Cognitive Overload

Cognitive overload

Take a moment to think about how much information you are exposed to on a daily basis through news in print, articles, websites, television adverts, promotions and social media. Every day we are constantly being overloaded with information that often leave us overwhelmed and confused. Learners experience the same problem when taking an eLearning course that is overloaded with information that may or may not be necessary for the learner to meet his objectives. It is important to insure that information being offered in your eLearning course is understood by the learner and that they can retain the information for future use. So how do we do this? As instructional designers we need to understand the basics of Cognitive Load Theory and how to design to prevent cognitive overload.

What is Cognitive Overload Theory?

Cognitive overload is when the learner is presented with too much information and too many tasks simultaneously, resulting in the learner being unable to process information. In our brains we have two types of memory – short-term or working memory and long-term memory. Our short-term memory is where we process new information and is limited in how much information we can store. Long-term memory is where we store the information from our short-term memory to retrieve at a later stage. The Cognitive Overload Theory suggests that we need to move as much information from the short-term memory to the long-term memory in order to improve absorption and retention of information.


Types of cognitive load

The Cognitive Overload Theory describes three types of cognitive overloads:

  1. Intrinsic load – This is the complexity that is inherently involved in certain tasks or materials. Not much can be done to reduce this load in content development as some tasks are just more complex than others. Intrinsic load is also dependent on prior knowledge or skills. For example, a first year medical student will find it more difficult to learn the name of organs in the abdomen whereas a fourth year medical student will find this task easy to do.

  2. Extraneous load – This cognitive load includes irrelevant information and unimportant elements that make learners use their mental processors unnecessarily. In other words, it is any material used in your course that distracts the learner and makes it difficult for them to achieve the learning outcomes. An example of this is a graph that is not related to the topic but makes the learner use extra mental processing to understand the graph or a video that has no real benefit to the learning outcome.

  3. Germane load – This load occurs when content has been designed properly and effectively, allowing learners to use more of their cognitive mental resources for learning purposes. An example would be scenario-based learning that is interactive and provides real-life application for the learner.


So how do we reduce cognitive overload?

Here are 4 ways to reduce cognitive overload:

1. Bite-size learning

Bite-size learning is when content is broken down into easily manageable pieces of information. This ensures that more information will be moved from the learners working memory to long-term memory. Bite-size learning is visually appealing yet should still follow a logical informative order.

2. Simple and Informative

Keep your slides simple and informative. This can be done through the following ways:

  • Have structured headings that immediately explain the objective of the slide or content.

  • Emphasis keys words by making it bold, bigger or a different colour. These are the words that are key and will be remembered by the learner.

  • Remove clutter – remove any unnecessary visuals that have no significant benefit to the learner, remove text that is redundant, and try place supplementary information into links or tabs.

3. Use different instructional methods

There are various methods that can be used to deliver content in a more effective way such as scenarios, infographics or video clips. These tools allow you to highlight the main learning points in a memorable manner. It is also “just enough” content for a learner to add to his/her germane load.

4. Avoid splitting focus

In eLearning courses, learners have a higher tendency to lose focus. To avoid this place images near or next to the relevant content and do not split content across too many slides. This facilitates understanding and retention of information and prevents learners losing focus or the objective when clicking through slides.

In conclusion, there are three types of cognitive loads. As instructional designers we need to prevent an overload of information by creating learning that is memorable and effective yet just enough to fit into the learner’s working memory capacity. So when designing remember to design to reduce extraneous load and increase the germane load.




Gurukuntala, I. (2014, May 22). 5 Effective Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in E-learning. Retrieved from

Gutierrez, K. (2014, February 4). Avoid Learner Overload: Five Rules for eLearning Course Design. Retrieved from

Gutierrez, K. (2015, January 27). Managing Cognitive Load is a Delicate Act of Balance. Retrieved from

Guyan, M. (2013, November 2013). 5 Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in eLearning. Retrieved from

Pappas, C. (2014, February 2014). Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design. Retrieved from





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *