Is there such a thing as too little cognitive load?

 lightwithplantAs I adjust to having changed sectors (from Vocational Education and Training to the University sector) I’ve been keeping my one mouth shut and my two ears open as much as possible.

I’ve been lurking in new forums, paying attention to new headlines and stories and some old ideas are being pulled up to make way for new ones. It’s tiring, exciting and I can almost smell the ozone as the new synapses form!

A question is starting to break soil for me. For adult learners – what is the balance between ensuring cognitive overload doesn’t discourage learning and offering too much in the way of support so incidental learning doesn’t happen?

In the Vocational Education sector, job readiness is the goal. Some educators there argue that there is so much in a qualification that there is no room for “extras”. The qualifications have been designed by industry and learning experts and that’s enough.  Keep it simple, help them get through and master the competencies they are paying to master.

In the Higher Education sector assessments and course outlines go through a rigorous process and then theory and practice blend to scaffold learners to master increasingly more complex skills in interacting with knowledge as well as master practice.

Great care is taken in online learning spaces to reduce cognitive load. In the first few months of an undergraduate program, young adults studying partly or fully online are transitioning from teacher-led, classroom-based instruction to online, largely learner-led instruction – so this makes sense to me. But what about after those first fraught semesters?

Lewis Carroll Alice original drawing
“…’what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?’ “

Complex topics presented in journals and books aimed at adult professionals are typically not laid out with large, colourful fonts or arrows or signposting. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the technology itself that makes it possible for people with an interest in a particular topic to dive into a thick, weighty tome without pictures or conversations while others would rather jump down a rabbit hole?

However readers needed to learn how to read, hold a book and turn pages (or fire up their Kindle and download books) in order to obtain and interact with its knowledge. Using the internet effectively takes more learning than that. So shouldn’t we be teaching learners how to obtain and interact with (find, evaluate, curate, retrieve, apply, build upon, create) the online space?

What does that learning involve?

Information literacy I’ve already alluded to – the ability to find, evaluate, curate, retrieve, apply, build upon and create information artefacts. 

Within a course – shouldn’t some of the work involve more than writing or talking about what they’ve read with an eye to prepping for the big assessments? Shouldn’t they be learning about credibility and building their discernment skills rather than being handed a textbook and a list of readings? Shouldn’t they be trialling online tools that would help them to learn outside the Learning Management System? Shouldn’t they be taught to BROWSE again and in doing so learn about information architectures so when a website changes and a link breaks they’re not left stranded?

Maybe in Higher Education it’s a bit tougher. There are just a few major summative assessments as opposed to lots of smaller ones. Educators who are wonderful face to face see online as a poor cousin or dehumanising so they want it to be simple.  Or they don’t understand the online space so instead of considering what new things it could offer, they scratch the surface and reap complaints from learners.

So, am I suggesting that online spaces should be more challenging for learners? Absolutely. I am also suggesting that the RELEVANT use of technology should be incorporated into learning tasks and we should stop making things so readily able to find.

toomanyhatsI have had many jobs in my life.  I’ve sold shoes to strippers in Alaska. I’ve tended bar, waited tables, organised international film and video shoots, written copy for termite eradication advertising campaigns, organised conferences for facilities management professionals, researched and written about septic tanks and graveyards, temped in some huge cities armed with a paper map and sheer determination and have been involved in various roles in educational design and research.

When I had problems to solve, never did someone hand me a nicely formatted and summarised list of readings and resources with indexed instructions and a choice of options. I had to figure out where to find the information, whether it was valid and relevant, how to apply it and what to do if my initial assumptions didn’t work. Sometimes within a very short space of time with very limited resources. THAT is the world of work. THAT is problem solving and information literacy. Some of it I did on computers. Some involved a library or phone calls or finding out who to ask and when.

I realise foundation knowledge needs to be provided. But at what point (AQF and Blooms aside) do we prepare learners for the messy, complicated world they’re going to find and how can we build that into course design in such a way that we don’t discourage them?

The little sprout continues to grow. Feel free to water it with your comments… 

7 Replies to “Is there such a thing as too little cognitive load?”

  • This thought provoking and you can write how i wish i had similar abilities. It well expressed, i could add this is experiential learning. Learning from your past mistakes( success turned upside down). Building on your previous knowledge.Bottom line experience remains the best teacher, the world will teach and you have to solve problems(better to call them challenges).

  • Hi Norbert and thanks for your kind comments!

    I agree that the university of life is a powerful teacher. I’d like to look at ways we could arm people with the literacies they’ll need to learn from the lessons life teaches.



  • Hi Kerry,

    Wow, you article was immediately engaging and I loved how you shared your work experiences, as I agree, they are our strongest teacher.

    I think one of the essential factors that need to be involved in course design is the importance of incorporating on-the-job experience, and not just a random few weeks here or there over an entire degree. I believe education degrees should go back to the apprenticeship model where the teacher learns from the very beginning. I think it would do a lot to inform them from the very beginning whether they are suited to that area.

    What do you think?


    • Hi Annelise and thanks for your lovely compliments and taking the time to comment!

      Coming from the job-readiness focus of the VET sector, I think the more people are exposed to their potential work environment, the more applicable the content and learning tasks within a course are going to be. And as you so neatly point out, the learners would be better able to determine whether they’ve found their calling or need to make some calls and transfer to another major!



  • KerryJ, You have eloquently described the main problems with most online courses at the higher ed level. I’ve used, perfected (through trial and error with lots of student feedback), and written about best practice in structuring effective online learning for many years. I wish more online faculty would take your comments to heart and learn how to design for these issues. When I was an online grad student, I, too, had many of the same issues you described. During the whole process, I made copious notes about how I would do such-and-such (assignment, discussion, etc.) differently once I had online teaching and design jobs. Experiential learning, effective academic and professional research, critical thinking, and formative assessments are all missing in most online courses. And the sad fact is that it’s just not that difficult to create courses that include those elements, so I don’t understand why more courses are not designed to maximize the online learning process. Thanks for your descriptive first-hand view of the all-too-often missing elements in online learning.

    • Hi Leslie and thank you for taking the time to engage and comment!

      I think sometimes when people are introduced to new technologies, they have to do so from a base of what they already know. When I was researching and building in Second Life, it always amused me that given unlimited possibilities, many people built lecture halls with crappy carpeting and seats facing forward and would show up in business suits with ties. My first build was a simple house with furniture – which I later changed to having a glass floor with an underwater disco featuring a friendly octopus and some fish – but only after I was comfy.

      I still have a lot to learn and explore in this brave new sector of mine – and want to prototype, explore and create playmates as I go.



Comments are closed