Cognitive Load

Learn how cognitive load can affect attention

John Sweller, an educational psychologist from Australia first discussed Cognitive Load Theory in 1988. He observed the difficulties in paying attention to learning when one was experiencing a higher cognitive load (Waude, 2017). Cognitive load is increased when avoidable demands are placed on the learner making the processing of information much more challenging for the learner (Waude, 2017).

Cognitive load refers to working memory and the amount of new information that the working memory can hold; thought to be two or three pieces of information at a time for approximately 20 seconds (Russell, 2019). The amount of information one can process can be impacted on by internal and external factors thereby making the learning more complex than it need be (Waude, 2017). For this reason, working memory is vulnerable to overload when too much new information needs to be processed and therefore, it is paramount that learning designers consider this when preparing learning materials (Malamed, n.d.).

Cognitive load can be both helpful and detrimental to learning which will be explained in further detail later.

Types of Cognitive Load

Cognitive Load Theory identifies three types of cognitive load:

  1. Intrinsic
  2. Extraneous
  3. Germane

Intrinsic Load refers to difficulty or complexity of the task which is ruled by the number of elements that require attention all at the same time increasing the complexity (Pande, 2019). As instructional designers, we can reduce the intrinsic cognitive load by providing easy to understand step-by step instructions on how to complete a task or find their way through the chosen learning management system (Waude, 2017)

Extraneous Load refers to the way that the information is presented and the added irrelevant information that is presented along with the relevant information (Pande, 2019; Waude, 2017). A good example of extraneous load is background noise that distracts the learner and creates added complexity with focusing on the learning at hand or poor design in the presentation of the material whereby distracting images or advertisements are placed throughout the content (Pande, 2019).

Germane Load is the result of handling information constructively by organising information in ways that contribute to learning. For example, taking complex processes and reducing them to acronyms to enhance recall of the information or by creating an infograph to present complex ideas in a simplified manner (Pande, 2019; Waude, 2017). This type of load, can be very positive for learning and it is recommended that this is promoted when designing learning experiences.

Learning Analysis and Cognitive Load

For this activity, I chose to find an instructional material on how to paint with watercolor as this is something I have been wanting to learn for some time. I found a beginner ‘how-to’ video on YouTube which can be found here.


The video is 6 mins, 39 seconds in duration and outlines the supplies the learner will require to start painting with watercolor including how to set up the workspace. Each topic is introduced with large white (non-intrusive) lettering across the screen. The instructor discusses the different watercolor painting techniques and demonstrates what happens when they are utilised on a blank canvas with a neutral backdrop. He explains how each technique can be advantageous depending upon what the learner is hoping to achieve while he demonstrates the effects of each technique.

Examples of how the instructional material does or does not address Cognitive Load principles

The video provided clear step-by-step instruction on how to set up a workspace and begin watercolor painting using the wet-on-wet approach.

The facilitator reduces cognitive load by leaving out detailed information on brush types explaining that the learner can tackle this information in another video when they are ready. By doing so, he has effectively reduced the intrinsic cognitive load as he has removed reduced the number of elements that require the learner’s attention (Pande, 2019) and kept only to introducing the learner to watercolor paints, the supplies required and the two basic techniques – wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry painting.

The facilitator chose a neutral backdrop to the video with only his hands and the equipment in the frame. By reducing clutter in the video, the learner can focus their attention on the things (ie. the equipment) that matter for their learning (Pande, 2019; Waude, 2017). This is a good example of reducing extraneous load by reducing the environmental clutter.

Suggestions on how to alleviate the Cognitive Load

Although the instruction material was very useful and well presented overall, I felt that the facilitator could have zoomed in closer to his hands as he demonstrated the different techniques so that the effects could have been seen while he was doing it. He does zoom in at the end however I felt I had to go back through my working memory and remember which technique each of the four demonstrations were all over again.


Malamed, C. (n.d.). What is cognitive load? Retrieved October 12, 2020, from

Pande, I. (2019, July 24). Cognitive Load Theory: Definition, Types, And Applications For Learning [Guest Post]. Retrieved February 24, 2019, from

Russell, D. (2019, July 29). An introduction to cognitive load theory. Retrieved October 11, 2020, from

Waude, A. (2017, January 17). Cognitive Load Theory: How ‘Cognitive Load’ Affects Memory. Retrieved October 12, 2020, from

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