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Cognitive Load and the Return on Mental Investment

One of the most frustrating experiences for a learner is mentally investing in a course but then getting nothing out of it. Situations like this typically mean that the course isn’t helping the learner manage their cognitive load, and it’s an instructional designer’s job to be considerate of this factor.

As Cognitive Load Theory explains, learners hold information in their working memory while they’re learning until they can process it into their long-term memory. Since working memory has a limited capacity, too much information at once can overwhelm the learning process. When this happens, learners lose a lot of information.

In other words, failing to consider the cognitive load of your learner’s mental bandwidth means that they don’t get a return on their mental investment, which is the opposite of what you want in a training course. We’ve previously discussed the benefits of cognitive science on instructional design, and our opinion hasn’t changed.

As an instructional designer, the best way to help your learners get a return on their mental investment is to decrease their cognitive load. Here are three strategies you can implement to do this:


You know you’re an instructional designer when you hear the term “bite-sized” and immediately think of microlearning rather than a miniature version of your favorite treat (okay, maybe you think of both). Microlearning, which is often described as using bite-sized training assets, can decrease a learner’s cognitive load because smaller bits of information can be more easily committed to memory.

It’s important to remember that microlearning isn’t just about the small assets, though–it’s also about making sure that the small assets are focused on the learner and their specific learning objectives.


Have you ever taken a course where you asked yourself, “What does this have to do with me?” or “Where’s the information that I actually need?” By the time you get to the applicable content, your brain is already full of all that other stuff that isn’t useful to you.

Personalization can give the learner a chance to decide what they want to learn and how they want to learn it. This allows the learner to get a greater return on their mental investment because they’re able to focus on, and later remember, the content that’s most relevant to them.

Mobile Learning

It’s pretty obvious just how popular mobile devices are in today’s day and age–according to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone–so it’s no mystery why mobile learning is also getting popular. What might not be as obvious, however, is that it’s more than just taking a course using a convenient platform.

Mobile learning lends itself to a return on mental investment because the mobility allows learners to go at their own pace, wherever they may be. More importantly, it provides learners with the opportunity to go to a course the second they realize they may have a learning gap, giving them real, on-the-job training.


Oftentimes you’ll find that these strategies overlap, or that using a combination of these strategies makes the most sense. For example, in order to create a mobile learning course, you’ll want to also integrate a microlearning strategy since it’s not exactly effective to have a bunch of information on a small screen.

Whatever the case, the amount of content, the type of content, and platform in which the content is viewed all influence cognitive load and, subsequently, the learner’s return on mental investment.