Chocolate covered Cognitive Load.....Yum?


With Valentine’s Day approaching, I’ve been scrambling to get the perfect gift for that special someone.  My husband and I have this little tradition where we buy a big box of chocolates from the specialty chocolate store down the street. These chocolates are DELICIOUS!  Like worth everything calorie kind of good.  We take turns choosing one, trying it, discussing why or why we don’t like it. However, every year the same thing happens. About 3 or 4 chocolates in, my tongue goes into sugar overload. These delicately crafted gems of goodness all start tasting very similar and we stop enjoying the activity. At this point we will bust out the wine, take a break and come back later for round 2 when our taste buds have rallied the troops and all systems are go.

This is concept of sensory overload is not far off from cognitive overload. When we as learning designers look at content and how we plan to deliver it, we must always be aware of cognitive load. Cognitive load is the amount of mental effort it requires to synthesize knowledge. This theory was developed in the late 1980’s by John Sweller. Cognitive load can be broken down into 3 subcategories: Intrinsic, Extraneous, and Germane. Intrinsic Cognitive Load refers to the amount of mental effort being put forth to learn a specific topic. Extraneous Cognitive Load refers to how the content is being presented. Finally, Germane Cognitive Load is the mental effort put forth to synthesize knowledge, expanding into retention of new knowledge and schema.

Right, so Chocolates, Valentine’s Day, Cognitive Load, why is this important?

First and foremost, you want your learners to be successful. You need to get a high ROI on the training materials you’ve invested in. And need to accomplish this while letting the learners be successful and productive employees at the same time. You may need a glass of wine and chocolates before this is all over!

When creating content, whether e-learning, classroom, or blended, think about the delivery method. If it’s e-learning, I keep my activities to roughly 10 minutes in length. Then I switch it up. I also mix up the type of activities and the intensity of cognitive load they provide. For example I may open with a tutorial video, then move on to written instructions, followed up with a mini podcast. Then I would give the learners a break. Come back, play a small learning game, follow up with questions, watch another short movie, and end with the learners writing a reflection on the unit. That whole outline would take roughly and hour, but there are many different activities, using different attention levels, different skills and different types of learning.  

Classroom trainings can spend a bit more time with activities. I generally allow roughly 15-20 minutes per chunk. However, I always keep learners moving and participating in different types of learning exercises.

Blended learning inherently mixes up activities and cognitive load because it switches formats.  You still need to think about each new concept, how it is being introduced, how is the scaffolding happening? Which platform will you use to engage the learners? How will they expand their knowledge and how do you build retention? Think about each item and how it could benefit from either instructor lead or an e-learning format. This is what we call the assorted box of chocolates: you’ve got your milk, dark, cremes, nut clusters, peanut butter crunch, all the good stuff!

When asking your learners to perform easy tasks they will get bored and annoyed quickly, so it’s good to keeps things moving at a quick pace. The harder the content becomes, the higher the cognitive load. When the cognitive load becomes more intense, the learners will need more breaks and time to process. The risk of errors and confusion increases at this point. Give your learners time to reflect and process the new information. This will lighten the load and lead to better retention.  

Understanding your content and the cognitive load it puts on your learners will help your trainings to be vastly more effective. Your learners will be more successful, and your boss might even be so happy with you, they’ll bring you your own box of fancy chocolates!

Level Up would love to discuss the best way to design your learning paths to make the most of your trainings!