The choice of a format and medium for eLearning content is based on a number of considerations, including where learners will consume the training, devices available, and optimizing learner experience. Instructional designers who want to create engaging eLearning that facilitates retention and supports improved learner performance might also factor in cognitive load.

According to researcher John Sweller, “Cognitive load theory assumes a limited working memory used to process novel information and a large, long-term memory used to store knowledge that has been acquired for subsequent use. The purpose of instruction is to store information in long-term memory.”

That process is aided by some approaches to design and presentation of learning content—and potentially hindered by others. Especially when moving learning content online, new media and formats might replace more conventional ones—animations or videos replacing static text and images, for example. “Limited human working memory results in transient, technology-based information having considerable instructional consequences, many of them negative,” Sweller wrote.

Learning experience consultant Connie Malamed explains that, while working memory is limited to processing small amounts of information at a time, “long-term memory appears to have an unlimited capacity.” In long-term memory, related information is structured into “schemas,” which help us organize the information.

While it’s easy to overwhelm the working memory—making it more difficult for that information to get processed and stored for long-term retention and use—instructional designers can employ several techniques to reduce cognitive load.

  • Rather than changing format, add additional media and formats: “Plus-one” thinking, a feature of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), suggests adding a video or animation to content that includes written text. Learners may choose one—or use both, reinforcing the learning and offering the opportunity to refer back to the static content.
  • Build microlearning to teach or reinforce content: Creating microlessons forces instructional designers to write concise, focused content, which in itself reduces cognitive load. Offering microlearning as performance support tools or job aids can remind learners of content they learned in more comprehensive eLearning or face-to-face training. Microlessons can also teach information or assist with in-the-workflow problem-solving.
  • Venture beyond multiple-choice questions: Ask learners to come up with responses, rather than choosing from a list of options, or—even better—think of examples where new learning would apply on the job. In “Six Strategies You May Not Be Using To Reduce Cognitive Load,” Malamed suggests additional “generative strategies” that help cement learning by having learners elaborate on concepts or think about just-presented concepts.
  • Cut out the bling: Decorative images or animations, complicated navigation paradigms, reams of extraneous “nice-to-have” information, and other design features that make learners work hard just to identify and access the essential information add to cognitive load. Allow learners to put all their working memory capacity into processing the content they must master by making the user interface simple, consistent, and intuitive—and by keeping artistic impulses in check. All images and functionality should enhance the learning, not decorate it.

Let science help you create better eLearning

Connie Malamed will present “Best Strategies for Reducing Cognitive Load,” and Patti Shank will describe “Designing for Memory” at The eLearning Guild’s Science of Learning Summit, May 15–16, 2019.