Cognitive Load Theory


Here you see the puppeteer's stage and audience. Thought bubbles emerge from two members of the audience. These bubbles represent cognitive load, the weight of information processed mentally by the audience member. The optimal load bubble shows what this particular member sees. Since this member's perception is most like the actual stage, their cognitive load is optimal. The high load bubble shows what this particular member sees, and though it is similar to the stage, it is different in that it lacks focus.  The high load member notices so much that they do not focus on the puppet.

This image introduces several ideas relevant to learning and learning design. The first idea relates to how the puppeteer sets the stage and enacts the drama. Following our puppeteer analogy we consider that stage as a learning environment, and the audience member as the learner. The second idea relates to how the audience member interprets the stage and drama.

Like the puppeteer and their set, the instructional designer (you) creates an environment for learners. The goal of the instructional designer is to create an environment optimal for the learner. The instructional designer, like the puppeteer, can only do so much, the learner and their perception plays a role in learning too.

Perhaps the high load learner cannot hear the dialog, and therefore is focusing on everything to construct a mental representation. Their minds are overloaded and the message is somewhat lost in the detail. Perhaps the problem lies in the puppeteer and how he has designed the set. It could be the stage props or dialog detract from the puppet.

The point I am making is that the learning experience is a two way street, a 50/50 relationship. The puppeteer does their best to create a set and script to engage the audience. The audience, however, also has to pay attention.

An instructional designer also creates an environment, but what they do can only go so far, the learner has to pay attention. The instructional designer may create a highly confusing environment and the learner pays attention but experiences a high cognitive load. Learning in this case is less likely to be optimal, and most of the problem rests in the way the environment is designed. It also could be that the instructional designer creates a clear and organized environment and the learner puts little effort into learning or interacting. In this case, the problem rests with the learner.

Creating an optimal balance between the learner and the environment is what we discuss all semester long. We focus on ways to make the environment and experience good, but we also focus on how the learner is likely to perceive and perform in that experience. We make adjustments to the environment to create an optimal load for most of the people. Theoretically, we could design the environment to be optimal for everyone. That perspective, however worthy, may be unattainable in many settings.

In Unit 1 we embark upon the journey to create instruction that is effective, efficient, and appealing. During the journey we learn how to work with information and learning strategies to create an optimal environment. We start here with the theory, the reasons behind most of what we do.