Cognitive Load Theory in Multimedia: Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Have you ever wondered why some of your instructional media seems to be more successful than others? How one video seemed to capture your learners’ attention more, keep them engaged, and have them able to recall the information more easily? Cognitive load theory may have something to do with it.

What is cognitive load theory? Broadly, the theory describes how learners can be overloaded with extraneous information and less able to retain critical concepts. This puts a burden on learners’ thinking processes because they are tasked with sorting out the “need to knows” from the “nice to knows”.

The very same concept applies to time-based instructional media. Adding animations and callouts in your design can help activate sensory memory and jump-start the brain’s data-storing processes. But it’s a delicate balance to include multimedia elements that are helpful without unintentionally contributing to cognitive load. The timing of callouts, audio, voiceover, animations, on-screen text, and overall structure of the information can have an enormous impact on how your learners will respond.

There are a lot of variables at play, of course. Let’s assume that you’ve covered the essentials. You’ve made sure that the content is appropriate for your audience. Check. You’ve cut down on any extra information that could be unnecessary or distract from your main points. Check. You’ve edited your instructional media so that it’s clean and polished. Check.

Anything left to do?

Yes! Take a close look at your media. There’s a chance that you stumbled into some common pitfalls:

1. The more media elements the better.

Sometimes learning designers get carried away with all of the bells and whistle and add several elements happening all at once: animation/callouts, on-screen text, graphics, audio, etc. Keep in mind that cognitive processes usually allow for a combination of two media forms such as audio and animation/callouts; graphics and text; graphics and audio.

2. Voiceover always has accompanying text.

It is best practice to offer closed captioning as an option to meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliances, but having on-screen text with narration that repeats the same information auditorily is a redundant treatment that can actually hinder the learning process.\

3. Describing everything that happens on the screen.

It’s great to provide instructions for using your multimedia when needed. However, including narration that’s either lengthy or describes every step in detail can be unnecessary. Trust in your learners’ ability to follow along and push them to think critically rather than passively consuming the information. Making mindful decisions about narration can hugely help in reducing multimedia cognitive load.

4. Using the same multimedia elements consistently.

It can be tempting to think that using the same elements again and again would be helpful to your learners, but it’s actually the opposite. Use variety in your instructional multimedia to keep your learners engaged. Have fun with it and mix it up! If you aren’t enjoying what you are seeing, your learners won’t either.

Following these strategies will help your instructional multimedia be a win-win for you and your learners. Your multimedia will have the desired outcome you are aiming for and your audience will have a delightfully smooth learning experience.

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