What is Cognitive Load, and Why Does It Matter for Corporate Training and Development?

What is Cognitive Load, and Why Does It Matter for Corporate Training and Development?

Science has given a name to how “heavy” a presentation can be: Cognitive load. Cognitive load is an important concept in instructional design, and it gives us good evidence as to why traditional corporate training—think 60-minute sessions led by an instructor in a classroom or 30–60-minute video—are so taxing, and why we remember only a fraction of the information presented that way.

HSI is known for our creative, microlearning training videos. While microlearning is a popular buzzword in the training industry there is a lot of science behind our approach: the science of microlearning, Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, and cognitive load theory to name a few. Let’s explore cognitive load and why it’s important for training and development.

What is Cognitive Load? The Experience and the Science

In psychology, cognitive load refers to how much of our working memory resources are taken up by a task. Our working memory is the part of our memory where we store information for short periods of time while we work with it. All information that we learn consciously passes through working memory at some point.

Importantly, our working memory is very limited in its capacity. If you’ve ever tried to memorize a 10-digit phone number or recall the names of a dozen people you’ve just met, you understand this all too well. To make that information “stick”, you either have to rehearse it or use it to make a novel connection (like pairing each name learned with something about the individual).

Cognitive load theory itself was developed in the 1980s, the brainchild of a psychologist named John Sweller, who spent part of his career studying how people went about problem solving. Sweller’s insight was that because working memory was so limited, having information presented in a complicated fashion could quickly overwhelm working memory. To get people to learn more, it was important to pay attention to instructional design to reduce cognitive load. Since Sweller’s original articles, cognitive load (when applied to instructional design) has become synonymous with the effort it takes to learn a piece of information.

We’ve all experienced the effects of high cognitive load before, though we might not have known the name for it. If you’ve ever lost track of what a speaker was saying, or gotten lost in the details of a project, chances are good that you were dealing with high-cognitive load information. Do this for a while, and you can feel physically tired and mentally exhausted as well. For me, I say “I’ve hit the wall” or “I feel fried.”

Think of how it would feel to fill out your times tables on a worksheet, by rote, versus solving some very complicated college-level math problems. The experience just feels different, because the intense problem-solving has a much higher cognitive load than doing the simple problem by rote.

Three Types of Cognitive Load and Why They Matter

The above might make it sound like there is just one measure of cognitive load. In reality, there are three types of cognitive load, depending on the source of the complexity in the information. As it turns out, some types of cognitive load are desirable, while others are not.

Intrinsic Cognitive Load

Intrinsic cognitive load has to do with the complexity of the material being presented or studied. Some topics are just intrinsically more complicated than others, and so require more processing from us.

That feeling of “fullness” depends not only on the information being presented, but on our own level of expertise as well. The less familiar a person is with a bit of information, the more they will depend on working memory to make sense of it. By contrast, an expert will already have several patterns of information (called schemas) stored in their long-term memory. Once they can relate a new bit of information to a stored schema, it relieves some of the cognitive load of that information.

Some eLearning industry experts will tell you there is little we can do about intrinsic cognitive load, because there’s no way to alter the complexity of a topic itself. While that’s true, there are ways to present information that makes it more digestible so it doesn’t overwhelm our working memory.

For example, if you use meaningful chunks (schemas) that the learner already has, that makes it easier to organize information. When information is meaningfully organized, it helps retention and recall.

Instructors and content creators can also take complex topics and break them down into smaller, more digestible pieces. It is possible to present a complex topic in a series of 7-to-9-minute videos, for example. That’s short enough to prevent working memory from being overwhelmed, but still long enough to present a single topic in some depth.

Extraneous Cognitive Load

This is a term that many people get wrong, thinking it has to do with outside distractions. While it’s true that outside distractions are a problem for learning, they are only tangentially related to cognitive load.

Looking at the research, extraneous cognitive load has to do with how distracting it is to learn something when it is not couched in the appropriate medium. For example, extraneous cognitive load is high when someone is trying to talk through something that is better visualized with an image, model, or chart. Or conversely, it can occur when someone is using visuals that have little to do with the topic being discussed. The cognitive load is still present in the instruction itself—it is simply called “extraneous” because it has to do with the medium, rather than the message itself.

