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Cognitive Load Theory and the Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning form the basis for many current recommended best practices for the design of online learning experiences and instructional videos. 

In essence, these theories posit that there are limits to how much new information the human mind can process at once, as well as limits on how long a learner can remain focused on audiovisual material. Thus, it behooves faculty members to create online and video materials thoughtfully and intentionally in order to avoid cognitive overload in their students. 

Cognitive Load Theory proposes that any learning experience has three components:

  1. The first component is intrinsic load, which is inherent to the discipline or subject being learned and is partially determined by the degrees of connectivity within that subject. For example, when learning a language, learning word pairs has low intrinsic load (e.g., red = rojo). However, grammar has a high intrinsic load because it has many levels of connectivity and many conditional relationships.
  2. The second component of any learning experience is germane load, which is the level of cognitive activity necessary to reach the desired learning outcome—e.g., to make the comparisons, do the analysis, elucidate the steps necessary to master the lesson. The ultimate goal of these activities is for the learner to incorporate the subject under study into a schema of richly connected ideas.
  3. The third component of a learning experience is extraneous load, which is cognitive effort that does not help the learner move toward the desired learning outcome. It is often characterized as load that arises from a poorly designed lesson (e.g., confusing instructions, extra information), but may also be load that arises due to stereotype threat or imposter syndrome.

To better understand cognitive load, watch this short video on memory:

For ideas about best practices to reduce cognitive load in the design of online materials and videos, watch this short video:

Adapted from C. Brame, Effective Educational Videos, 2015 Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License 


DeJong, T. (2010). Cognitive load theory, educational research, and instructional design: Some food for thought. Instructional Science 38, 105-134. 

Mayer, R.E. & Moreno R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist 38, 43-52. 

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science 12, 257-285.