Cognitive Overload (at any age!)

Picture this: Your company developed a mobile app that automates some manual tasks. Leadership is excited about it and wants a quick return on the investment. You, as the trainer, see the value but you’re concerned that some people will be reluctant to embrace it, especially older employees and those who have been with the company a long time.

Almost as soon as training starts, you see the blank faces of lost learners. Instead of seeing benefits, they only see how difficult it is to use. Training ends, and no one uses the app. Leadership sees age is the major limiting factor – but you know better.

In the rush to push the app, employees received too much information, too fast. They got so lost during the sales pitch that they never grasped how to use the app. You know they’re experiencing cognitive overload. Let’s see what to do about it.

Cognitive Processing Peak a Myth?

Harvard Health Publishing released an article discounting prior studies claiming that cognitive ability peaks when we’re in our 20s, instead saying the brain continuously develops and changes.  While the protective coating around nerve fibers wears down and can slow our ability to process new information, other connections strengthen as we age. This results in older adults being able to see “the big picture” and more easily make connections between different pieces of information.

I’ve talked in a past blog post about Knowles’s principles of andragogy, which states that adults have a well of experience they draw from to learn. Harvard’s research about how the brain develops as we age further supports the idea that adults not only learn from their experience, but also learn more effectively when instructors help learners to build on prior knowledge. 

Understanding Cognitive Limits

To understand the overload, we need to first understand how the brain processes information. Learning science explains that there are two types of memory: Working and long term. 

Working memory, sometimes called short-term memory, processes images and sounds, identifying the sensations and linking them to existing knowledge. This is the type of memory Harvard Health Publishing explains can “slow down” as the myelin coating our nerves wears thin.

John Sweller, pioneer of cognitive load theory, explains that working memory is limited to three new pieces of information or about 20 seconds of time. Anything beyond that is too much for the brain to process at once and does not make it to long-term memory.

Long-term memory is where we store prior knowledge. This bank is infinite; we need only effective ways of retrieving the information stored there.

Understanding cognitive load

Understanding how much the brain can process at a time is one aspect of cognitive load. Next, we need to understand how it builds. Matt Fyfield describes three types of load in one installment of his 3 Minute Ed Theory video series:

  • Intrinsic load: The inherent complexity of the topic. When a topic is complicated or learners are less familiar with it they require more support.
  • Extraneous load: Fyfield described this as“anything that doesn’t directly contribute to the learning.” This is usually caused by bad learning design. Things like including unnecessary information, using distracting graphics or speaking in confusing jargon add to how much information learners need to process and increases cognitive load.
  • Germane load: Fyfield considers this the point where the learner successfully connects what they’re learning to existing knowledge. He calls this the “a-ha!” moment for learners.

Fyfield explains that the types of cognitive load accumulate, creating an overall weight on learners. If that weight exceeds the capacity of their working memory, learners are overloaded.

Addressing cognitive load in learning design

Adam Boxer borrowed Frederick Reif’s formula to illustrate the concept:

Source: Frederick Reif by way of Adam Boxer’s blog A Chemical Orthodoxy.

Boxer explains that increasing available resources decreases load – and that’s where our learning design comes into play. We can’t control how complex the topic is, but we can control how we present information and what resources we provide learners.

Let’s look at some ways to reduce the number of things competing for working memory:

  • Set up the learning environment in a quiet, distraction-free area. Reducing outside influences frees up working memory for learners to focus on the lesson.
  • Avoid talking too much. Sweller explains that if the text is short and can be easily remembered, it’s okay to speak it. Just avoid speaking too much information at once.

Now let’s look at ways to organize and present information. Boxer provides some tips:

  • Point out important information. If you’re teaching in person, something as simple as saying “this is important.” If you’re using a PowerPoint presentation, use a consistent marking for important points, like a star or different color text.
  • Break down relevant information into smaller pieces. For example, we don’t start out teaching kids algebra in kindergarten, right? First they learn how to count, then how to do basic math functions, and so on. Break your content into building blocks.
  • Avoid what Sweller calls the “split-attention effect.” If you are showing a diagram and text, keep the text close to the diagram and use arrows to connect the text with parts of the diagram. This keeps people from having to read text, remember what they’ve read, and then connect it to the diagram.

Know when to step back

This post has been all about simplifying learning, but like anything else, you can have too much of a good thing. In another article, Boxer discusses desirable difficulty, or keeping things just challenging enough to make them interesting. Once learners begin to grasp the new concepts or processes, begin reducing the amount of support you’re providing. Encourage them to complete the task on their own but be available to answer questions or provide guidance as necessary. By the end of the session, the learner should be able to complete the work autonomously using the newly-encoded knowledge and job aids you provided.


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