As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, organizations began to convert their training content for virtual delivery. An important part of this conversion was reviewing the use of instructional methods for the new delivery environment. It was necessary to learn which methods would be effective online, such as learning videos, various eLearning platforms, and recorded and live-streamed lectures.

How to design virtual learning to decrease cognitive load

The benefit of virtual delivery to many organizations is that it allows instructional designers to create training that can be accessed anywhere. However, as designers develop new learning interventions for use in virtual settings, they need to know what types of training will best help the learner reach the learning objective. In addition, the designer must understand how each platform may affect the learner's cognitive load. As designers navigate the waters of building learning interventions that utilize virtual technology, they must keep the learner's cognitive load low in order to increase learning retention. As with all instructional design, virtual training should utilize effective instructional methods. However, studies have shown that some virtual training strategies, such as immersion, may increase the cognitive load in one setting but decrease it in another.

Mayer found that designers may want to consider three key approaches that can reduce extraneous processing (which does not aid learning) or that can facilitate other essential processing during learning. These are microlearning, collaboration, and cognitive strategies.

Microlearning allows designers to provide laser-focused learning to help participants retain learning better. Microlearning, collaboration, and cognitive strategies decrease cognitive load by providing informal training in small amounts. In addition, microlearning allows participants to access just-in-time training on the go. There are some considerations when building microlearning:

  • Length: Although there are studies that show microlearning segments can be up to 18 minutes long, Afify states that learning videos that are six minutes or shorter may provide the learner with a better experience.
  • User interaction: When instructional designers build interactions within training, they increase the learner's engagement and motivation and decrease the cognitive load. Interaction can occur in several ways, such as through simulators, virtual reality, game-based instruction, and multimedia.
  • Formative assessments: According to one study, formative assessments are another type of interactivity that helps the learner internalize the material and move the learning from short-term to long-term memory. Formative assessments can help to identify learning gaps.

Collaboration provides learners with a sense of community that they may feel is lacking in virtual training. If learners are not engaged in virtual training, their motivation and cognitive load decrease. Many webinar platforms allow the ability to include collaborative sessions. These sessions help to increase engagement and decrease the cognitive load. Many webinar platforms also support breakout sessions that allow learners to meet in smaller groups to complete an activity. In addition, the participants can use the chat feature to provide the facilitator with immediate feedback on their understanding.

Cognitive strategies, according to Costley, help learners overcome online learning challenges and offset some of the negative aspects of extraneous load and encourage germane load that aids information processing. An eLearning designer should consider the strategies that increase motivation and creates a positive learning environment — for example, taking into consideration gender differences and diversity, equity, and inclusion.


Although the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the use of virtual training platforms, many learning designers have found these platforms create learner issues that may not have been as prevalent using traditional learning methods. In addition, during a time when many could not attend in-person training, virtual training provided the ability to continue training within companies without the need for travel, providing a cost saving and allowing the learner to participate at a location they choose.

However, as designers scrambled to convert traditional training into virtual training, some learners experienced increased unhelpful extraneous load that many virtual platforms create. In addition, germane (helpful) load was also negatively affected due to distractions within their environment, lack of motivation, and lack of collaboration. The lesson learned? Know which design practices may help to decrease cognitive load and increase motivation.