How to Prevent ‘Cognitive Overload’ in Your eLearning Modules

Dec 22, 2021 at 07:02 pm by pj

By Cheryl Powell

Ever wonder what the rules of engagement were for using text and graphics in eLearning? I see a lot of eLearning where graphics may be distracting FROM the content, instead of engaging the learner TO the content.

For example, should you use illustrations or high-resolution photos? Well, to be honest, you can use either, as long they are high quality, high-resolution, and consistent. Unfortunately, that means you have to make a choice between the two and use them consistently throughout.

Consistency is key when it comes to any type of learning, but in doing some research about imagery and cognitive learning, I stumbled across an article by Stephen D. Sorden of Mohave Community College/Northern Arizona University entitled, “The Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning”. In the article, he asserts:

“Multimedia learning happens when we build mental representations from words and pictures. The theory has largely been defined by Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning.”

“…They assert that people learn more deeply from words and pictures than from words alone, which is referred to as the multimedia principle (Mayer 2005a)...Multimedia instructional design attempts to use cognitive research to combine words and pictures in ways that maximize learning effectiveness.

When selecting imagery, you should try to follow these guidelines:

  • Select either illustrations OR photos for your module.
  • Ensure illustrations are up-to-date and not cartoon style images from more than five years prior.
  • Ensure photos are either horizontal OR vertical, but not both.
  • Ensure photos are either color OR black and white, but not both.
  • Ensure photos on the screen are 100 percent relevant to the topic being discussed.
  • Align text and graphics on the screen to eye-level.

Next, let’s talk a bit more about that ‘cognitive overload.’ In an article by William Swann of MindLeaders, Inc., “The Impact of Applied Cognitive Learning Theory on Engagement with eLearning Courseware,” he states:

“Display of visuals and on-screen text at the same time can overload the visual information processing system, but using the audio system for verbal information and the visual system for imagery is a more efficient division of labour (Mayer & Moreno, 1998b, p. 4). In short, words go better through the ears and images go better through the eyes.”

What does this really mean? Well, it ultimately translates to three things:

  • Text on the screen should not duplicate the audio narration exactly.
  • Text on the screen should not describe the image.
  • Text on the screen should not be in paragraph format, but in brief, key words related to the topic.

The reasoning for this lies in the split-attention principle. In summary:

“…the split-attention principle — can be evaluated individually through an additional comparison of two-page designs. The first design is one that shows all linguistic content as text on the page, and, at the same time, provides full audio narration of the on-screen text. Associated imagery appears concurrently on the screen. In this design, text is being doubled, with the same words flowing through two modalities.”

These two modalities are the eyes and ears, forcing the learner to listen and read simultaneously.

Cheryl Powell is CEO of GC Learning Services, LLC, dba Learn2Engage, a virtual custom elearning and Training Development Solutions provider for businesses in Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals among others. Educate your employees, new hires, or even clients on a new policy/procedure, product/service, or skill, with engaging, interactive, custom e-Learning modules with high retention rates. Email her at or visit