top of page

That's Cognitive Load Theory!

Learning experience designer Chris Syracuse joins me to discuss Cognitive Load Theory. Coming from a technical communications and visual design background, Chris is particularly interested in how the theory of cognitive load might inform better learning design decisions.

We talk about schemas, the power of seven plus-or-minus two, and why too much interactivity might actually be putting learners into the extraneous cognitive load zone. Chris also mentions a few things you should avoid using in your own visual design. SPOILER ALERT: drop shadows and gradients are on the list!

You can connect with Chris on LinkedIn.

You can also check out his portfolio at


The following transcript was auto-generated and may contain typos or spelling errors.

Leslie Early 0:00

All right, I am super excited today I have a fellow designed by humanity learning experience designer extraordinaire here with me. Chris Syracuse, thank you so much for being here, Chris.

Chris Syracuse 0:10

Yeah, thank you for having me.

Leslie Early 0:13

So we did meet through design by humanity. We also I sort of saw you a little bit more formally in the ATD emerging professionals showcase. So that was a very Zen presentation. You did there.

Chris Syracuse 0:27

Thank you. I appreciate that.

Leslie Early 0:29

It was it was there, everyone was just chilled out watching you, you know, man, the What is that? What is the Adobe Illustrator? You were doing your Adobe Illustrator jam, and everyone was just chilled out watching you. And it was awesome.

Chris Syracuse 0:42

That's, that's all I can really hope for. I saw some I saw some Bob Ross of graphic design comments. And I think that was the peak of my career, honestly. Yeah,

Leslie Early 0:52

you definitely need to put that on your resume. I should. So you are here today, you would like to talk about kind of cognitive load theory and how that applies to, you know, our role as instructional designers or elearning. Developers?

Chris Syracuse 1:09

So yeah, this is this is one of those things that I'm kind of new to so I'm at that stage where I'm just learning things, and it's all over the place, and I'm making connections, like, wildly. So you know, I definitely want to encourage your listeners don't take what I say with a grain of salt, you know, do your own research. But as I this is, as I understand it, as I see how it relates to visual design.

Leslie Early 1:31

Yeah. And that's kind of so you have like the beginner's mind.

Chris Syracuse 1:35

Yeah, maybe, maybe so. And I wonder, I wonder if, if it could be a boon to my experience with you applying cognitive load, if I could just always have that beginner's mind, because that's one of the one of the bigger problems when we're talking about applying cognitive load theory to instructional design is how is the difference between working memory or short term memory and long term memory. And, you know, when we're doing something, we've done something so many times for so long, it's loaded into long term memory. And we can recall it whenever we need to. And we in that recall, is essentially unlimited. It's easy to underestimate how much information we're giving. Because to us, that is a schema that is unlimited, we can load as much or as little as we want at any time. But two new learners, someone dealing with novel information, your working memory is limited to about two to four elements of information. It's very, which is probably much smaller than most people would expect. Two to four elements.

Leslie Early 2:39

Yeah, and I backing up to what you said about the schema. So this schema is essentially, you know, someone who's an expert at something, they have, they have like, I'm trying to think of a good metaphor. It's like there's already a framework, there's already a scaffold in your brains, or a bookshelf, let's say. And so you know, when you get new bits of information, if you're already sort of an expert in your field, or what you're learning, you just take that new bit of information and just set it on the shelf, you know exactly where it goes, you know how to organize things, and you can slide the new bit in, and it's totally organized in seconds. But someone who like has no idea and does not have a schema about this topic, you give them you know, the new piece of information. And it's like, they have no idea where to put it, or how this fits in with everything else, which is like, very difficult for a new learner to go through.

Chris Syracuse 3:34

Exactly, yeah. And this applies to just our world as a whole, basically, I mean, schema, in the sense you with language. You know, if I said car, I don't have to say wheels and tires and painted steel and engines, like, there's a lot to know. But we can recall it instantly, we can almost we can, we can understand so many things about the implications of that one object through the one word. And new learners don't have that affordance. So we have to be very conscious. And in going back to that two to four elements of information. So when a learner has to process information, or when they're dealing with interactivity, among elements, that's when the limit drops down to about two, two to four. I think people like to references how phone numbers are chunked into sets of data in three, three and four of us. So that makes it easier for us to memorize. But that's, you know, that's a string of seven. And it is so there was work before basically john, john sweller is the one who came up with this cognitive load theory and there's work before him by George Miller that talks about, you know, seven plus or minus two items. And in memorization, the reason why we now understand it as two to four is that that seven plus or minus two refers to unidimensional Comparison basically, just sorting, memorizing a list of things. And that's not what you're doing that's you rarely do anything that's simple. When you get new information. Normally, you're being asked to like, you're being asked a lot more of the things that you're that you're learning.

Leslie Early 5:19

So let's think of an example. So obviously, in like an elearning, or instructional design project, you're not asking your learner's to memorize or sort or do these very simple tasks. That would be, you know, the seven plus or minus two. So in these more complicated tasks, that's where this tool is, Am I understanding correctly, like, and you'd be able to handle two to four novel things at a time, right?

