8 Principles for Managing Cognitive Load

8 principles for managing cognitive load
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Have you ever wondered how your brain is processing all the information that gets thrown at it every day? How do we actually learn anything in this age of information overload? To design effective training we must understand first how the human brain processes information. This post covers 8 principles for managing cognitive load when designing training. To learn how to apply these in a comprehensive strategy for training material development, click here.

How the human brain learns

There are three fundamental research-based assumptions about how the human brain learns that are relevant to this explanation.

  1. Dual-channel – humans possess separate information processing channels for verbal and visual material.
  2. Limited capacity – there is only a limited amount of processing capacity available in the verbal and visual channels (working memory).
  3. Active processing – learning requires substantive cognitive processing in the verbal and visual channels.

How we process information in our brain
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Active processing involves paying attention to the presented material, organizing that material into a structure that makes sense, and integrating the material with prior knowledge.

Now, the capacity to present material is unlimited (in 2016, 300 hours of video was uploaded to YouTube every minute!), and the capacity for storing knowledge in long-term memory is virtually unlimited. But the capacity for mental holding and manipulating words and images in working memory is limited. And herein lies the greatest challenge.


How do we overcome the limited capacity of working memory?

Good teaching absolutely needs to capture the learner’s attention. This is essential to be able to stimulate active processing. The best way to do this is to connect with someone on an emotional level. This is why the medium of video is such a powerful learning tool. I will explain how and why video is arguably the best medium for learning shortly.

Then, good teaching needs to encourage and facilitate the process of organizing that material into a coherent structure and integrating it with the learner’s prior knowledge. A deep understanding of prior knowledge is crucial. A well-designed course structure, with built-in interaction in the form of knowledge checks, scenarios and case studies, are the key ingredients to then unlocking new insights and understanding in the learner. This is how learning is encoded into the unlimited capacity of working memory we each possess.

The power of video in learning

Images are more powerful than written words. Look at the word and image combination below.

You process the image of a lion 60,000 times faster the words.
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You won’t realize the difference because we’re talking milliseconds for this single word, but you processed the image of the lion 60,000 faster than the word. Now add in video and you have the ability to show 25-100 frames (images) per second. When you’re conveying far more complex information, those milliseconds really add up. That is a much more efficient way of conveying information!

But beyond the efficiency of information processing, video has a significantly more powerful quality that we can take advantage of – the ability to connect with learners on an emotional level.

Emotion helps shape information gathering in that stimuli that are emotionally relevant to the learner, receive heightened attention. And attention is one of the most valuable commodities we possess. Our attention is constantly the object of competing distractions and other sources of information, which is why it is important that any good teacher spends a lot of time thinking about how they can capture and hold the attention of their learners. This is the key to stimulating active processing, which is when real learning occurs.

An added bonus of the emotional connection that video can produce is that of motivation. For learners to become and remain motivated, video-based instruction must meet four conditions:

  1. attention,
  2. relevance,
  3. confidence, and
  4. satisfaction.

One can ensure relevance through a dedicated understanding of your learner. You can promote confidence with regular knowledge checks and feedback. And by aiming to entertain as well as educate, you can produce a more satisfying experience than a traditional instructional model. Motivated learners are characterized by high levels of engagement, which is why it is important to encourage active learning – everything from working through problem-solving scenarios to pausing and replaying sections of videos helps promote active learning.

The benefit of this careful planning?

Motivated learners finish courses in less time, and have higher rates of retention.

Now, we know that the brain has two channels for processing information – verbal and visual, and how the processing capacity of working memory is limited. So what is actually happening when the capacity of working memory is exceeded by the processing demands of all the information that we come across in our day? This is what is known as cognitive overload. 

Understanding cognitive load

The processing demands of any learning can be broken up into three kinds of processing:

  1. Extraneous processing – information that is not related to the objective of the lesson (e.g. Music that is distracting)
  2. Essential processing – information that is relevant to the objective of the lesson; involves selecting and some organizing of information (e.g. Following the steps of how to prepare a tax return)
  3. Generative processing – deep cognitive processing that is relevant to the objective of the lessons; involves much more organizing and integrating information (e.g. Analyzing a unique scenario and preparing a tax return given the particular set of facts).

Therefore, cognitive capacity = extraneous processing + essential processing + generative processing.

Managing cognitive load

A great teacher should aim to reduce extraneous processing through smart learning design; manage essential processing also through smart design, and engaging training delivery; and foster generative processing by presenting scenarios, requiring learner input, and providing feedback.

Only through careful design, can great training guide the learner through the process of active processing with an expert hand. The remainder of this post will explore 8 principles for managing cognitive load in your learning.

The 8 principles for managing cognitive load

And here they are, the 8 principles for managing cognitive load.

Click on each one to jump back up to the relevant section for a refresher.

