Cognitive Load and Virtual Learning Environments

When John Sweller and his colleagues first started studying cognitive load theory in the 1980s, little was known about how humans learn.

He demonstrated a new way of thinking about learning as something that the brain does, a combination of electrical and chemical processes that result in the formation of memories as neural pathways. He called this type of learning “biological,” because we all inherit it through genetics.

Recently, Sweller revisited his theory and updated it to account for new scientific discoveries and the significantly different learning experience we see in today’s hyper-digital world. It’s a timely opportunity to review his work considering our recent pandemic pivot to virtual learning at all levels of education and training.

Quick Summary of Cognitive Load Theory

The key assumption of the theory is that the human brain has a discrete, limited capacity to pay attention to and process
novel information—what we might call
learning. This information becomes
cognitive load and involves every stimulus that is part of the experience, including:

  • The content itself and its degree of complexity
  • The instructor if there is one
  • Books, presentations, and other media used to convey the content
  • Text, media, and other information present but not relevant to the content
  • Distractions present in the surrounding environment

Every stimulus that isn’t necessary to the learning goal (germane content) is a distraction (extraneous content) and makes it harder to learn, because it increases cognitive load and robs the learner of processing power.

Fortunately, once we get past this difficult period of integrating new learning into what we already know, this capacity issue no longer applies—we’ve moved the information from working memory to longer-term memory and have an unlimited capacity to retain and retrieve what we’ve already learned.

The Effects of Cognitive Load on Novice Versus Experienced Learners

The groundwork on cognitive load studied children in a classroom setting. These children were learning something new (usually a math concept) and had little prior knowledge. However, adults bring varying degrees of knowledge to every experience. The original theory addressed the
differences between novices and experts, but this distinction became more important as learning professionals applied the theory to adults. Many of the same things that work well for novices become mere distractions to an expert and get in the way of further learning.

These distractions are heightened by the way virtual learning is often implemented. Many organizations put their learners in synchronous online events that last for several hours, which has the potential to negatively affect cognitive load in these ways:

The expertise reversal effect. Novices need more context and explanation to make sense of new material. However, as expertise increases, learners don’t need as much foundational information, because they can draw on prior learning stored in longer-term memory. Covering those basics again for experts in the audience can increase cognitive load distractions that get in the way of new insights.

Where this becomes most apparent is when we mix our learning audiences. For example, in sales enablement, people who have never sold before are at a disadvantage compared to those who have experience. If we teach to the needs of the novices in these cases, we may distract the experts.

This effect can be seen in virtual settings when training is delivered to groups of learners ranging in experience levels. Novices are quickly lost because they don’t have the foundational understanding to keep up, and experienced learners resent being forced to sit through training. Whenever you’re asked to design virtual training for all leaders or sales professionals, that’s a red flag—beware the reversal effect.

The element interactivity effect. This effect suggests we must consider the interaction of all the elements of what we are trying to teach. Think of sales training, for example. Even if we focus on a single part of the process, such as handling objections, we must cover a wide range of communication and cognitive skills: effective listening, questioning, negotiation, and product knowledge. The interaction of these skills adds to the cognitive load and is particularly challenging for novices. Beginners benefit from building on each element before they can put them together.

If you have clients with limited time who want to skip over the basics, this may be a valid approach, so long as you have an alternative means of delivering the fundamentals for those who need them. Be sure to make a new space and time for removed content if it’s crucial for novice learners.

The guidance fading effect. The amount of support or scaffolding you provide to participants can be reduced as they develop more expertise. In our sales training example, beginners may need more explicit guidance when practicing open-ended questions to identify a core customer objection. Consider the expertise of the learner when providing practice examples. Learners at an intermediate or advanced stage of a skill or task need less guidance as their expertise gradually increases.

