How Understanding Cognitive Load Can Improve Your Course
Structuring your course to account for cognitive load can lead to better learning outcomes.
Do you know the feeling you get after a long day of studying when your brain burns out and you can’t seem to process new information anymore? It happens to all of us, and there’s a reason for it: cognitive load.
Long story short, cognitive load has to do with how our brains process and store information—or, to put it differently, how our brains create and retain memories, which is the basis for learning. If you can master this concept and apply it to your online course, your learners will have much better outcomes. Sounds pretty important, right? Good. Let’s take a closer look.
Working memory vs. long-term memory.
You’ve probably heard of short-term and long-term memory before. Short term memories, also called “working memories,” involves all the new incoming information that may or may not be useful to us in the immediate future. That information may involve items such as what you ate for dinner, or the morning’s weather report.
Your brain stores a lot of working memory, waiting to decide if it’s useful information or not. If we had just met at a party and I told you that I have a brother named Alphonso and that my favorite type of cheese is gorgonzola (neither of which are true, by the way), you may store that information briefly just to see if it becomes useful. Maybe the host of the party is about to throw a surprise random trivia game about your fellow party goers, or perhaps you want to invite me over for dinner in a few weeks and you want to remember to put gorgonzola on the menu.
But it’s more likely that by the morning, your brain will have decided none of that information is relevant, and will have efficiently dumped it. If we could condense the concept of learning into one, simple statement, it would be the process of moving new information from working memory into long-term storage. If you can convince your brain to do that with incoming information, you will have learned that new information. And if you can help your learners do the same, you will have taught them.
What does all this have to do with cognitive load?
Essentially, your brain’s cognitive load has to do with how taxed your working memory is. If you give yourself too much to learn all at once, your brain doesn’t have enough time to sort through what’s relevant and what isn’t. Instead of moving information into long-term storage, it drops it preemptively—including the useful information you would have wanted to retain if you weren’t feeling so overburdened.
This is why cramming for courses is so ineffective, by the way. If you learn information throughout a course by refreshing your memory regularly with important information, your brain quickly learns to retain that knowledge for the future. It’s a little like building muscles: if you try to lift too much weight at once, you overtax your system. But if you build up weight over time, your body learns to adjust and grow stronger.
How to apply lessons about memory and cognitive load to your course.
Now that you understand how your brain processes and stores memory, how can you use this to create better online courses? Here are a few ideas.
1. Edit unnecessary information.
A big part of cognitive load involves how much information your brain has to sort through to find what’s useful and what isn’t. So an easy way to make things easier for your learners is to cut any information that isn’t useful to them. If an anecdote or example ads to their information, great. But if certain background information simply isn’t relevant, don’t over burden your learners.
2. Break complex topics apart to make them more digestible.
There’s a reason why I use a lot of numbered lists in my blog posts: it provides structure for the blog content which in turn makes it more memorable for you, the reader. Look for ways in your course where you can break down learning content in similar ways. It helps if your learning points are actionable, so that learners can immediately apply them.
3. Use visuals to reduce cognitive load and make information easier to remember.
One reason infographics are such a useful learning aid is that they help present information in a simplified manner that demonstrates the connection between different ideas more readily. Visual aids, short videos, and even audio segments offer different ways for your learner to access information that will help reinforce important concepts.
4. Reduce distractions that can add interfere with your learner’s memory load.
It’s not just extra information that can make it difficult for your learners to remember information. Multitasking has a detrimental effect on cognitive load, making it harder for learners to recall information later. If you’re adding distractions to a course that cause your learners to multitask while trying to learn a concept, it will only work against their learning goals.
5. Help learners identify important information through repetition and active recall.
Finally, learning isn’t a once-and-done process. Repetition is a key aspect, because it highlights the most important information learners must focus on to succeed. To return to the weightlifting analogy, just as repeated reps of an exercise over time help muscles grow stronger, reviewing information regularly will mark it as useful and worth retaining. Consider including review quizzes regularly to help learners refresh their memories.
Be respectful of your learners and don’t overtax their capacity.
The bottom line is, if you want to help your learners retain information long-term, you need to pay careful consideration to how much cognitive load you’re heaping into you course. You can improve retention both by making that key information more digestible, and by offering plenty of opportunities for recall and revision.
So: you remember my brother’s name and my favorite kind of cheese?