How to Reduce Cognitive Load in eLearning

Reducing cognitive load in eLearning is essential for creating effective and engaging online learning experiences.

In our previous post, we looked at the fundamentals of cognitive load theory. In summary, to help learners transfer information from their working memory to their long-term memory, we need to present the information in a way that reduces extraneous cognitive load (non-relevant items) and, if possible, increases germane cognitive load (items that assist with information processing). There are several techniques that you can use to help to reduce cognitive load in eLearning and many of them are relevant to technology-based instruction (but would also apply to classroom and face-to-face settings too).

These techniques help to overcome cognitive load and came from research on cognition. Some apply to novice learners while others are relevant for more experienced learners.  It’s also important to keep in mind that not all of the effects will apply – it will depend on the type of material/task.

  • Worked example effect: Novice learners should study worked solutions to unfamiliar problems to reduce the amount of cognitive processing. This will provide a foundation upon which they can build their expertise. So throwing learners in at the deep end isn’t a good idea.
  • Split-attention effect: This occurs when multiple sources of information must be integrated before they can be understood. For example, where a diagram along with text to explain different parts of the diagram is being used; the text should be integrated or placed near to the relevant part of the diagram rather than having the learner try to move back and forth from one source of information to another.
  • Modality effect: Working memory has both a visual processor and an auditory processor. As a result, using both processors can effectively expand the size of working memory if the cognitive load is distributed across both processors. This can be achieved when some information is presented visually (e.g. words and images) and other information by using sound (e.g. narration). See our blog here for more information.
  • Redundancy effect: Redundant information is any information not relevant to the learning experience. This effect occurs when the same information is presented in different forms e.g. narrating on-screen text or using text that repeats information contained in a diagram. It also includes using decorative pictures, background music or cartoon images that don’t add value.
  • Expertise reversal effect: As expertise increases, previously essential information becomes redundant. Including information that is needed for novice learners in courses for learners with more expertise would place higher levels of extraneous cognitive load on the experienced learners.
  • Guidance fading effect: The level of assistance provided to learners should be reduced as expertise increases. For example, instead of complete worked examples learners would be presented with partially complete problems that need to be solved.
  • Imagination effect: Asking learners to imagine procedures or concepts assists with the transfer into long-term-memory. This technique should be used with learners who have sufficient experience in the area being studied (not really suitable for novice learners).
  • Element interactivity effect: Element interactivity is determined by the number of interacting elements that must be considered simultaneously in order to understand the material. More complex material is likely to have higher levels of element interactivity.
  • Isolated interacting elements effect: Where element interactivity is very high it may be too difficult for learners to understand the material because of the large amount of interacting elements i.e. working memory capacity would be exceeded. It may then be necessary to present the information as individual elements and ignore their interaction. As the individual elements have been learned, their interactions can then be emphasised.

What do these effects mean for instructional designers and reducing cognitive load in eLearning?

  1. Be mindful of the processing capacity our learners and apply a learner-centred approach in the design of training materials and courses.
  2. Take into account the experience level of learners and design courses accordingly.
  3. Strip away information that does not add value to the learning experience.

How can we help

We’re experts in eLearning and can develop effective learning experiences that reduce cognitive load.  Please get in touch with us.


Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load (2006) by Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen and John Sweller. Pfeiffer (publisher).

Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, (2008) 3rd ed. Chapter 31. Spector, Merrill, van Merrienboer and Driscoll (editors). Taylor and Francis Group (publisher).

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