When building an eLearning course, it can be tempting to do a full-on information dump and completely overload your learners with too much information. After all, have you ever heard a SME admit that any related content wasn’t critically important? However, as you probably guessed, this isn’t an effective approach to education.

This brings us to the topic of Cognitive Load Theory, which explains why that strategy simply doesn’t work. In today’s post, we’ll talk about how you can tie this theory into your course development and make sure your learners are getting information at the right pace.

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

This theory proposes that there is such a thing as “information overload” and that the human brain can only handle so much information before it reaches capacity. This means that short-term memory does have a cap on how much it can take in.

When too much information is delivered, learners become less likely to recall those facts and retention rates start to take a downward trajectory.

To oversimplify the theory, we can only pay attention to so many things at once. This is common sense to some degree, but think of how many things some people have going on in some eLearning courses: Images, other animations, onscreen text, narration, (gulp) background music, etc. If these things aren’t strategically selected and properly aligned, you will be hurting the learning process much more than you’re helping it.

In another aspect, the theory also explains that each person has a schema, or a series of structures that are used for problem solving and thought processing that enable us to form a base of knowledge. Therefore, the idea of apprenticeship and continuous exposure to training is well founded.

Ensuring Your Learners Don’t Max Out

You want your learners to get the most out of your eLearning course, but not be burnt out by the time they reach the finish line. When considering how cognitive load theory plays into this, keep the following in mind:

Vary Presentation

Learning can come in many different formats—whether it’s through branched scenarios, interactive quizzes, videos, images, or infographics. Mix up how you present information throughout the course so the brain is always shifting gears.


Avoid adding elements and information that can lead to information overload. Keep your design clean and simple, and reduce clutter as much as possible.

Break it Up

By breaking the content into smaller, more digestible pieces of material, your learners can better retain important information. Rather than having big clumps of written material, long videos, or drawn-out audio, keep it short and sweet.

Connect to Something Known

The way we learn is to take something new and connect it with something we already know. So, be sure to build the proper context for what you’re teaching. If the learners can’t relate, they won’t learn the new material. By helping them to make the connections, it only strengthens their understanding and ability to absorb the new material.

Remember the Theory

When developing a course, remember that the learner’s schema have to be permanently impacted in order for the information to be retained. Build upon previous knowledge and go over different concepts in various ways to make sure that the material sticks.

When learners get overloaded, the time spent on an eLearning course is virtually wasted—the information is going in one ear and out the other. The cognitive load should be as light as possible while still covering all of the bases required.

Have you ever had an experience where learners reached capacity and maxed out? How did you fix the process?