When designing and developing an eLearning course, it’s easy to stuff it with all of the required content and push it to your learners. However, a critical part of being a good instructional designer is not only considering what content you include in your eLearning course but also how you communicate it.

The effectiveness of any eLearning course depends on how the learner processes the information provided, and whether or not that information is committed to long-term memory.

The effectiveness of any eLearning course depends on how the learner processes the information provided, and whether or not that information is committed to long-term memory. This is where Cognitive Load Theory comes into play. If you’re not familiar with Cognitive Load Theory, I highly suggested you check out this great explanation by Connie Malamed.

In this post, I’ll share four practical ways you can reduce cognitive load in eLearning.

Structure the Learning Content into Smaller, Bite-Sized Chunks

Reduce cognitive load by structuring your content into smaller, bite-sized chunks

When I first started in eLearning, there was a lot of conflicting guidance regarding the ideal length of an eLearning course. Some folks said an eLearning course shouldn’t exceed 45 minutes, others said 20 minutes, and nowadays I hear people say 10 minutes. To be honest, I’ve never been a firm believer that an eLearning course should be restricted to an arbitrary duration of time. I’ve always believed that an eLearning course should be as short or as long as it needs to be to cover the required content.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be strategic or thoughtful about how you chunk of scaffold your learning content. Even if you have a 45-minute eLearning course, it doesn’t mean you try to cram 25 new concepts into that one course. Depending on the nature of what’s being taught, you want to avoid overloading the learner with too much information or too many concepts at once.

An eLearning course shouldn’t be restricted to an arbitrary duration of time—it should be as short or as long as it needs to be to cover the required content.

To avoid this, you can reduce cognitive load in eLearning by structuring the learning content into smaller, bite-sized chunks. For example, if you have five new concepts or behaviors you need to teach your learners, and they each will take about 10 minutes to cover, you could build a single 50 minutes course; however, it’s not likely that your learners will retain all of the information. On the other hand, you could chunk each concept into five, shorter eLearning courses, with each being 10 minutes in duration.

Let the Learner Apply Each Concept with a Meaningful Interaction

Reduce cognitive load in eLearning by letting the learner apply each concept with a meaningful interaction.

An important part of creating an effective learning experience is to let your learners practice the behaviors you’re attempting to teach. I’ve always believed that knowledge and behavior aren’t mutually exclusive. In other words, if all you provide is the information, don’t expect your learners to put it into practice back on the job. If you just dump a bunch of information onto your learners, you run the risk of overloading them with information that they won’t remember.

Giving your learners the opportunity to practice a skill lets them experience how that skill is relevant to them. And it’s often through a well-designed practice activity that helps the learner retain those skills in their long-term memory.

Any interaction that requires the learner to apply their critical thinking skills to make a decision, complete a task, or answer a question, will help them retain the information and skills in their long-term memory.

You can reduce cognitive load in eLearning by letting the learner apply each concept with a meaningful interaction. For example, if you need to teach your learners how to use a new, complex system, you could build a series of how-to videos to show them how the system works. But you don’t want to stop there! After each demonstration, include an interactive simulation, challenging the learner to complete a specific task within the new system.

Any interaction that requires the learner to apply their critical thinking skills to make a decision, complete a task, or answer a question, will help them retain the information and skills in their long-term memory.

Pair Meaningful Graphics with Animations & Audio Narration

Reduce cognitive load by pairing meaningful graphics with animations and audio narration.

When I first started building eLearning courses, I remember thinking that my slides were merely there for me to insert the content of my course. Although many of my first eLearning courses included audio narration, all it did was simply repeat all of the content I included on the slides, word-for-word. After about a year of doing this, I stumbled across Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte. If you’re not familiar with Slide:ology, it’s a fantastic book about designing presentation slides. In it, Nancy explains that your slides are there to “help your learners see what you’re saying.” This completely changed my view of how I should be using my eLearning slides.

eLearning is a tool for visual communications—it’s an opportunity for you to create a multimedia experience for your learners—one that helps your learners see what you’re trying to say.

I’ve since realized that eLearning is a tool for visual communications—it’s an opportunity for you to create a multimedia experience for your learners—one that incorporates graphics, audio, animations, interactivity, etc.

You can reduce cognitive load in eLearning by pairing meaningful graphics with animations and audio narration. Rather than throwing a bunch of bullet points and generic stock photos on your slides, use your slides to visualize the concepts you’re attempting to explain. For example, if you’re teaching a new process, visualize the process with a diagram or series of icons, animating each step as it’s explained by the audio narration.

Design an Intuitive User Interface

Reduce cognitive load in eLearning by designing an intuitive user interface.

When I first started creating eLearning courses, I didn’t need to worry about designing an intuitive user interface. At the time, I was using Articulate Studio, which simply converted my PowerPoint slides into Flash-based eLearning courses, by adding a player with a menu and navigation controls—the user interface was taken care of for me. However, nowadays, with tools like Articulate Storyline and others, the ability to create custom, on-screen navigation is easier than ever.

User interface design is like a bad joke, if you have to explain it, it’s not that good.

When designing an interactive eLearning course, it’s crucial that you make the experience as intuitive as possible. For every second your learner spends trying to learn how to use your course, it’s a second they aren’t learning the concepts you’re trying to teach. I’ve always loved the saying, “user interface design is like a bad joke, if you have to explain it, it’s not that good.”

You can reduce cognitive load in eLearning by designing an intuitive and easy-to-navigate user interface. Keep the navigation of your course simple and consistent. Make sure your buttons look and behave like buttons. Where possible, reduce the number of clicks to complete a specific task. And of course, conduct user acceptance testing to get feedback on the usability of your eLearning course.

The Bottom Line

When designing and developing an eLearning course, you run the risk of overloading your learners when you try to cover too much information, when you fail to let your learners put the concepts into practice, when you don’t help them see what you’re saying, and when you make your eLearning hard to use. Making these practical and straightforward adjustments will not only improve the overall quality of the learning experience, but also help you reduce the cognitive load of your learners.

What other tips can you share to help reduce cognitive load in eLearning? Share them by commenting below!

Tim Slade

Tim Slade

Hi, I’m Tim Slade, and I’m a speaker, author, and founder of The eLearning Designer's Academy. Having spent the last decade working to help others elevate their eLearning and visual communications content, I have been recognized and awarded within the eLearning industry multiple times for my creative and innovative design aesthetics. I’m also a regular speaker at international eLearning conferences, a LinkedIn Learning instructor, and author of The eLearning Designer’s Handbook.

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