What Is Cognitive Overload?

In a previous post, we explored how 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. 

In this post, I will help you understand what cognitive overload is and how smart training design can manage it.

Understanding Cognitive Load

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

  • Extraneous processing – information that is not related to the objective of the lesson (e.g. Music that is distracting)
  • 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)
  • 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; 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.