Cognitive load and cognitive water wings

by Viv on July 9, 2007

I was at the ELN Showcase on 6 July to see the keynote speech by Dr Itiel Dror who is a professor of cognitive neuroscience. Apart from fazing the squeamish by bringing along a brain in a jar, he made some significant points about how the world of e-learning design has not paid enough attention to scientific findings about how the brain actually works.

One of the core concepts he explored was “cognitive load” i.e. the amount of information that the brain is able to process and consequently recall. As cognitive load is finite and varies according to the situation, it is important for an instructional designer to be aware of it. In the space of an hour he was not able to drill down into the level of detail that I would have liked so I have constructed my own understanding of the practical principles involved, with a quintessentially dodgy swimming/ diving metaphor.

1. There is an absolute capacity for coping with information cf. Miller’s 7±2 capacity of short term memory
2. Some additional information helps reduce the cognitive load by providing a better structure for understanding other information (which I have termed “cognitive water wings”)
3. Other additional infomation adds to the cognitive load by being distracting (“cognitive diving weights”)

In terms of the additional information in 2., Dror has shown in research with the US Air Force that learners could best identify the differences between superficially similar friendly and enemy war planes, if first they were shown caricatures that emphasised the differences. The presence of extra information led to better recall of the target information, and shortened the overall time to competence.

As instructional designers we need to ensure that the learner floats at the right depth:
1. target information is succint and what the learner needs to know
2. additional information provides useful context, motivation
3. does not distract e.g. confusing navigation, pointless graphics

Next time you’re talking to an e-learning supplier, ask what their instructional designers do to optimise learners’ cognitive load – you may be as surprised as they are.

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