Cognitive Load Theory

This page explores cognitive architecture and how learning is impacted by cognitive load and how business simulation design impacts and needs to take into account cognitive load.

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My extensive experience actually using business simulations on company training means that I have observed and managed the impact of cognitive load on learning and my designs take into account cognitive load. Taking cognitive load into account when designing a business simulation is vital for effective and efficient learning.

Effective as this means that learners are not confused or overloaded. And, efficient as it means that the maximum learning takes place in the time available. As demonstrated by my award winning empirical research, at some point, there is a conflict between effectiveness and efficiency. It is the point where increasing cognitive load and hence perceived efficiency increases causes cognitive overload and hence reduces effectiveness.

Human Cognitive Architecture

The human cognitive architecture can be seen as consisting of two parts – working memory where learning is processed and long-term memory where learning is embedded.

Long-term Memory and Schema
Learning can be seen as changing and adding to the schema in long-term memory. Schema are domain-specific knowledge structures [1] and this has implications in terms of prior learning for simulation design in terms of linking the simulation to prior learning appropriately and testing the authenticity of prior learning. I remember once when running my Market Strategy planning simulation with a group of recently graduated accountants, one asked “Why do you measure both IRR and NPV – they are both the same”. A remark that is the same as saying that black is the same as white because they are both colours. Instead of telling the accountant that he was wrong, I let the simulation show that he misunderstood the measures of discounted cash flow!
Working Memory
Working Memory provides the link between the simulated real-world and long-term memory (where the learning is embedded). Unfortunately, working memory is a bottleneck and has limited capacity. Miller [2] suggests an ability to process seven plus or minus two items simultaneously. Further, working memory needs to be refreshed (rehearsed) every 15 to 30 seconds [3]. In the context of business simulation design this has major implications in terms managing the cognitive load during the simulation – issues that I address in terms of having a wide range, leanness and my systems dynamics. learning process model. Additionally by providing printed results my designs facilitate refreshing working memory in a way that is not possible with purely screen based output.

Types of Cognitive Load

As expanded on below, there are three types of cognitive load - intrinsic, extraneous and germane. Where, for simulations intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load can be seen as the load associated with active experimentation and concrete experience. Where germane cognitive load can be seen as the capacity available for reflection and concept formulation. Where extraneous load is time spent on irrelevant learning.

An understanding of cognitive load is key to deciding what to include in the simulation and the amount of time required for learning to be ensured. Specifically applying this understanding when designing and choosing a simulation impacts the effectiveness, efficiency and relevance of learning. My focus on matching simulation to learning purpose, lean design and learning process ensures this.

Intrinsic Cognitive Load
This relates to the number of items that must be processed simultaneously in working memory that are directly provided by the learning activity and schema construction. Sweller [4] described “Intrinsic cognitive load is the mental work imposed by the basic characteristics of the information”. In the context of business simulation design, intrinsic cognitive load is the load imposed by the simulation model, decisions and results that focus on and address learning objectives. Consequentially, it is important to link learning purpose to the choice of business simulation. Further, my experience actually using business simulations means that we are in the position to advise which simulation will most closely meet your needs.
Extraneous Cognitive Load
This is also known as ineffective cognitive load and is the load associated with working on activities that are not related to schema construction (learning) [5]. Specifically it is the “load not inherent within the instruction, but is imposed by the instructional designer” [6]. In the context of business simulation design, extraneous cognitive load can overwhelm the intrinsic cognitive load (cause confusion) and add to simulation duration (waste learners’ time). Thus it is the load caused by the inclusion of irrelevant models, inappropriate decisions and results.
Germane Cognitive Load
This is also known as effective cognitive load and is cognitive capacity remaining after taking into account intrinsic and extraneous cognitive load that can be directed towards schema acquisition [7].

Business Simulation Design and Cognitive Load

A core aspect of my Systems Dynamic model [7] is workload and ensuring that throughout the simulation is neither too high or too low - as if it is too high no learning takes place and if too low time is being wasted. Further information about design for process can be downloaded here. My award winning empirical research [9] shows that simulation complexity is highly correlated with duration and since then we have invented ways of shortening duration and thus allow more learning to be packed in to the time available.

Business Simulation Styles and Cognitive Load

Besides process aspects, there is the question of design style - in particular is this graphic rich or decision & result rich. I design my business simulations emphasising the links between decisions and results because unraveling these is crucial to business learning and ensures that the germane cognitive load focuses on business learning. (I see over indulgence on graphics as possibly causing an unacceptable level of extraneous cognitive load and hence reduce learning efficiency and effectiveness.

[1] van Merrienboer, J.J.G. and P. Ayres (2005) Research on cognitive load theory and its design implications for e-learning, Education Technology Research and Development, 53(3), 5-13

[2] Miller, GA (1956) The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information, Psychological Review, 63, 81-97

[3] Driscol, M. P. (2005) Psychology of learning for instruction (3rd ed.) Pearson, Boston

[4] Sweller, J. (1993) Some cognitive processes and their consequences in the organisation and presentation of information, Australian Journal of Psychology, 45(1) 1-8

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

[6] Chandler, P. & J. Sweller (1991) Cognitive load theory and the format of instruction Cognition and Instruction, 8(4), 293-332

[7] Sweller, J., J. van Merrienboer and F. Pass (1998) Cognitive architecture and instructional design Educational Psychological Review 10, 251-296

[8] Hall, Jeremy and Benita Cox (1993) Computerised Management Games: the feedback process and servo-mechanism analogy, Simulation & Gaming Yearbook 1993 eds Fred Percival and Danny Saunders, Kogan Page London

[9] Hall, Jeremy J. S. B. and Benita M Cox (1994) Complexity is it really that simple, Systems Developments in Business Simulations and Experiential Exercises Volume 21 eds. Precha Thavikulwat & John D. Overby, College of Business Administration, Oklahoma State University, Oklahoma


© 2010 Jeremy J. S. B. Hall

Most recent update: 10/10/13
Hall Marketing, Studio 11, Colman's Wharf, 45 Morris Road, London E14 6PA, ENGLAND
Phone +44 (0)20 7537 2982 E-mail
jeremyhall@simulations.co.uk