Chris Syracuse 5:45

So when so when it comes to instructional design, we instructional designers, we love to think about our objectives, right? We love to rewind and remind ourselves what's the point, when we create an instructional material, we are trying to teach someone something, we don't care if they're able to recite seven numbers, we want them to learn something, we need to encourage interactivity between the elements that they're processing in order for them to store it in long term memory so that they can then recall it later with that infinite space that we talked about.

Leslie Early 6:15

Right? So basically, as instructional designers, or any educator, really, you're trying to get your learner from that short term memory like hamster wheel, and get that information into the long term memory. That's like the goal, right? That that's in their long term memory, they're starting to form a schema, and they can then use that information and hopefully have a behavior change or something. So yeah, but it's like using cognitive load theory, how do we get them out of that short term, working memory into long term memory?

Chris Syracuse 6:51

Okay, so yeah, so let me let me riff on it a little bit, as I understand it, as it relates to visual design. I think a lot of times what we do with graphic design visuals, is we use visuals for what they're great at, which is a puzzle, giving people a puzzle, when we see a picture, we just start, we start trying to solve, solve it, if you have a sentence, you can just read it end to end. And you know what it's saying. And that's sort of true for a picture, but it's a little bit more complicated. And you kind of have to start, you have kind of have to decipher, and infer a lot of meaning a lot, you have to do a lot more inference, I guess, with a picture than you do with a sentence, depending on, you know, the level of how abstract the images. And that's what we like to do, I think that's what a lot of instructional designers like to do is to give you an image that will get your mind working, and churning the information, it will get you solving these puzzles, and you'll see a photo example of someone doing the thing that you're being described, that's being described in a sentence. Now here, the problem with that is, you only get four pieces of information. So you have maybe two in your sentence, and two, or three, or maybe four in your picture. And you're already overloaded at that point. And what really what's really important within cognitive load theory are the different types of cognitive load the intrinsic, the, I think it's germane and extraneous. So there's some load that's automatically necessary for you to move that move that information into a long term schema. And some that is just taking up space. That's the extraneous load. And we can learn more effectively when we're not overloaded. So of course, you can just kind of forget the extra pieces stick to what you're able to process. And then, you know, internal, store that into long term memory, but it's a lot more difficult when you're having to, like, parse out what doesn't fit, or what, what you simply can't fit. And then the other problem with that is how can you really determine what your which one's your learner is going to pick, like, if you give them six things, and they can only learn to you, you know, it's kind of up in the air, whether they're going to learn the right, the most important ones. And so I think we get carried away thinking, Well, let me just give you all the information and assume you're going to figure out which one's the most important. And you know, if you get extra, then that's a bonus. Yeah, it works.

Leslie Early 9:12

That's good to keep in mind, the other thing I was thinking of is that, even if you have only two points on the screen, let's say and so you're like, Okay, this should be well within the cognitive load of my learner. But you have a bunch of interactions in the screen to have to have your learner get even get to those two points. So now, goes, each individual interaction is also sort of a novel bit of information that the learner has to process. So, you know, if you're trying to teach two things, you don't want them to have to go through like six interactions to get there. Right.

Chris Syracuse 9:49

Exactly. That's exactly. That brings it full circle to what we talked about with long with online learning. That's exactly what's happening now is that you just can't get around the fact that people have To learn, they have to perform two or three new steps before they get to your information right now. And I think there are some programs that are some some people out there that are doing this that are kind of approaching this the right way. And I want to I want to mention my master's program is actually, and they've kind of always done this. There, the program has always been online. And they're aware that new learners are going to have to learn how to navigate the system. And I'll be the first to say, it's way too complicated takes me five clicks, to get to Mike, it takes me five clicks to get to whatever I need to do for that day. Like, if I want to post a discussion question, that's another two or three clicks. So, so I'm seven bits of navigation in, and I don't really have much left to, to say what I was gonna say, you know, I've kind of got a restart now. And so they, they take the first couple semesters, and they're very easy on you, they don't really ask a lot, you don't need to be logging in every day, and doing tons of things, they ask you to log in, twice a week. And then you know, they give you they give you your readings. And basically, this is time for me to create that long term memory schema that I can, you know, next semester, I'll be flying through it, I won't, it won't be anything to, to recall that those steps will get logged into my classes.

Leslie Early 11:15

So the first semester sounds like it's, it's the training wheels, semester, just so that you can understand the LMS that you guys are using Exactly. And well, that's pretty smart. I mean, that's smart on their their end. So if you right now, as you're designing a project, let's say let's say you were to start right now developing a project, like what goes through your mind as you're trying to apply some of these, some of these best practices.

