Cognitive load, and its counterpart, cognitive overload, addresses the way a learner’s brain handles and quickly processes small amounts of information. A popular meme is that we can “remember” seven, plus or minus two, pieces of information—a phone number, perhaps, but not a 15-digit serial number. Not easily, anyhow. “Remembering” in this context refers to holding something in our working memory.

Working memory teams up with long-term memory to hold on to greater quantity or complexity of information. Learning is a process that puts information into long-term memory in a way that allows us to recall and apply it when needed. But without the cooperation of working memory, nothing gets learned.

For instructional designers and anyone using, creating, or asking employees to use eLearning, cognitive load is an essential concept. If eLearning overloads learners’ working memory, their learning will suffer. A number of factors contribute to the cognitive load of eLearning. These are described below.

Intrinsic cognitive load

According to cognitive load theorists, “information varies on a continuum from low to high in element interactivity” (see Paas, et al, in References). A concept or piece of information with low-element interactivity stands on its own; a learner can understand it without reference to other elements of the eLearning. For example, an employee can learn the names of menu items or products she will be selling, one by one. Information with high-element interactivity might be learned in individual chunks, but can only be understood when all of the elements—and how they interact—are put together. An example would be preparing an eight-course tasting menu. The learner would need to master each course—and each element of each course—before being able to attempt the entire meal, with appropriate timing, serving, and other associated details.

Instructional designers have little control over the intrinsic cognitive load of most learning tasks but can sometimes break complex tasks into smaller units.

Germane cognitive load

Germane cognitive load refers to elements of learning that contribute to processing information. It includes details like the way eLearning is presented to learners and what activities they are asked to complete. Instructional designers have a lot of influence on germane cognitive load. Germane cognitive load enhances learning.

Extraneous cognitive load

Like germane cognitive load, extraneous cognitive load has much to do with how eLearning is presented to learners; instructional designers control or strongly influence it. But extraneous cognitive load can interfere with learning.

Some extraneous elements are a function of poor design. For example, deciding to build a complex learning game—motivated by a desire to create fun, engaging eLearning—might result in eLearning that requires learners to spend 45 minutes studying the rules of play and figuring out how to set up the game space and characters before beginning to learn anything that is actually relevant to their jobs. These elements dramatically raise the cognitive load without contributing to learning goals. They are also completely under the control of the instructional designer and developers. Other eLearning elements might be germane to some learners and extraneous to others.

Levels of expertise

Whether an eLearning element or activity is germane or extraneous to a particular learner might depend on that learner’s level of expertise. For example, loading an eLearning module with sidebars and explanations and tangential details might, to an expert learner, make otherwise basic and dull eLearning more interesting. Thus it becomes germane. But to the beginner, the extraneous detail complicates learning. She does not know which pieces are critical to her learning and which are unneeded details. Expending cognitive effort on deciding which parts to read—or doing extraneous work—contributes to cognitive overload.

As learners complete eLearning and associated activities and apply the learning, their level of expertise changes. Different learners will master material at different rates.

While instructional designers don’t always know or control the level of expertise of learners who will use an eLearning module, they can design eLearning that presents the essential information in a clear way—and offers extra detail for expert users, clearly identifying it as ancillary. Thus the information does not overload beginners and is available to learners as their level of expertise grows.

It all adds up

The bottom line is that the different types of cognitive load add up. If an eLearning course is filled with extraneous elements, it will overload some learners, even if the actual material has a relatively low intrinsic cognitive load. Instructional designers who are aware of the intrinsic, germane, and extraneous cognitive loads of the eLearning they design can choose formats and presentation approaches that suit the material—and the target learners—to avoid cognitive overload.


Malamed, Connie. “What is cognitive load?

Paas, Fred, Alexander Renkl, and John Sweller. “Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design: Recent Developments.Educational Psychologist, Vol. 38, No. 1. 2003.