By Brad Henry
What is Cognitive overload? Cognitive overload is a theory used in education psychology that refers to a learner that is receiving too much information at one time. You can also think about this as information overload.
Why is cognitive load important? When a learner receives too much information at one time, they “zone out.” Here is a scenario: Think of a time you were reading something challenging and your thoughts started to drift and you suddenly realize that you cannot remember anything you had just read. Another example: Imagine sitting in a classroom trying to listen, take notes and interact while the instructor quickly discusses a topic that you do not understand. Soon you may begin to withdraw and start thinking about you are going to make for dinner.
Why is that? Think of it as your body’s natural defense mechanism. When you attempt to take on too many tasks, or are in an environment with too much stimulation at one time, your mind does not know how to process all of this new information. In some respects your brain shuts down and goes to a safe place in your mind; very little, if anything is committed to memory. Example: Imagine you are driving down the road while holding a hamburger in one hand, having a phone conversation with the device resting on your shoulder while using your knees and one hand to steer. You decide you need a drink of water and suddenly hit the car in front of you. How did you miss such an obvious object right in front of you? This is referred to as cognitive overload. We simply cannot efficiently process everything that is happening around us, especially with information that is not familiar.
As an instructor, this is where the concept of 4 +/-1 comes into play. 4 +/-1 is the amount of information, and/or tasks, that most individuals can effectively process in any given time or situation. Unless you are part of the 1 percent of the population that retains the ability to process large amounts of information, you should acknowledge to yourself, and more importantly about your students, that you are not cognitively superior super-humans and leave your superhero fantasy to the comics.
As an instructor what does this mean for you and your instruction? You must be mindful and selective as to the content and how the information is being shared. When constructing information for virtual learning environments, you need to consider the objective of the lesson, the information that you are trying to convey and how the information is presented. Virtual learning environments that are not mindful of the learner lend themselves to being virtual playgrounds full of distractions. Distractions lend themselves to superficial learning, missed opportunities for deep learning.
In the next article I will provide techniques on layout and design that promote deep learning.
For additional resources for cognitive load, check out the following researchers:
Richard Clark (Core Researcher)
Jeroen J G van Merrienboer (Instructional Designer & Researcher)
John Sweller (Core Researcher)
Anita Woolfolk (Ed Psych made simple)