Optimizing Cognitive Load for Student Success in Online Courses

Concurrent Session 9
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

Theory-driven instructional design is a critical component of web-enhanced instruction. This express workshop will present how to apply cognitive load theory to reduce the effects of extraneous cognitive load and ensure optimal learning in online courses and modules.

Sponsored By


Kadriye O. Lewis, EdD, is the Director of Evaluation and Program Development in the Department of Graduate Medical Education at Children's Mercy Hospital CMH). She is also Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine (UMKC SOM). Prior to coming to Children’s Mercy, Dr. Lewis worked for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) for more than 13 years. She played a major role in the development of the Online Master's Degree in Education Program for Healthcare Professionals. This program has developed a national and international reputation for excellence and played an important role in training future leaders in medical education. Dr. Lewis served as an education consultant to the medical center's faculty development program. She applied her educational background and academic skills to health literacy by establishing a Health Literacy Committee at CCHMC in 2007 and chaired this committee successfully for three years. Along with her many accomplishments in the area of scholarly activities, she also established the e-Learning SIG in Medical Education for the Academic Pediatrics Association (APA) in 2008 and served this group as the chair person for six years. Dr. Lewis is active in medical education research and her scholarly interests include performance-based assessment, the construction of new assessment tools as well as the improvement and validation of existing tools and methods. She also has a particular interest in instructional design and implementation of innovative technologies for curriculum delivery at many levels in healthcare education due to her extensive experience in e-learning and web-based technologies. Currently, she is involved in an NIH funded grant project on genome, various curriculum development projects for the graduate medical education programs at CMH and teaches an online/blended course in the Master of Health Professions Education program at UMKC SOM (http://med.umkc.edu/mhpe/). Dr. Lewis presents extensively at many professional meetings and conferences, and has been an invited speaker at many national and international universities.
With over 17 years of experience developing adult-centered online programs, Jennifer knows what drives student success— learning experiences that connect academic content to learners’ own lives in realistic, relevant, and relatable ways. Jennifer has managed e-learning initiatives and operations for public, private, and for-profit institutions of higher education. She has led the development of solutions focused on scaling instructional design processes using Lean and project management principles while building infrastructures to keep pace with the evolving state of online higher education. Jennifer earned a BA in Corporate Communication from Marietta College, an MAEd in Adult Education and Distance Learning from the University of Phoenix, and a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from The University of Dayton. She is also a graduate of the OLC's Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Education.

Extended Abstract

Upon successful completion of the workshop, participants will be able to:

  1. Examine cognitive load theory in terms of working memory characteristics and the design of instructional systems.
  2. Explain the fundamental principles of cognitive load theory as they relate to the design of online courses and modules.
  3. Describe three types of cognitive load (intrinsic, germane, and extraneous) and how each affect learning efficiency.

Theory-driven instructional design is a critical component of any web-based instruction to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of learning, which can be attained through the teaching methods, learning activities, and instructional materials designed to guide learning. Since most online courses operate asynchronously, students participate and complete assignments on their own schedule. When a student fails to understand any instructional materials, and cannot get immediate access to the instructor or other students to ask questions, s/he may become frustrated, or develop a misconception or interpretation of the topic studied for that specific point of time. To eliminate possible barriers and frustration in learning, we should apply mindful instructional design approaches and deliberate practices to online courses (Morrison & Anglin, 2005).

There are several models available to guide online educators in the instructional design process. However, not all models and theories may be practical or compatible with current perspectives on developing online courses or modules. Furthermore, as online teaching and learning have matured, there has been an increased focus on the effectiveness and efficiency of instructional design approaches to produce learning more proficiently, both in respect of the design of materials and the mastery of knowledge by the learner. Recently, Sweller’s (1994) cognitive load theory has emerged as a model to inform the instructional design of cognitively complex or technically challenging materials. This theory describes learning in terms of an information processing system that is made up of long-term memory and working memory. According to cognitive load theory, there are three types of cognitive load: intrinsic load, germane load, and extraneous load. Learning may suffer, or progress inefficiently, when extraneous load is high, germane load is low, and intrinsic load is not managed with appropriate techniques. Therefore, it is crucial to understand how learners’ working memory is being used so that learning can be optimized.

This express workshop will introduce the fundamental principles of cognitive load theory to guide the design of online courses and modules as a means of reducing the effects of extraneous cognitive load and ensuring optimal learning. Working in small groups, participants will explore types of cognitive load and discuss how to use the fundamental principles of cognitive load theory to improve the mental processes of learning, memory, and problem solving at the onset of the instructional design process. Through this interactive workshop, participants will learn valuable, applicable skills for designing their own online courses or modules and obtain new ideas for improving course design.

Workshop Outline

Introductions and Agenda

Overview of Cognitive Load Theory

We will use Kahoot to facilitate an interactive didactic presentation. 

  • Introduction to cognitive load theory
  • Fundamental principles of cognitive load theory in relation to e-learning
  • Types of cognitive load (intrinsic, extraneous, and germane)
  • Application of cognitive load theory to e-learning

Small Group Activity

Cognitive Load Theory and e-Learning Design

  • Each group will explore selected materials from online courses to identify sources of cognitive overload

Managing Cognitive Load

Kahoot will be used to teach the following content.

  • Using the examples from our small group activity, describe the key considerations/ strategies for reducing cognitive overload in online course/materials design

Key Points / Wrap up

  • Collective discussion of key takeaways and intended application after the workshop.

Note: Participants are encouraged to bring laptops to the workshop.



Morrison, G. R., & Anglin, G.J. (2005). Research on cognitive load theoryApplication to E-Learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(3), 94-104

Sweller, J. (1994). Cognitive load theory, learning difficulty and instructional design. Learning and Instruction, 4, 295-312.