E-Learning and Cognitive Load: How Heavy is Too Heavy?

The design of eExtramarks-Front-Testimonial-Small-learning courses such as Extramarks LIVE is more of a science than one might think. Numerous studies in recent years have focused on a learner’s ability to actually understand and assimilate the material presented on the screen, and that research has informed the design of online or tablet-based courses. Along with the research are innumerable suggestions from schools which use digital material inside the classroom as well as feedback from the thousands of online and tablet students. The Extramarks team, for example, will use both research and user feedback to fine-tune the presentation, review and testing of lessons to make them yet more effective.

The learner’s ability to handle the “cognitive load” of an e-learning session depends on at least three important factors: the learner’s previous experience and expertise in the subject, the complexity of the subject matter, and of course the type of instructional materials used. Many years ago a pioneer researcher in cognitive theory, George Miller, posited a magical number of 7±2 – meaning people can only process 7 chunks of information at any given time, give or take 2 chunks. Research since then has refined the notion, but the idea that people have limits on how much information they can process at one time now seems obvious, what with a driver trying to text a message while observing the road, watching the signal, checking the map on the LED screen, waving off towel and book sellers at the window, and listening to his children arguing in the back seat.

In the early days of e-learning development, the designers often took over and presented material with so many bells and whistles that the message couldn’t be heard. Programs were loaded with voiceovers on top of animations with accompanying text that matched the voiceovers and competed for screen space with whirling graphics and flashed questions. Modern developers like Extramarks take it easier by simplifying the material and organising it into deliverable and easily understood chunks, well illustrated and with the correct narration, and it has proven to be more effective. Even though computer graphics can do anything, a good e-learning lesson is not the same as the last 20 minutes of The Avengers. A good lesson on the screen, it turns out, is more like a walk in the woods: a defined goal, a path, discoveries that lead the way forward, and the ability to stop, if necessary, for a second look before continuing.

In fact more information can be properly assimilated and understood if it’s presented in the most simple manner available. That doesn’t mean plain, or unattractive; it means that animations have to be to the point so that information is revealed in a step-by-step manner that leads the student along rather than having him bombarded with missiles – information bombs in a massive throw of cognitive load – which he will avoid.

Researchers describe three types of cognitive load, according to Ruth Colvin Clark and Frank Nguyen, in their books on e-learning: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane.

Good e-Learning courses exploit these three types of cognitive load. Intrinsic cognitive load will depend on the complexity of your instructional content. So good course design will manage intrinsic load by dividing and sequencing the instructional materials to help the learner deal with the complexity of the content. Extraneous cognitive load imposes mental work that does not promote learning. Think of extraneous cognitive load as irrelevant load. Minimizing extraneous load involves the appropriate use of visuals, audio, and text in your training environment. In contrast, germane cognitive load is actually beneficial to learning. An effective e-Learning course maximizes the opportunities for germane load. For optimal instructional efficiency, manage intrinsic cognitive load, minimize extraneous cognitive load, and maximize germane cognitive load.

The intrinsic cognitive load has to be stripped of too much supporting material. The same way a “live” schoolteacher will lose the attention of her students when she throws in unnecessary background material, an online lesson has to stick to the point instead of wandering off into the flowers next to the path. The background material can be supplied as supplementary reading or viewing, or dispensed with.

Getting rid of extraneous cognitive load is essential. The main failing in many digital lessons is redundancy. Narration is backed with the same words in text, which might also be describing something that is presented visually and in fact needs no explanation. Less is more. We have learned at Extramarks that care must be taken to allow learners to see for themselves, through visuals and minimal text and narration, rather than anticipating and over-explaining. That extraneous load actually reduces learning; the student can’t pay attention when there’s too much mixed stimuli from video and audio in complicated layers.

Germane cognitive load is where the action’s at. An effective e-learning session doesn’t just present material; it allows the learner to understand through examples and self-explanation. Ruth Colvin Clark gives the idea of adding a multiple choice question to an example, which encourages learners to process the example deeply. To answer the question, the learner needs to review the example and to identify the principles behind the steps. As a result of this deep processing, learners will build an accurate mental model from the example. Self-explanations require mental processing in working memory. Since this processing results in better learning, prompted self-explanations are one of a number of instructional methods used to impose germane cognitive load. Rather than finding ET in the woods by using GPS on your iPhone, it is deeper learning to follow the Reese’s cups to discover where ET has gone.

While these aspects of e-learning are basic, there is always more to learn, especially from the feedback our many students, teachers, parents and mentors send regarding the Extramarks LIVE lessons. And as always we use that feedback to improve delivery of the material.

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