We might have all heard a great deal about working memory and long term memory and their influence on instructional design. It is said that the working memory has limited capacity and can only process a defined amount of information at a given point of time. Cognitive psychologist George Miller says that the working memory can process 7 ± 2 chunks of information at a time. It is widely referred to as Miller’s law. How is this theory applicable when designing eLearning courses?
Instructional designers can play a key role to free the working memory of learners by managing the cognitive load well. Cognitive load is basically categorized as intrinsic, extraneous and germane.
Manage the intrinsic load:
Intrinsic load is something that is inherently generated by the core content of the learning material. For example, if you intend to teach how to create a PowerPoint presentation, the information that needs to be processed for the purpose is something integral for the course to meet its desired objective. There isn’t much that you can reduce here. All you can do is manage the load in the best possible manner to ensure that information is communicated effectively. So, if you are helping learners create PowerPoint presentations, you can create a step-by-step process where learners are introduced to one concept at a time, beginning with the creation of a simple PPT presentation.
Reduce the extraneous load:
The second type of cognitive load is the extraneous load which is nothing but the extra information that may not be directly relevant to the learning objective. Taking the example of the “PowerPoint course” that you want to design, there are many advanced features in the program which may not be immediately required for a novice. A novice may be only interested in knowing how to create a presentation deck. While advance features are good to know in the long run, you need to first focus on what is important and has immediate relevance for the learner. The additional knowledge about advanced features creates an extraneous load, which when minimized can help in reducing the overall cognitive load on the learners.
Capitalize on germane load:
Germane load is the next category of cognitive load. It refers to the manner in which learner’s process Information for learning. It could be by providing mental schemas or examples that aid in the learning process. A good instructional designer works towards providing such tools to the learners that aid them in effective learning. Examples, hands-on exercises or flow charts are some of the tools that help in capitalizing on the germane load of learners.
The ideal instructional strategy for developing an eLearning course would be to segregate information based on what is essential, what is supportive and what is additional. You use the supportive information to teach what is essential and leave out the additional information as a separate resource to be retrieved when the learner seeks it.