Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) is an instructional design theory that uses the science of how the human brain processes information to inform the design of learning materials so they are easy to comprehend and remember.
Jog your memory back to your school math class for a moment. I’m sure you recall those problem-solving riddles, which usually started something like this:
It’s late at night. Four men need to cross a bridge and they all walk at different speeds. You have 17 minutes to get them all safely to the other side. You have one flashlight that must accompany each person or pair as they walk…
Their walking speeds and several other constraints are given and you then had to figure out how to help them make the crossing. You might also remember the frustration and mind-yoga involved in working through the problem!
The reason these riddles are so difficult is due to the load placed on your working memory. So, let’s begin by looking at how we process information.
How does the human brain process information?
Back in 1968, Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin proposed the model of information processing, on which CLT is based. The model explains how information is passed between our three repositories: our sensory memory (short-term memory), our working memory, and our long-term memory.
Each day, we are overloaded with sensory information from the sights, sounds, and smells that surround us. After entering your sensory memory, this information passes to your working memory where it is processed if deemed important or discarded. Any information processed is categorized and moved to your long-term memory where it is stored as ‘schemas.’
Schemas are structures that organize information depending on how you use it. You have schemas for different types of concepts, like animal or vegetable, and behaviors, like riding a bike. Well-practiced schemas become mentally effortless.
What is CLT?
Along came John Sweller in 1988 who analyzed the model devised by the two Richards and gave us CLT. Your ‘cognitive load’ is the amount of information your working memory can process at one time. Sweller stated that because working memory is limited, it should not be overloaded unnecessarily during the learning process.
The good news is that CLT tells us that working memory can be extended. Your brain processes visual and auditory information separately. For example, an image with additional information provided through audio narration delivers less cognitive load than two visual items. An existing schema is treated as a single item by your working memory, whereas a well-practiced schema that has become automated hardly counts as an item at all.
Applying CLT to corporate training
An experienced instructional designer will understand CLT and create corporate training in alignment so learning messages are understood and remembered.
Here are four key CLT considerations in professional learning design.
Chunk information appropriately.
Remember, the working memory holds around five to nine pieces of information at a time. As a rule of thumb, learning materials should use seven (plus or minus two) concepts per page or screen, depending on the delivery medium. Seven concepts might be appropriate for an A4 page or eLearning screen viewed on desktop or laptop; however, if you are designing for small screen devices such as smartphones or tablets, further reduce this figure to between one to three, as determined by the complexity of the concept.
Assess past knowledge.
How will you know if your audience has well-practiced or automated schemas already hanging out in their long-term memories? Quite simply, ask them. Consider conducting a Training Needs Analysis or assessing past knowledge using pretesting. You’ll then be able to design content that is at an appropriate academic level for the audience.
Break down and build concepts.
One of the fastest ways to put your learners into cognitive meltdown is to overload and overwhelm them at the start of the learning session. Covering too much too early is never a good idea. Instead, build concepts slowly by breaking them down to the core components and presenting them separately in progression, increasing in complexity. Consider content chunking, existing schemas, and the delivery method to determine your breakdown.
Use multiple delivery channels.
We touched on the fact that two visuals can compete for gray matter. Too much text will do the same thing. Instead, use multiple delivery channels to present content. You might have a diagram on screen accompanied by audio that gives another layer of context, or you could present a short video with key points overlaid as text on the screen. These techniques also ensure you cater for different learning styles.
Is your corporate training designed with CLT in mind? PulseLearning has the expertise to help you create corporate training that achieves results by being remembered and applied by your employees. PulseLearning is an award-winning global learning provider experienced in learning consultancy and developing engaging and innovative eLearning and blended training solutions.