Extraneous cognitive load is part of the explanation of why “talking head” videos do not work as well for training. Taking the spoken word and, in our head, translating it into rich visuals and scenes takes mental effort. If those visuals are simply provided, it takes a lot of that mental burden off our hands (I mean, heads).

This is why design must play such an important role in creating instructional materials. Knowing when to use graphics, when to use voice-over or voice-acting, and when to use both is itself a science and an art. Use too irrelevant visuals and viewers get distracted. Use too few and they struggle to make sense of the material.

A good example is the design inspiration for our series on understanding harassment. Sexual harassment is more about control, power, and manipulation so our imagery includes a robot, puppet, and chains.

Germane Cognitive Load

Germane cognitive load has to do with the effort involved in creating a new schema. Recall from above that a schema is just a way to organize information in our heads. One thing that sets experts apart from amateurs is that they have a much richer library of schemas that helps them organize the information in their domain of expertise.

Germane cognitive load is actually a good thing. It represents the degree to which a presentation helps us make new connections. While this does take an effort in the short term, it has an even bigger payoff in the long term.

In our course “Leadership and Power: The Bases of Power,” we reinforce the presenter’s script with graphics that represent the bases of power (legitimate, reward, coercive, expert, referent informational.) There are also audio cues as each word appears. These sound effects help to trigger the brain to see, read, and remember the terms. And, ultimately create a new schema in the learner’s memory.

How Traditional Corporate Training Taxes Our Memory

I’ve already mentioned one way in which traditional corporate training fails to consider cognitive load: The “talking head” format. If all the information in a corporate training video or workshop is auditory, that can be a very inefficient way to learn some concepts. It is also a very inefficient way to keep track of the information you are learning.

The 1-hour format of a standard presentation sabotages us, too. Keeping our working memory going at full capacity for 60 minutes is exhausting—in reality, we absorb only 7 to 11 minutes of that material. After that, minds start to wander, and distraction goes way up.

Why the long format? Some instructors will tell you that such long lengths of time are needed to really dive into all the details of a complex topic. That might be true. But are all the details really needed at one time? Or would it be better if each subtopic could be tackled separately, thought about, and reinforced before moving to the next? There’s something to be said for an “anywhere, anytime” format that allows learners to tackle complex topics at their own pace.

If you are comparing potential partners for your corporate training videos, keep these things in mind. Consider the length of the videos, the frequency and style of graphics (if any).

Blended Learning Can Ease Cognitive Load

I used to be a corporate leader-led facilitator and I saw cognitive load in action. When I had a four-day training session on management training, and people had to travel to it, I had a tough time giving them enough breaks to check in with the office and their family while delivering the training content. They were typically physically and mentally exhausted at the end of day one.

Add to that when a participant weighs in that they already took a class on accountability and someone else already had one on feedback, so they step out of the session to take a conference call. That should’ve been a red flag to level-set before people got there. It’s distracting and disruptive.

This is a great opportunity to use blended learning. Your amateur or novice learners get familiar with the content prior to the live session with a series of videos. This can help them develop their schema faster. Assigning those foundational courses ahead of time may even shorten the four-day course to one to two days. During the class, your experts aren’t bored out of their minds thinking about what they “could” be doing while they’re stuck in this training session reviewing content they already know. You can also use your experts to tell their stories that relate to the content, strengthening their schema and those of the novice.

Once that connection is built how do you keep it from disappearing once new schema is needed? After the session, you can use eLearning videos and follow-up quizzes for training reinforcement.

Training Down to a Science

Proven science drives the choices we make when we write a script, design a course, or roll out new features in our HSI LMS. We start with a sound foundation of instructional design and adult learning theory. Cognitive load theory and the science of microlearning paired together helped us develop our approach to our bite-sized, microlearning videos. You can read more about our “Training Down to a Science” approach here.

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