Chris Syracuse 11:45

Um, I mean, the first thing would be, you know, coming from a graphic design standpoint, I want to make it look nice. I'm thinking about the colors, you know, and the shapes that I'm going to bring in there. But then the next step is like, do I need it? Do I need any of that, can I just get rid of that? Do you know, thinking maybe like, I want to have a very interesting looking menu that maybe it displays a progress bar, as part of the menu, you know, like lots of lots of looping back, like a menu that you can constantly access to jump around and reference things at any point, I don't like to assume people are just going to learn, I want them to be able to look back at the information quickly. That's coming from my technical communication background. So moving to instructional design, now I have to turn that off and think like, okay, the flashy menu is one of my four items. So maybe I maybe I cut that out and just kind of force them to go through the Prop, go through the process. And then and then keep that in mind. Throughout the instructions are the information that I'm giving them that I need to just put less in there. Yeah, not so necessary for them to have to come back and reference it.

Leslie Early 12:54

The other thing I wanted to talk about, though, is redundancy. Like having, you know, if you have an image, like you were saying, and the image is communicating to things, but the text is communicating to things. And you and I think maybe a rookie mistake is, if the text and image are communicating the same two things, then we're okay. Right? Because it's just two things. But that's not necessarily the case.

Chris Syracuse 13:19

Yeah, not at all. That's interesting. You point that out. Yeah. Um, I feel like it's exactly the opposite. Your, your text, your text, and image should be a may be able to exist on their own, but they shouldn't be comfortable existing on their own, you should take a little bit from each piece, you should take a little bit away from each piece so that maybe there's this overlap this Venn diagram, it should, it should always add, they should always be adding to each other. So you know it. So you're not reading to the you're not reading an image and then reading the exact same thing in in a text. in it. That's, that's a lot. That's kind of difficult to describe what I'm what I'm trying to say it's a lot easier to show. So right, that's where the visual communication comes in. But a good way to think of it is, when you're reading, you can craft the scene however you want it to look in your head. But let's say I tell you someone's wearing a dress, and I want you to know the dress is red. I can just have the picture of a red dress. Say it's a red dress. Maybe a little bit of a simpler example, but you can probably extrapolate that.

Leslie Early 14:29

Yeah, no, that makes sense. Yeah. Okay, so, um, for listeners, you know, I know there's so much more to talk about on this topic, and we just kind of scratched the surface here. But do you have any, you know, pointers or takeaways for people who are trying to kind of get into this?

Chris Syracuse 14:49

Yeah, I mean, I'll just go with a direct ask. Avoid the strokes, drop shadows and gradients. That is probably You know, let's keep it simple. Let's let's, let's keep people, let's keep it between two to four elements of information. So there's three, don't use strokes, shadows or drop shadows or gradients. Basically, it's just, you know, you're trying to create visual interest. But you have to keep in mind that a lot of those things that do create visual interest are items, they're there. They're things, they're elements that we use to make judgments about the world around us their textures, when we see a gradient, we might automatically start processing that and trying to figure out is that a piece of metal that I'm looking at or a drop shadow? We're actually gathering we're extracting information about what we're seeing from that drop shadow, it's that it's a three dimensional or how far away is that object from the page. And that's all things that while it may make the image more interesting, we don't need to have that information about, you know, whatever slide whatever PowerPoint or learning object we're looking at.

Leslie Early 15:56

That's interesting. Yeah, I hadn't thought about that. But effects that you add on to your text, even something that's simple is actually being processed as a bit of information.

Chris Syracuse 16:05

Yeah, right. Yeah, and a lot of it, we do have schema for it, you know, you look at some base. That's why we have basic UI design principles that, you know, you should always add this much rounding on the corners or this much drop shadow to it. Because that's, that's what we expect. When we're, when we're faced with that kind of familiar information, it's not so difficult. So if you know, if you want to use those effects, just try to at least spend a little bit of time learning what the conventions are in UI design, because a lot of this, you know, we're specifically we're talking about creating user interfaces for learning to happen with them. So that's a good place to go. If you want to be if you want to create interesting visuals, you can do it just don't just try to go wild with the with with the strokes, and the drop shadows, and gradients

Leslie Early 16:50

are awesome. So those are actually very valuable takeaways. Try not to use any of those things. And then if you do want to use some of them, like you said, just do a little bit of research. There's a lot of resources out there about UX UI and some of those conventions. And actually, if you didn't use some of those conventions set might also be a little bit confusing to the learner. So very cool. If listeners would like to connect with you, and maybe have another longer conversation about this, if you're open to that, where can they connect with you or find you? Absolutely.

Chris Syracuse 17:30

I'm always open to longer conversations. You find me on LinkedIn.

Leslie Early 17:35

Do you have any portfolio or or anything like that, that people can look at?

Chris Syracuse 17:39

Yeah, my my website is Chris Syracuse dot design.

Leslie Early 17:43

Marry. Cool. All right, Chris. Well, thank you so much for joining me on. That's awesome.

Chris Syracuse 17:50

Thank you for having me. This is this is very fun.

Leslie Early 17:52

Very fun. I hope I didn't stress you out too much.

Chris Syracuse 17:55

Oh, no, no. For a first podcast experience, let's say it went pretty smoothly.

Leslie Early 18:00

Awesome. All right. Well, I hope you have a good rest of your day, Chris.

Chris Syracuse 18:04

Thank you for having me.

Transcribed by


bottom of page