3 steps to great instruction: How to avoid cognitive overload

Posted by Alexandra Spalding - Last updated on March 7, 2023

What is cognitive load theory?

First things first, what is cognitive load theory? Cognitive load theory describes how the human mind processes new information. The more we have to process at once, the harder it becomes to complete a task effectively. When dealing with new information, the brain can process anywhere from three to seven elements at once. This becomes even harder if those elements are interactive.



Interactivity means the degree to which the parts of knowledge have to be learnt together to make sense. Eg:




Learning words in a foreign language


You can learn one at a time

Learning to drive


You need to process knowledge about changing gears, looking for traffic, maintaining road position all at once (until some become automated).


If a learning situation presents material in which we have to process too much at once we experience cognitive overload.

Cognitive overload

Too much information or too many tasks are given to students simultaneously, which causes the brain to stop processing the information. The working (or short-term) memory exceeds its resource limit. 


Cognitive overload impairs or prevents learning so teachers need to avoid this condition in their students.

How to avoid cognitive overload

You can avoid cognitive overload by designing instructional materials and activities that avoid exceeding students' available capacity for working with new knowledge. 

Cognitive load comes in three types:

  1. Intrinsic load
  2. Extraneous load
  3. Germane load

These build on the one before it, so if the demands of the first two are too great there's less possibility for germane load before cognitive overload occurs. Let’s break down exactly what we mean by those 3 types.

1. Include elements already in your students long term memory

Intrinsic load.

This is the difficulty of a task for an individual student. The load here will vary between students based on their prior knowledge. Intrinsic load is determined by the number of elements and the level of interactivity between the elements given. Our working memory is limited to between three and seven new elements interacting at one time but long-term memory is unlimited. The more elements your students hold in long-term memory, the easier the task will be!

2. Don’t include anything that does not directly contribute to the learning goal

Extraneous load.

This is the additional work students have to do when faced with poorly designed instructional materials. Any unnecessary details included, like memes, background music, unnecessary anecdotes or flashy but unhelpful animations causes some of the students’ cognitive capacity to be spent dealing with that. Other distractions include using poor fonts, speaking in monotone or using complicated vocabulary.

3. Encourage students to integrate the new information with existing knowledge

Germane load.

This is the work that is directed towards integrating the new information with existing knowledge. This is what we’re aiming to encourage. It’s the ‘oh I get it’ moment that's linking to some past knowledge when you learn something. If we overload the brain we leave no room for these valuable thoughts to occur. One way to directly encourage this is by including prompts like ‘remember when we studied a similar idea last week?’. 


So, to sum up, when designing instructions, remember to manage how complicated the task is, reduce distracting material and encourage the link between old and new knowledge.

Ready to take this to the next level?

If you enjoyed the above and are keen to further improve your ability to avoid cognitive overload, try recording your classroom practice on video and then watch it back for effective reflection. You may even want to share this video with a peer or mentor to gain valuable feedback.

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