Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design

In my last blog post, while discussing the benefits of closing your eyes while thinking, I mentioned cognitive load theory. Closing your eyes in order to think may or may not have legs (pun intended) as a learning technique, but cognitive load theory is HUGELY important to learning and the design of instruction. If you were to attend one of my workshops on the Science of Learning, you would hear me talk a lot about cognitive load theory.

You probably already know something about cognitive load theory via Miller’s Magic Number. What’s that? You don’t know Miller’s Magic Number?

Sure you do. It’s 7 +/- 2.

Most people are familiar with the idea that we can only hold so much information in our working memory they just don’t know who first discovered this. It was this guy:

George Miller

George Miller was a professor at Princeton in 1956 when he made his discovery. His insight was that the average person can manipulate in working memory only 7 +/- 2 objects at a time. Today, most cognitive scientists think that Miller was giving us too much credit. The actual number is probably only 3 or 4 objects.

Clearly this has HUGE implications for the design and delivery of instruction. It is VERY easy to overload a learner’s working memory!

My workshop (which covers a lot more than just cognitive load theory) is three hours long, so for the sake of brevity let me give you just one instructional design tip based on this finding:

If you have an animation in a course, accompany it with audio narration only. DO NOT accompany it with text on the screen AND a narrator reading the text. (How many times have you seen this? I’ve seen it a lot.) Animation + text + narration overloads working memory.

There is a lot of research to back up this finding. For a complete treatment see: Clark, R.C., & Mayer, R.E. (2008). E-learning and the science of instruction (2nd ed). San Francisco: JosseyBass/Pfeiffer.

One thought on “Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design

  1. This is a hugely important insight. Add to it the perspective that introverts may even have less capactiy for over-stimulation (true of me – and, in fact, I often close my eyes or look away when listening to someone so I can process) – and then there is the whole cognitive load/overstimulation theme that comes up in research into people with autism spectrum disorders. Fascinating area of study.


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