What is cognitive load?

Pamela S. Hogle
Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
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There’s a limit to how much information a person can process or remember at a given time. The way training materials are designed should therefore consider cognitive load — the amount of processing power or working memory it demands of learners.

2 types of cognitive load

Cognitive load can be:


Intrinsic cognitive load is an inherent part of the content; complicated topics or concepts demand some effort to understand. Instructional designers don’t control that. They do, however, control how they present the material. Some online training formats, such as microlearning, encourage designers to break complex content into small — manageable and digestible — chunks or units.


Extraneous cognitive load is not part of the content. The way content is presented can add unnecessary work for learners — potentially leading to cognitive overload. For instance, a graphic design that uses unusually styled buttons, menus, and other navigation aids that deviate from norms demands that learners invest effort in figuring out how to access the actual learning content. That effort saps processing power from the learners’ brains that could otherwise be used to understand the content. 

Design to reduce cognitive load

Accessible content

Creating content that is easy to use for a broad range of learners — those who are tech savvy and those who are not; experts in the topic and novices; people with a range of abilities; people from different cultures or whose native languages are different from the training language — is a great start.

Clean design

Keep visual design simple and clean. Make sure headings and subheadings set up a clear hierarchy and flow for the content and use navigation elements that are familiar and easy to identify.

Use plenty of white space, and make sure that every image and graphical element enhances the learning. Using purely decorative images and elements that are not related to the learning material is distracting and creates extraneous cognitive load.

Make it easy for learners to search for and navigate to specific content that is relevant to them.

Offer options

Give learners choices. This might mean offering multimodal content that allows learners to choose videos, interact with infographics or charts, or use transcripts and captions to review and better understand audio content.

It also could include enabling learners to control how content looks — providing ways to make text larger, increase contrast, and turn off animations or flashing graphics. Letting learners choose what works for them is a great way to reduce their cognitive load and free them to focus on learning.

Use meaningful interactivity

Activities are generally recommended as a way to engage learners, but this holds true — without contributing to cognitive overload — only if the activities are meaningful and useful. Making learners shoot a target to unveil a question is silly; asking them to match concepts with examples or definitions helps them use and remember relevant content.

Stick to what learners need to know

It’s easy to get carried away and include tons of information in an eLearning course or series of microlearning units. Instead, narrow in on what learners need to know. Move the nice-to-know information into a curated resources section or create job aids, reference guides, and other forms of performance support.

Reducing cognitive overload improves performance

Reducing the cognitive overload — avoiding extraneous elements that tax learners’ brains and tire them out — will improve training outcomes. Keeping training sessions short and focused both helps to reduce cognitive load and allows learners to stay focused on specific learning goals.

Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
Pamela S. Hogle

An experienced writer, editor, tech writer, and blogger, Pam helps you make sense of learning science and eLearning technology. She provides information you can use to drive improvements in your training effectiveness and ROI.

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