eLearning Strategies

11 Science-Backed Ways to Prevent Cognitive Overload in eLearning

Androniki Koumadoraki Content Writer LearnWorlds
6 min
How to prevent cognitive overload in eLearning

As a course creator, you put a lot of effort into designing learning experiences your learners will enjoy and benefit from. You add multimedia, animations, gamification and interactivity elements, quizzes — maybe some witty infographics and funny images even!

But have you ever thought that your efforts might backfire? A cluttered course design and the extensive usage of multimedia can cause mental fatigue and cognitive overload, jeopardizing knowledge retention and preventing learners from reaching the course’s learning objectives.

This doesn’t mean that you should create a plain and unimaginative course, though. You just need to know best practices so you don’t overwhelm your learners.

In this post, we have collected the best tips to avoid cognitive overload in online learning based on scientific theories and proven learning methodologies. Let’s begin!

What is Cognitive Overload?

When a task demands more processing capacity than the capacity our cognitive system has, we experience cognitive overload.

The cognitive load theory was developed in the late 80s by John Sweller while he was studying problem-solving. It’s based on the premise that our short-term memory (working memory) has limited capacity, a suggestion originally made in the 1950s by G.A. Miller. More precisely, our minds can store between 5 to 9 pieces of information in our short-term memory.

There are three types of cognitive load:

It’s worth mentioning that prior knowledge of the topic also impacts the level of cognitive load. Learners with no prior knowledge or experience usually deal with the heavier overload.

How Does the Mind Work?

Knowing a couple of things about how processing information works will help you better understand what you need to do to reduce the cognitive load in your online course. The following assumptions have been created by educational psychologist Richard Mayer and refer to multimedia learning.

The Dual-Channel Assumption

Humans have separate channels for processing visual and auditory information. The visual–pictorial channel processes images and written words, while the auditory–verbal channel processes spoken words.

The Limited Capacity Assumption

As the cognitive load theory suggests, there’s a limit to how much information we can process in real-time. The human mind can’t process too much information at once.

The Active Processing Assumption

The active-processing assumption suggests that humans don’t learn passively but need to engage in active cognitive processes.

11 Tips to Prevent Cognitive Overload in Your eLearning Course

There are ways instructional designers and course creators can prevent cognitive overload without compromising the quality of their course – and now you’ll know about these tricks too!

1. Explain Core Concepts First

If there’s terminology, core principles, or theory behind the information you want to introduce, then start with it first. Learners should be clear about the “basics” before moving on to more advanced information.

2. Create Brief Learning Units

In the early ‘70s, Chase and Simon introduced the “chunking hypothesis,” which suggested that breaking down the information into “chunks” helps improve short-term memory capacity, facilitates schema construction, and allows for more efficient retention of the learning content.

Content chunking can help limit intrinsic load as it de-complicates a topic. Instead of presenting a topic all at once and in detail, break it down into smaller and comprehensible chunks. Offer a limited amount of information that your learners’ minds can actually process.

Microlearning is a delivery method that applies content chunking, with the most characteristic examples being infographics and short videos. Don’t be afraid to chop your content into micro-resources – learners love it!

3. Offer Information on Time and on Demand

This one follows up on our previous point.

Information on time means you should present new information when the learner is ready and capable of processing it. Don’t overload your learners by bombarding them with tons of information all at once.

Start with a small amount and follow up with practical examples, simulations, and case studies, so they can better understand and internalize the new information. Once you’ve made sure they’ve understood it (with a quiz or in-class discussion), then introduce them to the next concept. As you do so, tie new concepts to what they’ve already learned.

Information on demand refers to having additional learning material available for on-demand consumption. You can have backup material in case the learners ask for more information or more thorough explanations and examples, or even exercises. Having readily available “on-demand” learning material engages the learner and helps you stand out as an instructor.

4. Apply the “Sandbox Principle”

Remember the active processing principle? This is how you can apply it. The “sandbox” is like an imaginary “safe place” for your learners to experiment and practice what they’ve just learned.

After providing the learner with the learning material, give them time and space before moving on to the next learning unit. Taking their time with the new information and gaining some “real-world experience” will help them internalize the material better.

5. Choose your learning material wisely

Choose learning activities that will help the learner achieve the learning objectives in the most effective way – that is, with the minimum mental effort possible. For example, if you want to demonstrate a manual task, the best way to go is to create a video performing the task instead of writing a manual. A written description requires much more effort to visualize and turn into an image than a video, where this visualization has already been done.

6. Eliminate unnecessary information

Another way to reduce extrinsic overload is to offer learners essential-only pieces of information. Any material that doesn’t serve an educational purpose shouldn’t be in your course. Chunking eLearning content is an effective way to stick to the necessary and resist the temptation to babble or steer away from the scope of the course.

7. Create a distraction-free learning environment

Your course design should provide minimum stimuli and distractions. Popups, music, and unnecessary or complex graphics distract learners and give them extra information to process, increasing cognitive overload.

For this reason, make sure to declutter the User Interface and use ample white space to create a sense of calm in your course environment.

8. Draw attention to the most important elements

Your eLearning course contains lots of useful pieces of information. To reduce cognitive load, direct learners to the most important ones. Signal them where they need to place emphasis on, where the essence is, by highlighting text and using bold fonts. Don’t forget to use navigational buttons too, so they instinctively know where to go next.

9. Keep your learning material simple

While you might want to enhance an oral presentation with graphics and on-screen text, combining all three will overwhelm learners, who will struggle to process three different sources simultaneously. Stick to two media maximum, and if you choose to use text over images, use it sparingly as it requires a bigger mental effort to process.

10. Use images

Using images to complement oral or written material can enhance the learning process and facilitate knowledge retention by reducing Germaine’s overload. That said, images should justify their presence in your course and include valuable information, not be there for aesthetic reasons.

11. Use simple language

We mentioned before how people without prior knowledge of the subject matter are more likely to experience cognitive overload. Now imagine adding salt to the injury by using jargon or speaking too formally.

Simple language is easier for everyone to process. The concept of using plain language is also associated with accessibility, as people with cognitive disabilities like dyslexia or ADHD might struggle to go through hard-to-decipher texts.

Cognitive Overload? Not in Your Course!

While there will always be factors beyond your control, following these 11 tips will effectively reduce the cognitive load in your online course. An intuitive course creation platform, like LearnWorlds, can help you with that!

LearnWorlds has a clean user interface and more features than you have imagined. Here you’ll find all the tools to build engaging, valuable courses your learners will love and the tools you need to market and sell them effectively.

Try LearnWorlds now with a 30-day free trial – no credit card required, no strings attached!

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Androniki Koumadoraki Content Writer LearnWorlds
Androniki Koumadoraki

Androniki is a Content Writer at LearnWorlds sharing Instructional Design and marketing tips. With solid experience in B2B writing and technical translation, she is passionate about learning and spreading knowledge. She is also an aspiring yogi, a book nerd, and a talented transponster.