Cognitive Load in Online Learning

© Knowledge Officer

Do you get bored while learning? Guess what…Me too!

Remember those times when you wanted to study a subject at school or university, so you started making a “La Casa De Papel” masterplan using detailed calculations and sophisticated theories in order to finish studying what you wanted according to a logical schedule.

1 hour later…

Wow! What a cool movie! I’ve been waiting for it. I must watch it now and continue studying tomorrow.

There are several reasons that cause this scenario to happen and I am sure it happened with you one way or another. Getting distracted or losing interest while learning is not always an act of procrastination or an indication of being careless, but it is probably the inevitable result of a heavy cognitive load.

What is Cognitive Load?

In simple words, cognitive load is the amount of working memory used during any learning activity. When the cognitive load is reasonable, the working memory is able to process information easily and help you retain it later on. In his research paper “Cognitive Load Theory and the Format of Instruction” (1991), John Sweller, writes, “Cognitive load theory is concerned with the manner in which cognitive resources are focused and used during learning and problem-solving.

The human brain has 3 different types of memories:

  1. The sensory memory
  2. The working memory
  3. The long-term memory

In that order, everything you are exposed to passes through one or more of these memories. According to their importance or prominence, events either pass through the sensory memory then get forgotten, or they continue to the working memory where the brain has to decide whether to process those events and store them in the long-term memory or just forget them after they take some space of the working memory. In other words, they are not worthy of occupying space in the long-term memory.

The brain’s decision to keep events and information in the long-term memory is actually based on many factors, but on top of which is to what extent the working memory is stuffed. 

This is what the cognitive load theory is about. When the working memory is overloaded with information, there is less probability it will be able to process and transfer them to long-term memory.

Types of Cognitive Load

Cognitive load has two main types:

1- Intrinsic Cognitive Load:

You can think of this as the default load that comes with a certain learning topic, like how complex and detailed it is. For example, learning a topic about addition and subtraction has less cognitive load than a topic about nuclear energy creation.

This type of load is associated with the piece of content itself, yet it has much to do with the learner’s age, background, and previous experiences.

2- Extraneous Cognitive Load:

This type of cognitive load is formed as a result of how the topic or the content is presented to learners.

A topic might be easy in terms of its intrinsic cognitive load, but the form or the method by which it has been presented makes it more difficult to comprehend and, thus, lends it a heavier cognitive load. In this case, the cognitive load is extraneous; it comes from a different source than the topic or information itself.

Does learning online have more or less cognitive load on learners?

This is like asking, “Is a knife good or bad to use?” So, the short answer is “It depends!”

Using the internet to learn is not something new; it has been there for a while, but more people are realizing its importance each day. Lots of people go for the option of learning and studying online for different reasons and advantages you probably know and they are not our point of focus now.

By learning here, I refer to any kind of knowledge acquisition using different types of online content: courses, articles, websites, publications, mobile apps, blogs, videos, and even social media posts. It is not exclusive to academic learning. A person who wants to learn about a topic to enhance their skills will probably go and research it online first before paying a visit to the local library. A student who is working on a research project will google some topics and watch some videos before doing field research. Hence, learning online has become the first option to acquire knowledge these days and is not bound by a specific category of content or a specific age group.

With online learning, and especially the self-paced sort of learning, you will always have the steering wheel. With all this accessibility and ease of reaching any kind of knowledge, a huge portion of the cognitive load must have been lifted off, right?

© Knowledge Officer

In fact, online learning can sometimes cause more cognitive load than learning in an instructor-led class environment.

Here is a true story that happened to me. I was supposed to give a presentation on Gamification. So, the next day, I bought a brand new professional-looking notebook that cost me half of the amount I pay for my monthly internet package. I went home, made a hot cup of tea and got into the mood of learning. Where do I begin?

Although the topic itself is not a hard one to find online content about, that actually is sometimes the core problem.

1- Getting lost in resources

One of the major factors that could increase the cognitive load is the massive amount of content available online that could make you feel lost or incapable of knowing from where you should start. Finding the right piece of content can come after consulting tens of articles, references, and blogs. It is like treasure hunting without a map! The brain starts processing lots of information from all these resources; some are valid and some are not, which leads to a heavy cognitive load.