    1. The Coherence Principle
    2. The Redundancy Principle
    3. The Segmenting Principle
    4. The Contiguity Principle
    5. The Signaling Principle
    6. The Pretraining Principle
    7. The Modality Principle
    8. The Personalization Principle

Principle 1 – the Japanese Konmari

Marie Kondo
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Marie Kondo is a Japanese organizing consultant, author, and entrepreneur. She developed a method of organizing, known as the KonMari Method. It is more a state of mind than a method for organizing. It involves gathering all of your possessions and physically handling each and every object you own and asking yourself if it “sparks joy.” If it does, you find a dedicated place to keep it, and if not, you discard it, allowing someone else to find joy in it. She published her ideas in two books that have sold over seven million copies in forty countries.

The result of implementing her incredibly simple, but powerful method is a decluttering of your home, and by extension your life. This is at the heart of the learning design principle of Coherence,  which can help us reduce extraneous processing.

A learning designer applying this principle is focused on weeding out words, graphics, animations, and sounds that are not central to the learning outcomes (Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. 2011).

Think about the last work complex task you had to complete. Did you have all the necessary answers in your memory, or did you have to look a few things up? Maybe ask a colleague? You probably knew what you didn’t know, and knew where to look. This is the skill we, as learning designers, must be teaching.

Think about that for a minute. This involves:

  • a single-minded approach to crafting strong learning outcomes,
  • keeping them in the forefront as you develop the lesson to meet this outcome,
  • focusing on only the most essential information needed to achieve this outcome,
  • pointing the learner to where they can find additional information when the time comes to apply it in their jobs.

This can sometimes be in direct conflict with the typical Subject Matter Expert (SME) tendency to treat all information as essential. But a learner simply cannot absorb all the information that is necessary to achieve a certain learning outcome – not into short-term memory, which is where it goes first and which has a limited capacity. Managing the expectations of SMEs is an important skill for learning designers to have. But next time you’re in discussion with an SME, try asking them for the 3 most essential concepts the learner should know. Then ask them what resources a learner should be aware of, and make sure the training points them there.

Asking them to remember any more than that results in a clutter of the mind, and certainly no sparks of joy.

Principle 2 – dealing with Redundancy

You know that situation you sometimes find yourself in…  you’re at a bar or a restaurant with friends, and either side of you people are having deep meaningful conversations that you desperately want to take part in… It’s impossible to focus on both conversations at the same time, and because you are not the center of the universe, both conversations carry on, whether you are involved or not. You can try to make sense of what each speaker is saying, but at some point, you’re going to have to choose which conversation you are going to pay attention to.

Information overload can cause anxiety
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This is what is happening to your brain when you try to focus on one of those e-learnings in which the narrator reads the on-screen text to you. We saw how the processing demands placed on our brains can exceed the capacity we have in working memory. When we see on-screen text, we read it, taking in the information through our visual channel. But if someone is also reading it to us, it is like an assault on our verbal channel – we cannot easily block it out, and suddenly the processing demands have exceeded our capacity to process.

This is where the principle of Redundancy can help. Presenting information as graphics with narration, without the associated on-screen text, has been proven in numerous studies to be the most effective method of designing learning experiences (Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. 2011).

There are two important caveats to this:

  1. experienced learners are able to handle some amount of on-screen text (especially when used for signaling – see the next blog post in this series), and
  2. on-screen text to show the translation of another language being spoken is an effective way for foreign language speakers to make connections between the content and their language.
    So next time you are designing an online learning experience, consider the two channels we have for processing information. Optimize for the visual channel, and design strong support (but not repetition) for the verbal channel.

Principle 3 – bite-size classical antiquity

Part of the experience of reading books these days is reading in chapters. It not only shapes the way we consume books but even defines our lives for us in retrospect. How many times have you looked back on events like leaving school, moving to a new city, ending a relationship, or changing a job and thought, “that was the end of a chapter”.  While chapters in books and life fade or blur into one another in recollection, they are ever-present while reading the book or living your life.

But this was not always the case.

Historians conclude that chapters originated in classical antiquity; in the golden age of the Greek and Roman empires. But the first authors who wrote in chapters were not novelists, but rather encyclopedists, monks, and theologians. They were instead compilers of knowledge who used them to organize large texts. A fascinating New Yorker article chronicles the earliest known works written in chapters, listing Cato the Elder’s tome on farming and Pliny the Elder’s compilation of Roman science as examples.

As the article notes, these early thinkers exhibited great foresight “in their sense that some texts are consulted more than they are read; they envisioned a focussed, interested, but not immersed reader, dipping into their books by locating relevant passages.”

What is really interesting is that the chapters we are most familiar with, the chapters in novels, were not used until the eighteenth century. The chapter, so designed for information-seeking, simply did not fit with the narrative form designed for continuous reading.

But then chapters began to proliferate as novelists began to realize another value: providing readers a break to pause, reflect, ruminate or even refresh between readings of their work. Chapters “aerated” books. They allowed people to fit novels into the routines of everyday life. A chapter before bed. One chapter every morning. As the article puts it, chapters “encourage our immersion by letting us know that we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands.”

“An attention paid out rhythmically”

— The New Yorker Magazine

There are two benefits of chapters that this little history lesson highlights. Chapters:

  1. organize information and allow for easy searching
  2. allow for time to reflect on what was just consumed

And this is exactly what the learning design principle of Segmenting does too.

Attention spans are far shorter than in the eighteenth century. While people could sit for hours on end to read a chapter, now it is a struggle to sit for 5 minutes to watch a video. Breaking content into bite-size chunks helps people consume information more efficiently and effectively. In fact, studies have shown that learners who are able to process one step in a process at a time, and decide when they advance to the next step have significantly higher knowledge retention than learners receiving training in a continuous unit. (Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. 2011)

Library of books
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Imagine trying to consume all this knowledge without the ability to find what you are looking for?

In designing instruction for digital consumption, it is critical that we pay attention to the dual benefits of chapters – organization and time for reflection – and design our learning appropriately.
Gone are the days that anyone can be expected to sit for an hour and absorb everything thrown at them. Continuing education accreditors must adjust to this new reality and provide micro-credits. Learning organizations are already adjusting and providing nano-degrees.

This is not to say that all learning should be micro-learning. There is a time and place for micro-learning, just as there is for slightly longer intervals of learning that simultaneously provide learners with the resources for additional exploration. This type of learning design can unlock long, complex subject matter, and make it easily digestible for learners. The trend is towards smaller chunks of content consumed over longer time periods. Create the rhythm of consumption, and you will be rewarded with the attention of your learners.

Principle 4 – Internet memes and the future of learning

Internet memes show us the power of great captions
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Captions are great

Combining captions with unrelated pictures to create hilarious moments is a phenomenon known as the Internet meme. Borrowing from the word ‘meme’, coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, the Wired magazine writer Mike Godwin first proposed the term ‘Internet meme’ back in June 1993. Since then they have proliferated, evolving as they are shared and taking on the cultural relevance of the time.

The success of the Internet meme is predicated on three conditions:

  1. a picture, usually funny or strange or curious in some way
  2. a caption, unrelated to the picture, often with specific cultural, political or religious references
  3. the placing of the two together to create an entirely new, often hilarious, construct.

It is the third condition that embodies the principle of Contiguity. 

In learning design, contiguity is the presenting of corresponding printed words and graphics near rather than far from each other, and corresponding graphics and narration simultaneously rather than successively (Clark & Mayer, 2011). This design feature in digital learning has been shown in numerous studies to improve knowledge retention compared to when there is a disconnect between graphics and words, whether written or spoken. It helps because it reduces extraneous processing. This is a fairly straightforward principle to follow. But when designing your learning for digital consumption, don’t be a rebel like Gladys.

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Line up your words and graphics.

Principle 5 – the 1994 FIFA World Cup

Can you imagine watching sports without the constant on-screen graphic giving you the score?

Fox showing the score during games
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Courtesy Fox Sports

Would you believe this wasn’t the norm until 1994?

Prior to 1994, sports fans who joined a game late had to pay attention for however long it took for the announcer to say the score. But then an Australian named David Hill who was running Sky Sports in the UK began pioneering a permanent score graphic for English Premier League matches. It was not very popular when it was first received.

It didn’t take off in the United States, or globally for that matter, until ABC and ESPN’s coverage of the 1994 FIFA World Cup, held in the US. Even then, it wasn’t introduced to appease fans. In fact, fans resisted at first. According to the New York Times, the reason it was introduced in the US was to satisfy the demands of sponsors. You see soccer has a running clock and no stoppages in which to show commercials, unlike most American sports. So the broadcasters decided to create a graphic showing the score as well as the logo of a sponsor at all times.

FIFA World Cup 1994 showing the score and sponsors logo
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Fox followed suit later that year (spearheaded largely by David Hill who had since become president at Fox Sports) with what eventually became known as the Fox box. And now, no sports fan in the world could imagine watching without it.

In the world of learning design, what is being applied here is the principle of Signaling. Numerous studies have shown that humans learn more deeply when visual and/or verbal cues are added to highlight the organization of the essential information. This could be in the form of keywords appearing on-screen to highlight important definitions, or to mark chapters that are designing according to the segmenting principle. It could be to reinforce important points or to show a complex explanation using a diagram.

Visual cues such as these should be used sparingly and only to call attention to essential information. But if you design digital learning experiences without them, you risk your learners muddling through the training without knowing what the score is.