It’s a best practice to provide a variety of opportunities for learners to practice and reinforce their newly acquired skills. Because time pressures often make it challenging to do this during a virtual session, brainstorm how you can provide the appropriate level of support with asynchronous options for additional practice by using mini-cases, discussion boards, learner-generated videos, review games, or scenario-based quizzes.

The transient information effect. When we play an instructional video, the screen information and audio track are constantly changing. This means that the learner must hold what has gone before in working memory long enough to get to the end of the video. As with the other examples, this learning task can be challenging for novices and potentially distracting for experts. One way to mitigate this effect is to give the learner control over the pacing of the video. Novices may need to stop the video or even play it back from time to time; experts may want to view the video at a faster speed and pause only when they get to new information.

One of the challenges with synchronous virtual training is that we can’t speed up the instructor; the presentation is the same for everyone in the room. A short instructional video may be more effective than live delivery or a recorded archive. If you must host a recording of an entire virtual session, keep in mind that someone viewing it on their own has a different learning process than someone who attended the event live. Provide playback options that give these learners control over the experience so they can manage cognitive load themselves. Edit out less relevant parts, such as the first minutes waiting for everyone to join the session, or portions of a Q&A session that discusses topics with little relevance to the original subject.

The self-management and self-explanation effects. These two effects are closely related. With self-management, we teach learners how to manage cognitive load, and they take steps on their own to minimize the negative effects of extraneous load and distractions. This can be useful in any learning situation, but especially in an environment that we know will be inherently loaded, such as online learning or learning on a noisy production floor.

The self-explanation effect prompts learners to internalize what they are learning by pausing at key times and asking learners to summarize what they’ve learned so far, like a companion workbook with prompts and open spaces for notes.

Excessive virtual training can be fatiguing; encourage learners to manage their cognitive load. Consider giving learners permission to turn off their camera or step aside for a moment. Schedule frequent breaks, and check in to see how everyone is doing.

These strategies are closely related to learning to learn—a best practice that teaches people how their brains work so they can become more effective learners.

The imagination effect. To the brain, a high-fidelity imagined event is similar to the same event in the real world. This means that we can improve skills by imagining ourselves in practice experiences. However, for imagination to work, we must already know the target behaviors we are visualizing. Experts have a much easier time with this than novices.

Virtual training is often criticized because it doesn’t allow for hands-on learning. In certain skills requiring motor function, this is an important drawback, but you can partially mitigate this loss by appealing to your audience’s imagination, especially if you’re working with a more experienced group with plenty of real-world experiences to draw on.

The collective working memory effect. If you can’t minimize the cognitive load, collaboration is another way to make it easier for learners. When people work together, no single person needs to remember everything about the behavior or process they are studying. The additional social interaction also increases engagement and retention. Breakout groups are an excellent tool for learning. Using them in a virtual setting adds variety, builds social learning, and engages this collective working memory effect.

Don’t Blame the Technology—Blame How We Use It

Virtual learning often gets an undeserved reputation for being non-interactive. However, most virtual trainers are using
less than a third of the tools available to them. Consider these common features and how you might employ them creatively:

  • Webcam. What else could you put on camera besides people’s faces?
  • Text chat. Introverts appreciate the chance to contribute without having to speak.
  • Links. What about an online scavenger hunt?
  • Whiteboard. Could you use it for brainstorming or mapping processes?
  • Polls. Get a quick feel for group opinions, check understanding, and provoke reflection.
  • Breakout rooms. Leverage this feature for problem-solving or teach-backs.

Commit to maximizing your use of the technology. It takes effort but can make the learning experience more effective for your learners.

Key Takeaways

  • Treat novices and experts differently; keep in mind that someone may be an expert at one thing and a novice at something else.
  • Provide novices and experts alike with a decreasing amount of guidance as they progress through a curriculum or course.
  • Give learners as much control as possible over how they consume multimedia content.
  • Enlist learners’ imagination to get outside of the virtual environment, but only when they are ready to produce a high-fidelity experience.
  • Help learners share the cognitive load through breakout rooms.

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