The cognitive load of an eLearning module—that is, the amount of brainpower it demands of learners so that they can process and understand the information—varies. Some of the factors are under the control of the instructional designer; some are not. Cognitive load is an intersection of:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load—the inherent complexity of a learning task—is not directly controlled by the designer. However, some approaches to eLearning design can help reduce cognitive overload, even when teaching complex processes and concepts.
  • Germane cognitive load refers to activities and presentation of material that enhance learning. Instructional designers have considerable control here. One factor they do not control, but can make allowances for, is the level of expertise of learners using the eLearning.
  • Extraneous cognitive load, also a function of the presentation of the material and activities required, impairs learning. Extraneous cognitive load is created when learners are asked to do tasks that are not connected to the learning goals. This is entirely a function of design.

Designers can create dynamic and engaging eLearning using these seven popular approaches, while also reducing cognitive load:

  1. Microlearning or chunking—In the lingo of cognitive-load theorists, material that has “high-element interactivity” is high in intrinsic cognitive load: It’s complex, multistep, and the pieces must all be mastered before the material as a whole becomes comprehensible. However, each step or element can become a separate “schema” or element of learning. Once a learner has mastered a series of schemas—chunks—a different eLearning activity can pull the pieces together into a coherent process or unit of information.
  2. Multimodal presentation—Humans process information differently if they are seeing it versus hearing it. Presenting some material visually, via text, diagrams, color schemes, or icons, and presenting additional material verbally, using narration, reduces cognitive load and allows many learners to process the information better. 
  3. Content curation—Rather than include everything, even the kitchen sink, in an eLearning course, offer curated content as supplementary material. Novice learners can focus on the essential information, presented clearly in the eLearning; expert learners can explore more deeply by reading linked content, watching optional videos, and engaging in advanced activities.
  4. Just-in-time learning or job aids—Provide some instruction, particularly instructions for short procedures or fact sheets on products, in handy, easily accessible (mobile-friendly) formats: short videos, checklists, or flash cards. Learners can easily find and use these at the moment they need the information. By reducing the amount learners are expected to memorize or learn at once, designers can reduce the potential for cognitive overload.
  5. Ease off on the bells and whistles—Game mechanics or interactivity are appropriate for some eLearning, but not all. If the subject matter has a high intrinsic cognitive load, the presentation should probably tend toward the simple; save the special effects for livening up topics that might be important but that are not inherently engaging.
  6. Keep activities relevant—Ask learners to apply learning in activities that make sense and reflect how they will actually use the information on the job. A simulation where learners practice actual skills and are required to generate their own response to a prompt is more helpful (and realistic) than a multiple-choice quiz where they select from a list of canned—but improbable—responses.
  7. Simplify, simplify, simplify—Use plain English and make sure to include simple, complete, and clear instructions. Keep the design clean and logical, with navigation elements like buttons obvious. Use large, clear fonts. In short, don’t make learners work so hard to get into and understand the workings of the eLearning that they have no brain power left to tackle the actual material.