Principle 6 – the Elon Musk principle

When Elon Musk disrupted the automotive industry by starting the world’s first exclusively electric car company, he was widely criticized on the basis that batteries were too expensive to make the cars affordable. In a great interview with Kevin Rose, Musk explains how. He says that while observers would say, “It’s going to cost $600 / kilowatt-hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future,” he thought about it by asking fundamental questions.

“What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? It has carbon, nickel, aluminum, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. Break that down on a materials basis, if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost? Oh jeez, it’s $80 / kilowatt-hour. Clearly, you need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much cheaper than anyone realizes.”

By breaking the challenge down into its first principles, Musk was able to rethink the way electric cars were powered, and now every major car manufacturer in the world has an electric car division to keep up with the future that Musk has helped shape.

I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”

As a learning designer, it is important to apply first principles thinking in your work. By distilling a topic down into its fundamental definitions, characteristics, and concepts, you can manage the essential processing of a learner by covering these up front. That way, learners can instead focus on the causal connections between concepts in the rest of the lesson or course. This is a principle known as Pretraining.

Studies have proven that for complex subject matter, and especially when learners do not have much prior experience of the topic, those that received pretraining in the form of definitions and concepts covered upfront had higher knowledge retention than those that did not (Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. 2011).
Aristotle was on to this over 2300 years ago when he said that a first principle is the “first basis from which a thing is known” and that pursuing first principles is the key to doing any sort of further inquiry.

Next time you’re designing a learning strategy, spend some time to think about what the first principles are that will help your learners build a deeper understanding.

Principle 7 – closed captioning presented by…


Closed captioning
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Open captioning and closed captioning has been around since the early 1970s. The difference between the two is that open captions are visible to all viewers all the time, while closed captions have to be activated by the viewer. In Canada and the US, the term ‘caption’ denote on-screen text for the deaf and hard of hearing, which aims to describe all significant audio content. This is in contrast to ‘subtitles’ which assume the viewer can hear but cannot understand the language or accent, or the speech is not entirely clear, so they transcribe only the dialogue.

For the purposes of this experiment, let’s consider captions, and assume you have no difficulty hearing. Have you ever tried to watch a movie with captioning on, and the audio turned off?
It becomes mentally very challenging to follow the story. Your eyes are taking in the action from the moving pictures, as well as the text of the audio. This is a classic case of extraneous processing. You would never do this, unless you had difficulty hearing, and therefore no other choice.

This is what trying to follow e-learning with only text instruction is like. In a learning context, this kind of overload of the visual channel inhibits the learner’s goal of acquiring information.
A solution to this challenge is provided by the Modality principle. Essentially the modality principle says that a learning designer should present words as speech rather than on-screen text (Clark & Mayer, 2011).

A few important caveats to the research on this topic are that the effects of this principle are strongest when:

  1. the material is complex for the learner (Tindall-Ford, Chandler, & Sweller, 1997), and
  2. the pace is fast and not under learner control (Tabbers, Martens, & van Merrienboer, 2004).

Once again, it is clear that prior knowledge is a critical input when designing learning experiences. It is also important to take a blended approach to digital learning, and as such, offer learners the ability to retrieve information from printed text resources in addition to videos with narration. In much the same way as closed captioning was introduced to assist the hearing impaired, so can a blend of modalities be used to cater to the varying styles of learners.

Principle 8 – any recommendations for great learning design?

Facebook recommendations help us pick everything these days
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The final principle for us to explore is one that has become an almost indispensable part of the way we live our lives today. To demonstrate the final principle, ask yourself this question – how do you go about picking a dentist or doctor these days?

What about picking a restaurant?

Deciding between an iPhone or an Android?

The answer, in most instances, is that we ask our friends. We certainly don’t ask a medical authority for an opinion on which doctor to go to in our area. Some people still consult Zagat or follow the Michelin stars, but when you’re looking for a quick bite, we trust our friends to steer us right.

You may be thinking that you would use an independent reviewer to make some of these choices. This does happen a lot more frequently these days, but the same principle is at work here.
The principle I am referring to is that of Personalization.  The theory, as proven in tests by Mayer states that using a conversational style rather than a formal style for narration (e.g. using words like “you”, “your”, “we” and “us”) results in improved learning retention. The rationale here is quite simply that learners will try harder to make sense of verbal instruction if it is perceived as coming from a peer rather than from a formal teacher.

When you read independent reviews of a place, they are not written by someone pretending to be the authority. In fact, no one cares to even read those reviews. They are usually written by someone similar to you. If they are professional writers, they are written in a relatable manner. Next time check for the use of “you”, “we” and “us”. They will be in there.

So the final tip in this series for creating great, engaging multimedia learning is, be yourself. Write as if you were writing to a friend. Don’t go for formal instruction. Relate to your audience. They will find it more memorable as a result.

This post has been expanded upon to show you how to apply these principles to create great digital training.

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