Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design in eLearning

I have been a big fan of cognitive theory for many years now and of instructional design models such as Gagne’s theory of instruction.  I think many educators design elearning and go overboard with what they include in one page visually, resulting in what is known as ‘scroll-of-death’ long pages of content dumping.  Beyond that, there is the tendency as well when designing elearning experiences, to try to include too many activities, making the experience cognitively overload participants and decrease the potential outcomes achieved.

cognitive load model diagram

License Some rights reserved by Laura B. Dahl

Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory ” is concerned with techniques for reducing working memory load in order to facilitate the changes in long term memory associated with schema acquisition” (Culatta, 2012).  In simple terms, its making learning experiences managable in small chunks so that old knowledge can be built on and iteratively.  “Recognising George Miller’s information processing research showing that short term memory is limited in the number of elements it can contain simultaneously, Sweller builds a theory that treats schemas, or combinations of elements, as the cognitive structures that make up an individual’s knowledge base” (Sweller, 1988).

So what does this mean for instructional design?  How is the optimal design for elearning determined?  I have read much over the years and come to my own conclusions as well about best practice design from observing how I learn (which is of course not indicative of how others best learn).  When I design elearning experiences and courses, I believe small chunks of text are most appropriate if there is much text to be displayed and that a good balance of text and images should be used.  Using the right font such as a Sans Serif font like Verdana is also important.  These are my priorities when I design and I hold firm to the belief that these are critical in designing experiences that students can effectively participate in.  However, it is also very much about the activities used within the experience as well.  “Cognitive load theory suggests that effective instructional material facilitates learning by directing cognitive resources toward activities that are relevant to learning rather than toward preliminaries to learning” (Chandler and Sweller, 1991).  Meaning, don’t waste time including activities for the sake of it or to lead up to the real activities, create relevant learning opportunities.

Culcatta (2012) explores many theories and one of these is Cognitive Flexibility Theory.  Spiro & Jehng (1990, p. 165) state: “By cognitive flexibility, we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure one’s knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands…This is a function of both the way knowledge is represented (e.g., along multiple rather single conceptual dimensions) and the processes that operate on those mental representations (e.g., processes of schema assembly rather than intact schema retrieval).”  In simpler terms, I understand this to be being able to learn something new and relearn it in a number of ways, applying it to many situations.  It’s a pretty powerful theory.

I know that a lot of these theories are very old in terms of current research, however, their value is not stale and old at all.  The foundational educational psychology research conducted all throughout the 20th century is still to this day very relevant and real.  What other guidelines should be adhered to in order to reduce cognitive load of learning materials and optimise the learning outcomes achieved?  Susan Weinschenk (2011) in her book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People (Voices that Matter), lists many things that should be considered when designing for learning online:

  • “Colour and shapes can influence what people see”
  • What is seen in the peripheral vision is a lot more important than what is in the central vision as it can distract from the important content
  • Animation and blinking elements can be very distracting and cause the learner to need to take in more cognitively than necessary
  • People will recognise and look for various patterns in everything from dots to white space
  • People like to look at faces and follow the direction of the eyes
  • People often already have an idea of what they want to see and how

There are many more, as it is a book of 100 things but I will work on turning it into something more visual and accessible I think.  This is a starting point and whilst the points above don’t directly relate to schemas or cognitive structures, the design of such needs to consider the above to reduce cognitive load.  More soon…..


Chandler, Paul and Sweller, John: Cognitive Load Theory and the Format of Instruction, Cognition and Instruction: 8(4) 1991, 293-332.

Culatta, R. (2012).  Instructional Design: Cognitive Load Theory. Cited October, 2012 at

Spiro, R. J. and Jehng, J. (1990) cited in Culcatta, R. (2012).  Instructional Design: Cognitive Flexibility Theory.  Cited October, 2012 at

Sweller, J. (1988).  Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285.

Weinschenk, S. (2011).  100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People (Voices That Matter).  New Riders Publishing:

4 thoughts on “Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design in eLearning

  1. Pingback: A Brief History of Instructional Design | Kristina Hollis

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