Avoiding Cognitive Overload in Synchronous Sessions

adobe - cognitive overload

There are two types of brain freezes. The first type follows an overly ambitious slurp of a frozen treat. The second type stems from an over-abundance of media and information. Some call this information overload. Researchers in instructional design and multimedia design call it cognitive overload.

The synchronous session is primarily a channel of communication that facilitates interactions between the instructor and the learners, but it is also a multimedia artifact. It contains presentations, animations, demonstrations, narration, graphics, and text. It may include video, and after the event, it becomes a complex video. As such, it’s important to think carefully about the overall design and flow of the session and the presentation of information.

Many of the articles that focus on designing lecture capture and video refer to Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning and Chandler and Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory. Mayer’s work explores multimedia’s use of visual and verbal information and how different presentation designs either increase or decrease cognitive load. Chandler and Sweller’s theory “distinguishes between three cognitive loads: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Each load competes for limited resources of working memory when complex visual and verbal information is processed” (Chen 2015). Both theories help guide video design, lecture capture formats, and by extension, the presentation of multimedia elements during a synchronous session. Building on these frameworks, some researchers ask which type of video lecture design leads to the best learning outcomes, whereas others test the effect of the inclusion of nonverbal cues on learning outcomes.

Teachers using synchronous communication should also consider cognitive load when designing the presentation of instruction. Students may already face many distractions in their own environment, such as parents, siblings, text messages, multiple browser windows, etc. It is important that the synchronous session itself doesn’t add to the information overload.

See below for an infographic summarizing cognitive overload and tips to avoid it. This is the second of four posters/job-aids I created for teachers conducting synchronous sessions. Click the image for the web version.

avoid-cognitive-overload (1)



Bates, A.W. (Tony). (2015). Teaching in a Digital Age. Retrieved from https://opentextbc.ca/teachinginadigitalage/

Chen, C., & Wu, C. (2015). Effects of different video lecture types on sustained attention, emotion, cognitive load, and learning performance. Computers & Education, 80108-121. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.08.015

Related Reading
Jones, A. (2013) Increasing Adult Learner Motivation for Completing Self-Directed E-Learning. Performance Improvement, 52(7), 32-42. doi: 10.1002/pfi.21361

Kizilcec, R. F., Bailenson, J. N., & Gomez, C. J. (2015). The instructor’s face in video instruction: Evidence from two large-scale field studies. Journal Of Educational Psychology, 107(3), 724-739. doi:10.1037/edu0000013

Warden, C. A., Stanworth, J. O., Ren, J. B., & Warden, A. R. (2013). Synchronous learning best practices: An action research study. Computers & Education, 63197-207. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2012.11.010

Are you experiencing information overload? Then I highly recommend this series by WYNC’s Note to Self: “Infomagical.”

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