of the learners when designing learning materials. Building on existing knowledge can help reduce cognitive load by connecting new information to familiar concepts. By scaffolding the learning process, learners can gradually build their understanding without feeling overwhelmed.

Practical strategies for managing cognitive load in learning materials

Simplifying complex information is an effective way to reduce cognitive load. Breaking down complex concepts into smaller, more manageable chunks helps learners process and understand the material more easily. Using clear and concise language, avoiding jargon, and providing relevant examples can also assist in reducing cognitive load.

Another strategy is to use multimedia effectively. Well-designed visual aids, such as diagrams, charts, and videos, can help convey information more efficiently, reducing the cognitive load on learners. However, it is essential to ensure that multimedia components enhance, rather than distract from, the learning experience.

Evaluating the success of cognitive load-focused design

Assessing learner comprehension and retention is crucial in determining the effectiveness of cognitive load-focused design. Through quizzes, assessments, and observations, educators can measure how well learners have understood and retained the information.

Feedback from learners is also invaluable in evaluating and refining learning materials. By listening to the experiences and challenges faced by learners, educators and instructional designers can make necessary revisions to optimize cognitive load management.

Managing Cognitive Load with Mercu

Learning new materials when you’re on the job is difficult.

We know frontline staff don’t have the time nor attention spans to read through emails, look at long slide decks or attend training sessions on top of their assigned shift hours.

By delivering learning content in a conversational format via WhatsApp, we inherently reduce cognitive load by placing the onus on training staff to create sharp, short content digestible in 2-3 minutes.

With our campaign creation platform, quickly create messaging, add visuals, and make sure your learners understand the knowledge they need to know.

We do this because learning happens through consistency, not intensity.

Want to explore the magic of our WhatsApp experience? 

Chat to one of our team today.

Your workforce is mobile. Your tools should be too.

In a sea of existing tools that aren’t built to solve your deskless workforce problems, Mercu is the exception. Automate enablement with a chat-based platform that gets results.