EDPC5003 Week 6

Influence of cognitive load on instructional design for e-learning

Meaningful learning is a goal shared by all instructional designers. In order for meaningful learning to take place in any environment, students are required to engage in substantial cognitive processing (Mayer & Moreno, 2003). This is also true for e-learning. Despite the lack of a physical classroom and instructor, students taking online courses are required to engage in cognitive processing in order to learn effectively.

Cognitive load theory explains how the mind processes information. The human information-processing system has two channels, one is verbal/auditory and the other is visual/pictorial. Information is received through these channels into sensory memory where information is selected and processed in working memory. The information is then organized and integrated with prior knowledge and is stored in long-term memory (see Figure 1). Selecting, organizing and integrating information from stimulus places demands on cognitive capacity which can lead to cognitive overload.

fig 1 moreno 2008 cognitive-affective thoery of learning with media

(Moreno, 2006, p. 151)

There are three types of cognitive load, intrinsic, extraneous and germane. Intrinsic cognitive load is related to the elements of the concept being taught. Extraneous cognitive load is connected to the design elements and their presentation. Germane cognitive load is the degree of learner effort in the construction of concepts (Whelan, 2007). Extraneous cognitive load is the main area of cognitive processing that instructional designers can influence. If instructional materials create too much extraneous load, students will not develop understanding of course content (Morrison & Anglin, 2005). Cognitive load needs to be managed properly through well though out design principles so students can learn effectively in an e-learning environment.

To overcome cognitive overload, instructional designers can be strategic in how online materials are created. When thinking about the visual/pictorial channel in the human information-processing system, research has found that it is best to adhere to the spatial contiguity principle, where corresponding words and pictures are presented near each other, the temporal contiguity principle, where corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously, the coherence principle, where extraneous words and pictures are excluded and the modality principle, where information is distributed across modalities (visual and auditory) (Whelan, 2007). In addition to this, Morrison and Anglin (2005) found that in presenting students with two integrated external representations (verbal and visual) it resulted in higher student performance levels and required less mental effort. They also found that verbal annotations to text could improve recall and transfer of information.

In addition to visual and auditory aspects of instructional design, an issue unique to e-learning is the need for students to learn how to use various technologies. In many cases, the learning of technology and content happens concurrently, which can increase intrinsic cognitive load. However, it has been found that this only happens if a student’s technology skills are low. For students with more experience with technology, Morrison and Anglin (2005) found that concurrently learning technology skills and content did not adversely affect student performance. Although this study was with a small sample size and needs more evidence to support it, it does imply that if students are required to learn new technologies in order to participate effectively in an e-learning course it would be better for them to learn the technologies separately before commencing instruction on subject specific content.

In conclusion, even though most of the research to date has focused on all types of multimedia learning, and not specifically e-learning, the strategies and principles used in designing instruction are still relevant to instructional designers of web based learning materials and programs. The opportunities modern technologies offer designers are endless and it is exciting to see the resources and lessons being created using computer technology. Instructional designers have the potential to create engaging, well thought out and effective materials for students to engage with during online instruction. However, these materials will only be effective if cognitive load limits are taken into consideration during the design process. Also, students who have low technology skills or who are not familiar with a certain technology being used for instruction, it would help their cognitive load to learn the new technologies prior to learning subject specific content.


Mayer, R.E. & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational psychologist, 38, 43-52.

Moreno, R. (2006). Does the modality principle hold for different media? A test of the method-affects-learning hypothesis. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 22, 149-158.

Morrison, G.R. & Anglin, G.J. (2005). Research on cognitive load theory: application to e-learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53, 94-104.

Whelan, R. (2007). Neuroimaging of cognitive load instructional multimedia. Educational Research Review, 2, 1-12.


One response to “EDPC5003 Week 6

  1. Hi Nicki,
    I enjoyed this blog and it was particularly interesting for me to hear your views from your own field. My blog on the same topic is from a doctor’s point of view. It seems apparent that this complex discussion crosses many learning pursuits and, educators across the disciplines, have the opportunity to learn from each other. As a potential approach to the problems we face, Bozarth (2010) made some recommendations including
    • Chunk the content
    • Using modules
    • Consider novice and expert
    • Remove extraneous material
    I recent learning experience of my own had me thinking about the practical application of Bozarth’s ideas. I was faced with a “lecture” on meningitis and encephalitis (severe inflammatory conditions of the brain). It was presented using the Prezi platform. Unfortunately, the whirling images flying in and out of the screen was disorienting. It was difficult to focus on the content. The presentation appeared to be a case of technology being added to learning rather than technology being incorporated to enhance the learning. By removing the extraneous cognitive load associated with Prezi in this instance, the learning experience had been compromised.
    Thanks again for your post
    Bozarth, J. (2010). Nuts and bolts: brain bandwidth – cognitive load theory and instructional design. http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/498/ Viewed 29th April, 2013

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