Building Bridges

When Learning Becomes Too Much: Seven Ways to Reduce Cognitive Overload

Have you ever been in a class where everyone’s eyes are glazed over? By the end of the first half-day, participants stop, well, participating? Perhaps the course just isn’t engaging them. Or, perhaps (cue music: dut, dut, dut) they are experiencing cognitive overload.

So, what is cognitive overload?

Cognitive overload is an inundation of short-term memory or working memory. This type of memory is easily overwhelmed because it can only hold between two and four “chunks” of information. (Halls, Jonathan. “Memory and Cognition in Learning.” InfoLine: Tips, Tools, & Intelligence for Training, May 2014).  Sometimes cognitive overload cannot be avoided; however, it is considered “extraneous” when the learning design or method causes it.

And, why should I care?

Learning can be adversely impacted by stress, including stress caused by cognitive overload. The amygdala is the section of the brain involved with emotions, and it is affected by negative experience or emotions. “When learners experience stress they go into a hyper-stimulated state known as the affective filter, which inhibits information passing through the amygdala to the information processing parts of the brain.” (InfoLine).

An overzealous subject matter expert (SME) could also induce cognitive overload. While SMEs may want to provide as much information as possible, it is the instructional designer’s job to choose the most critical content to achieve the learning objectives.

Inattention is considered a hallmark symptom of cognitive overload. The “glazed eye look” represents an overwhelmed state.  If a learner is unable to perform the activities or fails the test, this could be a sign that he or she is having difficulty absorbing the information.

Now, what can I do about it?

There are many ways to combat cognitive overload, and we’ll introduce seven of them here.

  1. Take breaks. A well-timed intermission allows participants to consolidate their learning.
  2. Allow for a lot of movement, either within the context of the training, or during a scheduled break time. Physical activity allows for more blood and oxygen to flow to the brain, preparing it for more learning time.
  3. Keep the training focused on the learning objectives to eliminate superfluous content.
  4. Arrange material in a logical pattern so that learners may build on their prior knowledge.
  5. Avoid having the learners multitask, and discourage it when you see it in your learners. Despite the stereotypical view of multitaskers as super-competent individuals, human beings are not made to multitask.  When we do, an overload occurs between working memory and long-term memory.
  6. Repeat fundamental material and key points. This may sound counterintuitive to avoiding cognitive overload, but cerebral overwhelm actually results from too much new material. Once a learner repeats a process enough, it can become automatic, freeing up the working memory (
  7. Don’t put the meat in the middle. Unfortunately, many programs are structured just this way. Research tells us that the human brain recalls the beginning and ending better than the middle, so introduce crucial material at the beginning of the course, or save it until the end.

What two tips could you implement this week? Did you notice a change in your learners?

Commit to following even some of these pointers, and your learners will retain and implement more of what they’ve learned well after the training is over.