Solution: You need to do some quick research about the most reliable learning resources and join any groups that have people sharing the same interests as you so you can get some advice about any helpful courses or material. You can also go for discussion forums or websites like Quora and ask for recommendations. In short, get a map before the treasure hunting expedition.

2- Having too many choices

Thom Browne, the famous fashion designer, once said: “When people have too many choices, they make bad choices.” Although he was probably talking about some fashion-related theories, yet the same concept applies to learning. When it comes to learning, the lesser resources at the early stages, the better. Once you have a good grip on the topic you are trying to learn, it becomes safer to dig into deeper waters and confidently explore new material to enrich your knowledge. Having solid foundational knowledge should be your highest priority in order to avoid overwhelming your brain with unnecessary cognitive load.

If you want to buy dark blue jeans and go to a small store next to your home, you will find two different designs of dark blue jeans, you will pick one of them and return home happy! However, if you go to a huge department store, you will find tons of options and you will spend hours trying to figure out which one is better.

Solution: Focus on 2-3 resources only when you start learning something. Once you validate their reliability, do not get your attention easily dispersed. 

3- Going in infinite loops

When you learn online, things can drag on forever. Jumping from one resource to another, even if they are all informative and good, can make you go in infinite loops that make you end up mentally exhausted. This is not about where to start, it is about when to finish! The cognitive load from this can go crazy especially with perfectionist people. They will always feel that there are still useful resources they haven’t covered.

Solution: Set a target for yourself either of some learning objectives to achieve or a time limit to meet as you finish a certain course. You can even set a learning routine of 1 hour of learning daily over the course of 2 months. This will help your working memory get systemized around the amount of information it has to process and store.

How to manage the cognitive load while learning?

Remember the scenario mentioned above about the ultimate plan to study that got ruined by the cognitive load? You may be asking now, “what should I do in this case?” Here are some tips to help you optimize your cognitive load management.

1- Discovering your learning style

My first recommendation is figuring out your favorite way to learn. Are you a person who learns faster by reading, watching, listening, or doing? Choosing the most appropriate content type when learning will help you a lot in reducing the cognitive load you face. For instance, if you are a video person, you will spend more time trying to learn a course that is totally based on text than you would if it were totally based on videos.

2- Segmenting content and spacing learning

Finishing a 30-hour course in 4 sessions will cause more cognitive load than dedicating 2 hours per day and finishing it over 15 sessions. This is not a rule and sometimes you are in a hurry to catch up with something. But I am talking about learning in a way that won’t stress you out in addition to making every piece of information stick forever. If you ever reach the point where you are reading a paragraph over and over again in order to comprehend it, stop immediately and take a quick break. Breaking down content will save you time.

3- Checking the flow of information 

Make sure you are learning from a source that has a good flow of information. This will help your brain process knowledge more easily without you having to go back and forth to the same part again to understand it. Even worse, a bad flow of information will make you feel that the topic you’re trying to learn is more complicated than it really is. In addition, when learning about something totally new, the content has to be simple enough to help you understand the basics then it can evolve into more complexity as you progress. 

4- Minding the design or user interface

You will face this especially when learning through a platform or an application. The ease of navigating the platform, enrolling in a course, or moving from one topic to another can make a huge difference in your sense of the cognitive load. If the platform is complicated, you will find yourself either getting bored quickly or frequently asking questions of “how to…”. This is distracting; your brain needs to be 100% focused on the knowledge acquired.

5- Using mnemonics & patterns

Mnemonics are learning aids that help you remember things you have learned using abbreviations or initials. Drawing patterns or simple drawings while learning such as sketch notes will help you visualize the content you read. The cognitive load of remembering an image is far less than remembering a chunk of text.

In a Nutshell

Cognitive load can be controlled and optimized for your best especially when learning online. The flexibility that comes with managing it can work for your benefit instead of against you. 

If you pay attention to simple tips and tricks when learning online, you can easily transform your life and enhance your skills with a minimum amount of cognitive load. You will never have zero cognitive load because each piece of content has an intrinsic cognitive load within it, but aiming to minimize this load as much as possible should be your goal while learning. It is all about your smart choices, so plan wisely and implement well.

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Knowledge Officer is a learning platform for professionals. Our mission is to empower a generation of lifelong learners and to help people, however busy, learn something new and relevant every day and achieve their career goals.

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