Instructional Design Basics: 3 Types of Cognitive Load & How They Affect Learning and Learning Design

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From time to time, we run an article in our Instructional Design Basics series to help you learning designers out there (whatever you call yourself…instructional designers, learning experience designers, learning engineers, etc.) better understand how people learn and/or how to design, develop, and deliver learning experiences that have a better chance of helping employees learn, acquiring essential knowledge and (most importantly) developing necessary job skills.

In this Instructional Design Basics article, we’re going to look at the issue of cognitive load. In particular, we’ll look at three different types of cognitive load–intrinsic, germane, and extraneous–so you can see what types of cognitive load you want employees to undergo during a learning experience, which ones you don’t, and how to design and deliver your learning experiences accordingly.

We’ll start with a quick intro to how people process new information and begin the experience of learning.

A Brief Overview of How We Process New Information, Learn, and Develop Skills 

We’ve explained the cognitive psychology model of how we process new information, learn, and develop skills more fully in this article on How We Learn, but let’s go over the highlights in brief.

At any given moment, we’re being bombarded by a large amount of external sensory stimuli (plus ongoing thoughts and other internal mental processes). Our brain actively filters out most of those external stimuli so we’re not overwhelmed by all of it. We talk of this filtering as happening in the “sensory memory” and sensory memory acts as a first bottleneck that a learning designer has to plan for (meaning, you’ve got to do things to get the learner to even be activity aware of the key parts of training).

Once information has gotten past the sensory memory gatekeeper, a person is actively aware of and processing that information. We say that’s happening in the “working memory.” You’ll sometimes here this called the “short-term memory” but working memory is probably a better, more accurate way to think of this.

As this is occurring, your brain also fires up information in little packets of related information (called “schemas”) in your long-term memory. The brain uses that information in long-term memory to make sense of and understand that new information in working memory. This is the first opportunity for the brain to begin making real neural connections liking that existing knowledge in long-term memory with the new information currently being processes by working memory. Those new neural connections modify the existing schemas in long-term memory. Over time, if you continue to activate those neural connections, the new information becomes more tightly connected to the schema and it’s more likely you’ll remember that new information and later be able to recall it and transfer it on the job. But that’s for a different article–let’s get back to the working memory.

Your working memory is limited. It can only process a small number of things for a limited amount of time. It used to be estimated that working memory could process about 7 things (or, less precisely, 7 plus or minus 2). More recently, that’s been scaled down to about 4. And unless you begin to take that information and create those neural connections between it and long-term memory that we talked about earlier, or unless you keep actively rehearsing it mentally (think about how you might repeat a new phone number over and over again to yourself until you walk for two minutes before you can actually make the call), you’ll lose that new information quickly. It will just “drop away.” It’s estimated this happens very quickly–in as little as 15 seconds or so.

So it’s during that phase when your working memory is processing things, and within the context that the working memory’s ability to do this is pretty limited, that the issue of cognitive load comes up.

What Is Cognitive Load?

So cognitive load is the amount of work being done processing information in working memory.

Some cognitive load is good. It’s how we learn.

Too much cognitive load is bad. It reduces learning or just causes us to “drop” stuff from our attention.

(Side note: because learning, actively processing information, and making decisions is hard work–your brain literally sucks up glucose when it’s doing this–our brains have evolved ways to get around it when possible. Read our article on Thinking, Fast and Slow for Performance Improvement at Work to learn more about this, and hat-tip from us to Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman). 


Three Types of Cognitive Load

To better understand cognitive load, and know how to use it and how to reduce it when necessary during training, it’s important to know it comes in three types:

  • Intrinsic
  • Germane
  • Extraneous

We’ll cover both in more detail below.

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

Intrinsic cognitive load is the inherent difficulty that’s just “built into” a topic.

Some topics are harder to learn; some are easier. For example, it’s generally easier to learn basic math, such as addition and subtraction, than it is to learn algebra and calculus. Likewise, it’s generally easier to learn to ride a bicycle than it is to learn to be a moto-cross rider.

You really can’t do anything to reduce intrinsic cognitive load related to a topic, although you should design training that helps support employees when they’re learning something with a lot of intrinsic cognitive load.

Germane Cognitive Load

Germane cognitive load is the beneficial work people do during training that actually helps them learn the topic/knowledge/skill.

As a learning designer, you should be aware of evidence-based training practices that help people learn, including things like announcing learning objectives, chunking your training materials, providing feedback, and using spaced learning.

This can even include desirable difficulties which may at times appear counter-intuitive, such as interleaving.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

Extraneous cognitive load is bad.

It’s all the stuff that happens that makes the learner actively process stuff without contributing to learning. It’s like empty calories–you get the calories (cognitive load) without the nutritional benefit (learning benefit).

Extraneous cognitive load includes a lot of things, like:

  • Using big, unfamiliar words and jargon during training
  • Having a elearning course use audio narration to read words off a screen
  • Including content in training the learner doesn’t need in order to satisfy the learning objective
  • Creating an LMS or a elearning course with a confusing user interface
  • Conducting a training session in a crowded public area with people walking by and talking

As a learning designer, part of your job is to reduce or eliminate extraneous cognitive load

Conclusion: Understanding Cognitive Load Can Help You Produce Better Learning Experiences

We hope you found this brief introduction to how people learn and how cognitive load positively or negatively affects learning during training helpful. Remember to continue studying up on this and of course apply it to your training design and delivery. By understanding the intrinsic cognitive load, designing effective germane cognitive load to facilitate learning, and eliminating extraneous cognitive load, you can help employees acquire new knowledge and develop new skills more effectively.

 And before you go, why not learn more about how to do one of the things that can help you properly manage cognitive load for learners–writing learning objectives! We’ve provided a few guide, below.

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How to Write Learning Objectives

Get this free guide to learn all you need to know to write learning objectives, create better training, and help improve workplace performance.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 25 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, has completed a General Industry Safety and Health Specialist Certificate from the University of Washington/Pacific Northwest OSHA Education Center and an Instructional Design certification from the Association of Talent Development (ATD), and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI/ASSP Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training. Jeff frequently writes for magazines related to safety, safety training, and training and frequently speaks at conferences on the same issues, including the Washington Governor's Safety and Health Conference, the Oregon Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, the Wisconsin Safety Conference, the MSHA Training Resources Applied to Mining (TRAM) Conference, and others.

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