Cognitive Load and Learning – Contributed by Jean-Paul Bayley

What follows are two examples of times when I felt that my brain couldn’t take in anymore information. The first was when I was trying to solve a problem in a new subject that I was a total novice at – couldn’t do it! The second was when I was listening to complicated directions in a foreign language – a language in which my level of fluency was ordering food (at best). It was like everything was too much to take in during those moments and my brain was at its limit and struggled just to think.

That is cognitive overload.

Nobody wants cognitive overload when learning. When cognitive overload happens, learning stops. Too much cognitive load causes cognitive overload.

So, what’s cognitive load?

Cognitive load is how much mental activity and energy you need to use in order to think or to learn something new. Cognitive load IS necessary for learning. However, there is only so much load a learner can take. We need to give learners the right kind of cognitive load.

Cognitive Load Theory  suggests that there are three types of cognitive load:

1. Intrinsic cognitive load.
Intrinsic load is the level of difficulty of the material you’re trying to learn. This is the same regardless of how the material is presented to you. The more challenging the material is for you, the higher the load. My description above, of the time I was a novice trying to figure out a complicated problem, is an example of intrinsic load.

2. Extraneous cognitive load.

Extraneous load is the extra mental effort needed because of the way information is presented to you, not because of the information itself. Imagine that someone gives you a challenging puzzle which has awful instructions. You struggle to solve the puzzle not because the puzzle itself is hard. You struggle because the instructions make it difficult to understand what to do.

3. Germane cognitive load.

Germane load is the effort you put into making sense of what you’re learning, and the effort of linking it to what you already know. It’s like connecting new dots to the ones you’ve already got in your mind, helping you understand and remember the new information better.

For learning, we want germane cognitive load.

To increase germane cognitive load, reduce and control intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load.

Three ways to reduce intrinsic load:

1. Connect learners to what they already know about the topic.

2. Break down complex information into smaller chunks.

3. Build difficulty over time to create a foundation of knowledge.

Three ways to control extraneous load:

1. Use activities that are directly related to the topic (do NOT use random icebreakers or games that might be fun but that aren’t topically relevant).

2. Use clear and concise instructions for activities (watch your “and” count!).

3. Only include information that is necessary for the learning goal or outcome to be met.

Bottom line?

Your training design and delivery influences learners’ cognitive load!

If you enjoyed this blog and are interested in training and how people learn, follow me on LinkedIn and check out some of my other posts there.


About the Author: 

Jean-Paul Bayley lives in the UK and is a partner of Actineo Consulting LLP, a Business Agility Consultancy. He is also a TBR-VE™ Certifier and the Trainer Certification Course (TCC) Certifier for European/Asian countries. He is a top contributor to this TBR blog. Below are a number of his most popular posts:  

Is live Virtual Learning Really Helping Learners?
Blackout Bingo for Priming Learners

Small Trumps Large when Training Online
When Everything is Suddenly Virtual
3 Anti-Patterns of Training
Anti-Patterns of Training – Part Two
TBR, Psychological Safety, and C1-Connection Activities.

For questions about TBR Practitioner Classes or how to become a TBR Certified Trainer, email Jean-Paul at [email protected].  And be sure to view his other interesting and informative posts on LinkedIn.