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Best Practice 2:




Cognitive load theory

A critical issue in the design of online learning interaction is the learner's cognitive load. Where in the past, a learner might have focused mostly on student to teacher interactions, the three additional interaction categories (student to student, student to content, and student to interface) mentioned in the previous lesson contribute to a potential information overload for the learner. According to Chang and Ley (2004), online learning environments impose a heavy cognitive load due to the number of choices available to the learner, from links to external sites to internal chat sessions and discussion threads, to separate email communications, readings embedded in the learning environment, and readings external to the learning environment.


In a typical classroom, information is directed from one source. In online environments, information may originate from many sources, and that information is often a result of a learner-driven decision-making process.  When knowledge originates not only from the instructor but from content and other learners, and only through decisive interaction with an interface, the learner is more than a receiver of information. They must actively search for and select information. Given the array of choices available, the capacity of the learner to hold information is often challenged.


Example of interfaces that poses a high cognitive load






Game interface 






Three types of cognitive load



Cognitive load is a term used to describe the mental energy needed to think about or process information. The research on cognitive load describes three categories of load: germane load, extraneous load, and intrinsic load (Paas, Renkle & Sweller, 2003). You can also think of cognitive load as the mental weight of information. In the image above each cognitive load is represented by a dumbbell.

Germane load can be thought of as those things that a designer can do to facilitate optimal load. For example, textual techniques that reinforce the content, such as chunking content, sequencing it, and providing analogies can help people understand new information more quickly.

Extraneous load can be thought of as the noise, or superfluous elements of communication, that act as barriers to learning due to the increased load they place on memory.

Intrinsic load refers to the nature of the content and its level of complexity. Complexity can be defined in terms of element interactivity, or the extent that a learner must understand instructional content that overlaps and interacts with other instructional content.

The designers task




Learning environment designers need to manage cognitive load as follows. They must:



Visual strategies for managing cognitive load online


In general, instructional visuals improve learning due to a dual coding effect. Information is stored in memory as a visual and as a word. Since there are two memory sources for a visual, a person has twice as much memory, and is more likely to remember information. This is known as the picture superiority effect.






Mayer's multimedia  theory suggests that images be used to facilitate selection, organization, and integration.


Facilitating learner selection - Selection is the memory process used when a person notices something. They may see many elements, but they focus on one or two. The red boxes below represent selection. Notice how only one red box, out of many red boxes, is breaking through memory? This red box has been selected. You can help learners select information by helping them focus on what is important. You can make an item bigger, or more colorful to help learners select the item. You can also draw attention to an item by enclosing it in a box, or surrounding it with space. The important thing to remember is that you help them focus, you help the learner see the most important information.

Facilitating learner organization - Organization is the memory process used when a person thinks about information in ways that allow them to understand the hierarchy within information. The orange boxes below represent organization. You can help learners organize information by chunking information into meaningful units, sequencing information, and by showing relationships between elements. Organization strategies help your learners "read" you image.

Facilitating learner integration - Integration is the memory process used when people merge new information into memory. Integration strategies help learners see the big picture and understand how element fit within the big picture. You can help learners integrate by clarifying how parts relate to the whole. The yellow boxes represent integration.





 Hyperlink to Hot Spot Activity 


Visual example of a selection strategy


Below you see an original and revised image. The revised image uses a visual strategy to emphasize the difference between mountain and road bike rider positions.







Visual example of an organization strategy


Below you see original and revised images for a recipe and for sign language instruction. The revised images uses visual organization strategies that help learners see the relationship between elements. In both images a numbering sequence has been used.




Visual example of an integration strategy


Below you see original and revised images for teaching astronomy. The images under A show the parts to whole relationship much better than image B.




Visual example of all selection, organization, and integration in an online interface




Technology to manage cognitive load


Enhancing selection: screenshot software Jing

Many technologies can be used to manage cognitive load if they work to increase germane load and reduce extraneous load. Below you see how Jing was used to help students notice the most important information. Jing takes pictures of what is on a computer screen and lets you easily add arrows to direct student attention . To learn more about Jing, go here http://www.lindallohr.com/ET695/Jing/index.html


The image below is a screen shot that was taken using Jing. Notice all of the helpful arrows and how they help a learner focus on the most important information. The arrows facilitate learner selection.





Enhancing organization: Comic life


Technology can help students make sense of information by helping them sequence that information or chunk it into meaningful units. Comiclife is a software that allows student to organize information in chunks. Go here to learn more about Comic life.


The image below shows how a student used Comic life to illustrate the five senses.






Enhancing integration: YouTube videos

YouTube video clips can be used to make information more meaningful and relevant so that new information can be integrated into old information. Integration is facilitated when parts to whole relationships are made specific. This video shows a fish that doesn't have a very good memory. Students seeing this memory clip can relate the story of the fish (part) to a bigger understanding of limited human memory (whole).



This website http://www.lindallohr.com/ET695/YouTube/index.html shows you how to organize YouTube video clips for your classes.





Cognitive load theory makes us aware of how important it is to optimize the amount of information that we present to students. There are three types of cognitive load: intrinsic load (the load posed by the nature of the content), extraneous load (the load posed by extra and unneeded information), and germane load (the load posed when information is meaningful.) Learning environment designers need to work to increase germane load and reduce extraneous load. Intrinsic load cannot be changed.


Quiz questions


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Create a visual that uses images to help learners select, organize or integrate a kinesthetic topic using Jing, ComicLife, or any technology.


Example 1

Example 2


Example 3