Using cognitive theory to inform multimedia learning

Reading time: 6m

AuthorCathy SivakChief Quality Officer
Reading Time6 minutes

For training departments that have relied predominantly upon face-to-face training sessions, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a migration to digital. For many L&D teams, there was little option but to adapt and deliver their offering virtually. This involved repurposing learning materials for the digital environment. However, this led to cases of bad practice in L&D, including a ‘lift and shift’ approach to moving learning content online with little consideration for its efficacy in the new setting. Modern learners want and expect high-quality, relevant learning content that’s available at point of need. This is where understanding how we learn can inform your digital learning design for maximum success.

Cue cognitivism

Cognitivism is a theory of learning that focuses on internal cognitive processes to explain how learning takes place. The focus tends to be on how we interpret information and make sense of it; how we process, organise and recall information. Memory plays a significant role in this. If you understand how to create e-learning that harnesses our cognitive capabilities, positive learning outcomes will follow.

Working memory

Working memory is believed to have different parts that process different types of information. This includes a channel that processes visual information and a separate channel for processing auditory information. The existence of two separate channels means that we can receive and process visual and audio information at the same time, hence why we can listen to the radio and still pay attention to the road when driving a car. However, these visual and auditory components of working memory are believed to have a limited capacity. This explains why we find it difficult to listen to two conversations at the same time, for example.

In keeping with the idea of working memory having a limited amount of space, John Sweller (1988) went on to suggest that cognitive overload in working memory can hinder learning. Sweller identified three types of cognitive load, and suggested ways in which we can optimise learning in multimedia learning. In an already busy working environment where people’s cognitive capacity for taking on new information may be limited, you can help your employees succeed in their training and development by following some simple but important rules when creating instructional training materials. Not only that but the benefits of online learning are well documented. Shifting from classroom-based training to digital delivery can save businesses between 50-70%, according to IOMA. For example, the materials science company Dow Chemical reduced its training costs from $95 per learner to just $11 by switching from traditional, face-to-face methods to online training.

To measure the ROI of your own L&D initiatives, we’ve put together a free expert guide to help you prove its impact to the C-suite.

guide ad roi 1200x675.jpg

Three types of cognitive load

Extraneous load

This refers to the cognitive load that results from the method of instruction or how content is delivered. Sweller suggests that we should aim to minimise extraneous load by delivering subject content in the most effective way. In their book, e–Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning (2016), Clark and Mayer discuss several ways in which to minimise extraneous load. The key is not to overload one channel when designing your resources. For example, where audio is available and you are describing graphics or visuals, you should, “present words as audio narration rather than on-screen text” (Clark and Mayer, 2016, p.115). This is because the visual channel of our working memory can be overloaded when simultaneously focusing on written text and graphics. You can also avoid cognitive overload by helping your learners focus on what’s important. Displaying related graphics and text together helps your learners to piece together key concepts. Similarly, avoiding clutter and including only essential information and graphics can minimise any unnecessary cognitive processing.

To help you take on board these principles, Thinqi learning system’s Playlist feature enables you to create presentations using a wide range of effective, multimedia page templates. Choose to add audio to complement images or add text in close proximity to graphics. You never have to cognitively overload your employees ever again! It can be all too tempting to add too much detail into your instructional materials just in case your learners need it, but resist the temptation. Playlists has a handy preview feature that lets you see the materials on screen as you create them. It’s a useful way of determining whether you are asking too much of your audience. No one wants to scroll endlessly—less is definitely more.


Germane load

This refers to the load that results from activities that enhance learning or the processing of information. Sweller suggested that we should aim to maximise germane load by using appropriate, focused activities to improve learning.

Take into account that not all of your training material will suit one specific format, in which case you will need to consider alternative options within your learning system. These could include:

  • Online learning modules
  • Assignments
  • Discussion forums
  • Videos
  • Articles
  • Audio content

You need to ensure that learners are engaged and motivated to learn with content relevant to their personal learning pathways. In Thinqi, recommendations and personalised dashboards ensure the most appropriate learning content is surfaced to learners to maintain focus and reduce overwhelm.

With in-depth analytics and reporting dashboards, you can test a variety of formats to find the most effective for a specific piece of learning content depending on how frequently the material is accessed and the average length of time spent on it.

Personlised Dashboard.svg

Intrinsic load

And finally, intrinsic load. This refers to the cognitive processing that occurs as a result of the inherent difficulty of the content being studied. You can impact this by breaking up and ordering content effectively. The level of intrinsic load can vary depending on learners’ prior knowledge so relating new concepts to prior knowledge can help manage this.

Thinqi’s Courses feature enables you to plan materials and present them in a structured way. You can issue work at scheduled intervals and provide only the information you want your trainees to study in a particular session. It facilitates timely delivery of relevant resources and activities, supports preparation for training sessions and helps structure planning for assessment. It’s designed to perfectly provide a sense of direction within the technology while still supporting autonomous modern learning journeys.


While learning technologies are constantly evolving, learning theories such as cognitivism continue to act as the foundation of successful learning design. Cognitivism posits that we can have a significant impact on learning by carefully crafting our learners' experiences to make best use of how we process, retain and recall information. By understanding this, you can continue to design effective learning that meets the needs of modern learners.


Want to see how Thinqi’s cutting-edge features can make for a smarter workforce? Request a demo and one of our friendly learning experts will only be too happy to chat with you about your requirements. #ThinkSmart

Schedule a live demo

Book a personalised demo with one of our experts and find out how Thinqi can help solve your challenges.

Request a demo

Your views matter to us and we’d love to hear what you think of our latest additions to the platform. Drop us a line and we’d love to hear your feedback.