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Cognitive Load Theory

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

How to Adapt the Mental Effort to Process Information for Reasoning and Decision-Making

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Cognitive Load Theory was introduced by John Sweller to explain why people have so much more difficulty learning complex content and explains the relationship between “working memory” and “long-term memory.”

The simple theory is easy: when we learn any new idea, we have just 20 seconds to load that new information in our brains to understand it. However, our working memory has a very limited capacity, grasping two to four elements at a time, and holding them for only about 20 seconds. This differs from long-term memory, which has an unlimited capacity and duration.

If the amount of information that needs to be processed exceeds the user’s ability to process it, overall performance suffers. The “cognitive load” is too high according to the “Cognitive Overload Theory.”

How Does Cognitive Load Work?

A cognitive load happens when excessive interaction is needed to process the information: the interactivity creates cognitive load.

In other words, processing and connecting different elements together can cause cognitive load.

When there are too many elements interacting, it imposes a heavy cognitive load: for example when a user needs to think about various elements, or connect them together to make sense, the working memory risks being overloaded. As an example, if a concept is divided between two slides in a presentation, it’s more difficult for the learner to understand because it requires going back and forth between the two slides.

Are There Different Types of Loads?

The theory states that there are three types of loads:

  1. Intrinsic load is the complexity of the content itself. The more challenging the content, the more likely that the learner will experience an excessive cognitive load.

  2. Extraneous load is information that doesn’t support the learning objective. Including information that really isn’t pertinent: the history of a concept when the learner really only needs to know how to use today’s methodology.

  3. Germane load refers to information that helps the learner process the new information like acronyms to remember the five steps of a process.

How Can We Avoid Cognitive Overload?

The goal is to help the working memory acquire new information by transferring it into long-term memory, so the working memory can retrieve it easily.

In our digital world, user-interfaces need to be designed with some principles for low cognitive load and the principles of cognitive load in mind.

Before you start designing your next online program or experience, consider these 9 tactics to reduce the cognitive load for your users:

  1. Use familiar visual patterns

  2. Remove unnecessary actions

  3. Reduce distance

  4. Streamline process

  5. Organize information together

  6. Prioritize items or ideas

  7. Avoid busyness and redundancy

  8. Avoid transient information effects (information moving and changing) by giving control to the user to go back to

  9. Avoid split attention

For complex topics to be understood, information must be presented in a way that helps minimize cognitive overload by gradually moving elements from working memory into long-term memory.

To go a step further, two additional tactics are recommended:

  1. Avoid high element interactivity due to unnecessary complexity by teaching small parts independently and then grouping all together. Learning the elements separately and subsequently learning how to connect them creates the “aha” moment.

  2. For beginners, offering guided instructions with examples provides practice to solve problems themselves: “This is where you are, this is what you do next.” That reduces working memory load.

In summary, the key to effective design is to include everything – and only everything – that supports the learning objective.

If you want to learn more, check out Cognitive Overload Theory” by John Sweller.

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