Considering Cognitive Load in your Teaching

A Description of Cognitive LoadHow often have you wondered whether your students are achieving the level of learning that you’d hoped?  Looking back into your experiences as a student, I bet you can remember those wonderful moments where the learning sunk in for you, and those wretched moments of confusion or learning burnout.  Much of this has to do with how the brain accepts and organizes a learning event, and you can readily affect the brain through being conscious of cognitive load.

The Assumptions of Multimedia Learning

As an instructor, you have an enormous potential for optimizing learning and instruction for your students. The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning, from Richard Mayer of the University of California, can be used to guide you in the creation of a more effective mode of multimedia instruction.

The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning describes the cognitive process that occur when exposed to multimedia learning (Moreno & Mayer, 2008). The theory is based on three assumptions (

  1. The first assumption is that two separate information processing channels exist: auditory and visual. People use these separate channels to process visual and auditory information independently (Jin-Hua et al., 2009). When combining both channels, student learning through multimedia instruction can be dramatically enhanced because the brain accommodates more new information by taking advantage of its multimodal processing capability with technology-based tools (BrainPOP, 2008).
  2. Within the second assumption, both auditory and visual channels are recognized to have a limited capacity. People can process only a limited amount of information simultaneously (Sorden, 2005). Continuing to expose a person to information in an already filled capacity, will only hinder the learning process.
  3. The final assumption is that learning itself is an active process of filtering, organizing, and integrating information ( People engage in active learning by paying attention to relevant incoming information and organizing selected information into coherent mental representations, thereby integrating the mental representations with other knowledge (Jin-Hua et al., 2009).

Working Memory and Cognitive Overload

working memoryThe brain can learn an unlimited amount of information. However, how the brain processes information affects what it keeps and what it can recall. New information is taken to working memory, which is like the post-it note area of the brain, for processing. Working memory has a capacity limit of four to seven new pieces of information. It accomplishes this through a system of subcomponents that hold temporary information and processes it so that several pieces of verbal or visual information could be stored and integrated (Sorden, 2005). Because of working memory’s limits to taking in information, visual and auditory components do not always make for sound teaching in their delivery and can quickly become counter-productive to learning (Sorden, 2005). Given this, you should not be seduced into filling up limited capacity with unimportant or flashy instruction in your media rich teachings (Sorden, 2005).

For instruction to be effective, it is critical to design your instruction in a way that does not overload the mind’s capacity for processing information (Sorden, 2005). While using multiple channels can increase the amount of information that the brain can process, there is a risk of cognitive overload. Too much information delivered in an ineffective manner can interfere with the brain’s ability to successfully integrate information into long term memory (BrainPOP, 2008).

Below are multiple strategies and facts to consider in your instruction.

Presentations (BrainPOP, 2008):

  • Effective presentations use both the auditory and visual channels in working memory to deliver content.
  • Text heavy presentations may be less effective than those that rely on narration.
  • Learners of integrated presentations outperform learners studying the same information where attention is split.
  • Presentations are more effective when the learner has the ability to interact with the presentation, by slowing it down or by starting and stopping it.
  • Presentations should be segmented; shorter segments that allow users to select segments at their own pace work better than longer segments that offer less control.
  • Presentations that are conversational in tone tend to be more engaging than those that have a more formal tone.
  • Learners find presentations that use a familiar voice with a familiar accent more engaging than those that use a less familiar voice and accent.

Text (BrainPOP, 2008):

  • Text may be particularly challenging to process, and requires involvement from both the visual and auditory channels.
  • People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. “Words” would include written and spoken text, and pictures would include static graphic images, animation and video.
  • Words and pictures allow the brain to process more information in working memory.
  • Text and pictures presented in close proximity or overlapping are more effective than those far apart on the screen.

Auditory and Visual channels (BrainPOP, 2008):

  • The visual channel handles less information than the auditory channel.
  • When information is presented using both the visual and auditory channels, working memory can handle more information overall.
  • By using multiple channels of working memory, multimedia content can increase the likelihood that information will be effectively integrated into long term memory and not lost.

Narration and Video (BrainPOP, 2008):

  • Narration and video is much more effective than narration and text.
  • Narration and video also appear to be more effective than narration, video and text.
  • Narration and animation presented together are more likely to contribute to student learning than the presentation of narration and then animation (or animation and then narration).

Animated Content (BrainPOP, 2008):

  • Multimedia instruction that includes animation can improve learning when used effectively and appears to be most effective when presenting concepts or information that students may have difficulty by helping them visualize a process or other dynamic phenomenon that cannot be envisioned easily.
  • Animation is more likely to be effective if it is accompanied by narration, which combined makes use of both the auditory and visual channels.

Learners (BrainPOP, 2008):

  • Learning is more effective when it is interactive and under the control of the learner. When learners are able to control the pace of the presentation, they can learn more.
  • Multimedia learning is most effective when the learner is engaged as engagement helps the student construct knowledge and organize information into meaningful schema.
  • Personalized multimedia engages learners more than multimedia that is less personalized (Mayer, 2005).


For more information, consider the following links and resources:

BrainPOP (2008). Understanding multimedia learning: Integrating multimedia in the K-12 classroom. Retrieved from

Jin-Hua, S., Chun, W., Hui, W., & Shumei, C. (2009). Design of an e-Learning system for technical Chinese courses using cognitive theory of multimedia learning. Electronics & Communications in Japan, 92(8), 1-10. doi:10.1002/ecj.10204

Mayer, R.E. (2005). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Moreno R, Mayer R.E. (2008). A learner-centered approach to multimedia explanations: Deriving instructional design principles from cognitive theory. Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-Enhanced Learning, 2(2).

Sorden, S.D. (2005) A cognitive approach to instructional design for multimedia learning. Informing Science Journal, 8, 263-279.

Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning