Imagine you’re at your desk, working diligently on an important report for a client. You’re deep into your analysis when your email dings with a new message, then your phone rings with a call from a colleague.

Not long after, a reminder pops up on your desktop for a meeting in 15 minutes. It’s a never-ending stream of interruptions, each vying for your attention. As you struggle to refocus on your report, you realize how challenging it can be to complete a task when competing tasks keep pulling you in different directions. 

The ability (or inability) of your brain to effectively process multiple tasks is called cognitive load – and it’s a very important concept to learning.

Cognitive load is inherently a part of the learning process, but finding the right balance is tricky. Too much cognitive load, and the brain is unable to properly process the information. Just like the report we couldn’t complete; our brain isn’t able to set the information into long-term storage and it’s easily forgotten. Too little cognitive load; our brain gets bored and starts to wander…again resulting in no retention of the information at hand. Understanding the types of cognitive load and the parts they play allows us to design better learning experiences.

There are three types of cognitive load requests that our brains must process while learning.

Germane load is the ease with which our brain can process information. Our brains are excellent at absorbing information, particularly if it is done in a manner that is systematic or builds upon previous knowledge. Think about how much easier it is to remember something through a mnemonic, or a systematic trick to help us learn. As instructional designers, we want to maximize the germane load to make it easier for our learners to understand and remember material.

When I used the word mnemonic just now, I increased a different type of load – extraneous.

Extraneous load is the multitude of distractions that our brain deals with when trying to learn. It could be an argument happening in another room, or a poorly designed interface. If we must stop focusing on one thing to think about something different, then we won’t be successful in learning that first thing until the distraction is gone. Earlier, I said that using the word ‘mnemonic’ increased extraneous load. If you weren’t already familiar with that word (i.e., it wasn’t germane to your understanding), then you had to stop and think about what it meant, which distracted you from learning about germane load. As instructional designers, we want to minimize the extraneous load on mental processing so the brain can focus on the right stuff!

Intrinsic load, our final type of cognitive load, is the inherent complexity of the content. We can’t change the inherent complexity – but we can manage it strategically. Think about the field of mathematics. It’s inherently complex. We can reduce the intrinsic load by teaching it in smaller components and then building on those once they are set in memory. As instructional designers, we want to minimize the intrinsic load and allow the brain to absorb the material, making it germane (see what I did there?), and easier for the learner to recall and apply in the future.

So, minimize the intrinsic and extraneous load while maximizing the germane load, and in doing so, we can make learning stick.

At Smartfirm, we’ve been designing learning experiences for over twenty years that help our clients’ employees focus on what’s important. If you think your learning experiences need a cognitive load balance, reach out to me ([email protected]) so we can discuss your needs.