What is Cognitive Overload?

Learning requires assimilating information. At some point in time, though, extra information will not be absorbed.  At this point, we say the brain is saturated, and any additional information is a waste. As eLearning is a form of learning, students can be subjected to cognitive overload in eLearning.

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Table of Contents

What is Cognitive Overload?

Cognition can be referred to as the ability to gain information, process, and store data. Therefore, it is very vital to how well an individual learns. A way of understanding this is trying to remember what happened when you were six months old. At this age, the cognitive process of the average human is low.

Our core cognitive processes (thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem-solving) are engaged in education. Therefore, activation of these processes in an area is essential for an individual to be considered educated in this specific area.

Every information gained is either stored in the working memory or the long-term memory. The working memory capacity is limited and so cannot hold information for a long time. However, this does not diminish its usefulness because it is only through the working memory can new information get to the long-term memory.

Long-term memory has a bigger capacity and can hold information for a long time. Simply put, we can only remember information in our long-term memory. It gets interesting, though. The working memory, because of its limited capacity, can be easily overloaded. 

The implication of this in learning is that new information gained by the working memory must be successfully passed to the long-term memory. If this happens, learning has occurred.

eLearning makes multi-tasking seem easy because of the flexibility it offers. The disadvantage to this is the cognitive overload that is sure to happen sooner or later if the information gained is over the working memory capacity limit. At this point, new information is lost on the individual.

Avoiding cognitive overload is key to effective learning. The information processed by the working memory should not be more than its capacity. The Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) helps explain this in detail.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)

The cognitive load theory states that there are types of cognitive load (information).

  • Intrinsic: This is the original complexity of the information being gained. For example, the complexity of calculus is different from economics. This load cannot be adjusted or reduced because it is the subject matter’s essence in question.

    Assimilating the intrinsic load is dependent on the individual. As in the example given earlier, some people prefer calculus to economics and vice-versa.
  • Extraneous: This cognitive load describes unnecessary information that is a part of the education. For example, a picture that adds no information to the subject being discussed. It is considered a load because it still has to process mentally.

    While the brain processes this information, the capacity of the working memory is reduced, and it affects the amount of valid data that should be taken in.
  • Germane: This is the load that assists with learning. This information engages the cognitive processes and activates learning. That is, it makes learning new information more manageable. An example of this is learning an acronym that helps retain the names of the first 20 elements.

    While it is almost impossible to completely strip a piece of information to the parts only needed to hasten to learn, the cognitive load theory states that the summation of all three loads must be lesser than the working memory capacity for effective learning.

    What this means is that: (Intrinsic load + Extraneous Load + Germane Load) < working memory capacity. If these criteria can be met, then the information can be passed to the long-term memory for safekeeping. The goal of effective learning then is to reduce the extraneous load as much as possible. 

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How to Reduce Cognitive Overload

Cognitive overload is a thing, and it affects almost every student at one point or the other. While eLearning provides the avenue to study at one’s own pace, students can still be subject to cognitive overload by simultaneously completing many tasks.

The human brain takes in information through our sensory organs. In eLearning, we take in information majorly through our sense of sight and sound. These are the ways we get information in eLearning. To reduce cognitive overload, we have to reduce unnecessary information through these channels when learning.

Usage of Different Techniques

During learning, teachers should endeavor to pass information through both the visual and sound channels. This means that part of the teacher’s information is trying to get across to the students through the optical channel while others come through the sound channel.

This is to try not to engage one of the senses much more than the other. For example, all lessons coming through the visual channel can easily cause cognitive overload. The same applies to using only the sound channel. Also, teachers should try and avoid the repetition of the same information through both channels.

Breakdown of information

This advice is probably the oldest advice given to people when it comes to passing information. Try putting the information being given in segments. That’s why we have chapters, topics, and sub-topics in our educational materials. The purpose of this is that minor information is easier to process at once.

The students can avoid cognitive overload by not trying to lump together the previously broken down information.

Removal of irrelevant content

Irrelevant content is information that does not add value to the core information. For example, while using catchy designs on visual information can attract the student’s attention, it might be what causes a cognitive overload. Background music or audio in audio lessons can also cause this.

Students should try and remove both visual and sound distractions from where they are learning. It reduces the amount of mental processing the brain has to do before getting the information you want.


Cognitive overload is a real threat to effective learning.  Sadly, the distractions are increasing by the day. However, maximizing the use of the working memory both by the students and teachers alike can go a long way in aiding learning.

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