Minimizing Cognitive Load

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

As we continue to brave this new virtual front for learning and teaching, many of us are caught between wanting to maintain engagement levels and not overwhelming our newly minted and involuntary online-learners.


There is likely 100% agreement among teachers that a class held synchronously while all participants stare at a screen for extended periods of time is suboptimal, but there must be a consideration for when too much is being asked of participants as they drag, drop, minimize, copy and paste ad infinitum. 


But where do we draw the line? 


What steps are most ‘high leverage’ as we accept online instruction as a longer-term solution than many of us had ever imagined? Let’s take some lessons from the distant memory of our classrooms in vivo:


Consider your:


  • Opening procedures

  • Closing activities

  • Most frequent routines


Many of us overlook the power of familiarity in the digital sphere. When introducing content, it should never be coupled with a new procedure as that is unnecessarily overburdening the students’ cognitive load. Opening procedures like closures, tend to go smoothly because they are established and practiced over time. Still, the first time we executed them was likely at the beginning of the year when there was slim to no content involved. This allowed for the full focus of learners to be on the procedure rather than the content. As we began to introduce various activities (do-now’s, exit tickets, turn and talks, jigsaws, discussion protocols etc.) students luxuriated in placing their full focus on the procedure alone so as to master it. Collectively the learning benefits are reaped all year due to this investment. This must be our approach online as well.  Consider these basic steps to avoid cognitive overload for your digital instruction:


1- Introduce the procedure by modeling and asking students to repeat/perform back to you what they have understood.

2- Execute the procedure (fully, if possible) with student participation and familiar low-stakes content (i.e. a break out room discussion about favorite foods).

3- Ask for student feedback and adapt the routine based on the end user’s experience.

4- Save the now clarified directions in an accessible format (on your site or shared virtual space) for students to access at will. You could snip the recording or create a graphic/text resource.

5- Enjoy the benefit of returning to the procedure with new content as often as necessary with confident and engaged students.


This process was used when I was in class with my students, and has made a major impact on my ability to continue to work with them virtually. There’s enough for our learners to think about, let’s lessen their load as best we can!



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