By Page Chen, Chief Learning Officer

Every day, millions of online learners launch their browsers with the best of intentions. Many encounter clean, easily navigable interfaces, with clear course expectations, legible fonts, and valuable, well-placed media. Others are not so lucky. These learners must overcome what is called “cognitive overload” in order to learn.

Cognitive overload is a term originating from John Sweller’s cognitive load theory. Cognitive load theory provides guidelines to assist in the design and presentation of information to optimize intellectual performance. When designing to reduce cognitive overload,  it is important to consider the working memory load of not only the instructional materials but also the interface. In short, be aware that the brain can do only so many things at once. When the brain is asked to do more than its fair share, more than is conducive to learning, the result is cognitive overload. Novelty in an interface will draw the learner’s attention, but there is a fine line between getting the learner’s attention and keeping the learner perpetually distracted.  Split-attention effect is a commonly seen problem in poorly designed instructional materials and is of key importance to online learning design.

All manner of elements can contribute to cognitive overload, including interface colors and images, font selection and color, animations, multimedia, and sound. While a filigreed font might enhance a header, the same typeface, when used for an entire page of content, creates a significant obstacle for the learner. A single, relevant video embedded in a content page can enhance learning, but an RSS feed of videos on related topics will lead the learner away from the task at hand. The same blinking graphic or colorful theme which draws the learner’s eyes to the page will distract the learner from the content and may impede his or her ability to focus. Anything that makes the learner interrupt the precious mental process of learning, be it navigation, visual presentation, or functionality, presents the possibility of splitting a learner’s attention and causing cognitive overload.

Remote-Learner’s Learning Services department specializes in navigating just such nuances. We’ll minimize cognitive overload in your online courses, to keep your learners engaged, but not mentally exhausted. Contact us today to learn more about Remote-Learner’s Learning Services Division.

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