Reducing Cognitive Load

Since the brain can only do so many things at once, we should be intentional about what we ask it to do.  Problem-solving takes up crucial working memory, or brain bandwidth, which limits what little is left to learn new things. 

This graphic (below) is a perfect example.  When I have Gmail, Google Meet, and Calendar tabs open on my laptop, I sometimes use too much working memory figuring out which one I need to click to check my email!

One way to reduce cognitive load for your students is to provide a clear and consistent structure. The location of reading materials, assignments, tasks, collaborative opportunities, etc. should always be in the same location and use the same format.  This is extremely important when structuring the courses in your learning management system, or LMS.  Using the same folder structure, as well as the same format for all of your assignment directions, allows students to reduce their cognitive load and learn new things more easily.

Other Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load

Chunk Information:  Provide a scaffolded approach for students. Breaking the lesson/topic/unit down into smaller portions will help the students retain the information as they continue to build upon their successes.

Be Concise: Communicating concisely is another way to reduce cognitive load.  When writing instructions, more is not always better.  Carefully choose your words to explain, clarify, or provide direction.  Shorter articles and text passages, or even multimedia sources can convey content effectively –  and lessen cognitive load.  Reduce long periods of lecturing, employ synchronous instruction to clarify major concepts or principles, and clarify assignment expectations. 

Encourage Collaboration: Allow students to learn in small groups.  Researchers theorize that under conditions of high cognitive load, richer collaborative learning environments lead to deeper processing and more meaningful learning than individual learning. 

The next time you’re designing a lesson or unit, consider some of these suggestions for reducing cognitive load for your students – and hopefully, Google Designers will consider cognitive load next time they update their icons.  

Malamed, C. (2017). Six strategies you may not be using to reduce cognitive load. The eLearning Coach (
Rabidoux, S. and Rottmann, A. (2017). 4 Expert Strategies for Designing an Online Course. Inside Higher Ed ( ).

Authorship Information:

After teaching English for 21 years, almost entirely in Henrico County, Gillian Lambert is now in her fourth year as an ITRT at Powhatan Middle School in Powhatan County. You can follow her on Twitter @GillianLambert.

Note: This is a repost from February 2, 2021 (original) –

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