• Training

Employee Training That Scales — And Respects Cognitive Load Theory

Designing employee training materials is no small challenge.

Getting the content right is of course critical. Every detail needs to be correct (and shown in the correct order), or risk steering learners the wrong way. And while the material covered may be second nature to your subject matter expert, that’s often not the case for your instructional designer — and that disconnect all too often results in essential information getting overlooked.

Likewise, managing the delivery of the information is essential. Does the material require a classroom session with a live teacher, or will a memo or guide suffice? Does every member of an organization need to complete the training, or just a select few? And does the team need to ensure the training is completed, or is simply making the material available enough? Getting any of those questions wrong can create headaches — and potentially real financial liabilities — for you, your employees, and your entire company.

Along with message and the medium, employee training teams are increasingly finding that, to ensure their work achieves its desired outcome, their materials must be designed with their audience in mind.

As organizations work to bridge employee skills gaps, introduce new tools and processes, and best leverage their institutional knowledge, formal and informal training is becoming a more common part of most employees’ regular schedules. Designing ongoing learning activities to fit into their already busy days requires some level of skill — and a solid respect for cognitive load theory.

The Fundamentals of Cognitive Load Theory in Learning

Cognitive Load Theory first came to prominence thanks to the work of John Sweller, whose research found that people (at every age) had a maximum capacity for the mental effort they could exert while learning — their “cognitive load.” Tasking individuals to take in information in greater amounts or more quickly than this personal learning threshold results in “overload” — effectively meaning that person’s working memory can no longer keep up, and will fail to effectively absorb or retain much of what’s shared.

The complete science behind the findings is truly fascinating, and Sweller’s book is well worth a read for anyone interested in the human psychology of learning.

What Training Professionals Need to Know About Cognitive Load Theory

What makes cognitive load theory important to learning and development professionals is that unlike other human biases that can only be accounted for, cognitive load is something that trainers can explicitly design their materials to solve.

Sweller’s theory posits that everyone exhibits three types of cognitive loads:

  • Intrinsic — the sheer challenge of the subject matter. The more difficult the subject, the more likely they are to overwhelm the learner. Rocket science and brain surgery are the quintessential examples of high-intrinsic cognitive load concepts.
  • Extraneous — any element of the training materials that is nonessential to delivering the information. Often, this consists of additional information included for depth or completeness, but that require learners to spend extra energy to process without adding much value to the final lesson.
  • Germane — the actual mental energy you want your students to apply. These are all the efforts learners will take in order to understand and retain the lesson.

For training professionals, cognitive load theory provides a simple guide to creating more successful training materials — minimize the extraneous loads created in your materials in order to enable learners to maximize their own germane cognitive load potential with respect to the intrinsic load of the subject matter.

In other words, design training to remove as many hurdles to learning as possible, so people can learn as much as possible given the complexity of the content.

Video Helps Both Scale Training Efforts and Reduce Cognitive Overload In Course Design

Video has been winning rapid adoption in organizations large and small as an efficient means to scale employee training activities and do more in an era of stagnant HR and Learning and Development budgets.

IOMA suggests that on average, corporations can save between 50% and 70% when they shift classroom-based training to eLearning, and the individual case studies are even more compelling. Ernst and Young reduced its costs by 35% and reduced its training time by about 52% by investing in eLearning. Dow Chemical reduced its training costs to just $11 per learner with online training, down from $95 per learner with traditional classrooms. And Microsoft has reported that a move to video-based training has helped the organization reduce costs by $303 per person, from $320 to just $17.

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But not only does video help reduce costs and make sharing training on-demand anytime anywhere possible, video-enabled training can also help organizations to minimize the extraneous cognitive loads created by traditional instructional materials and better optimize their employees’ abilities to focus on the subject at hand.

The versatility and flexibility of video as a teaching tool helps put employees in control of their learning experiences, naturally reducing some of the external distractions that can derail otherwise excellent materials.

With a more engaging format that takes advantage of the 90% of human communication that’s nonverbal, video does more to draw in the learner than text alone. And because video can be watched and rewatched anytime on-demand, employees can choose when the lesson will best fit into their schedule — improving focus by minimizing the likelihood of disruption.

Related Reading: When There Isn’t Time For Learning, You Learn “In The Flow Of Work”


Even complex and sensitive training materials can be easily taught — and learned — with video-based training. Watch an example video below:



4 Tips for Producing Training Videos that Will Best Manage Cognitive Load

While video-based training may naturally help assuage several issues that create cognitive load problems, there are many techniques your employee training team can put to work to ensure every recorded lesson performs best.

Present information in different ways
Video already creates an opportunity here, by enabling you to share webcam video, slides, screen recordings, and just about anything else. Take advantage of this flexibility, and be sure that any materials you record do so as well — integrating images, charts, animations, and curated video to supplement your text. Integrating everything together helps learners absorb your content using whichever mental processing method works best for them.

Concise beats comprehensive
There’s always the temptation to include every last detail and every minor note — especially when you’re working with multiple stakeholders. Trainers need to own the final product and it’s ability to really teach — and eliminating extraneous information (as well as intentional redundancy) eliminates the need for learners to attempt to process and sort out all those extra points.

One objective per recording
While your instructor-led classroom sessions may run 4-8 hours (or more), self-directed eLearning tends to work better in smaller steps. Divide your materials — even if just by breaking up one long recording — into smaller lessons, and encourage learners to move from one to the next only when they’ve fully grasped the first. This is another area where video-based teaching can be exceptionally beneficial — with video, there’s no limit to how often an employee can rewind and rewatch a lesson should they need.

Use search to your advantage
While there is much you can do to optimize your training materials for memorability, simple experience tells us your employees will still eventually forget a considerable chunk of what you’ve taught. In the past, this would have meant your team would need to hold endless “refresher” sessions or field one-off emails answering frequently asked questions. No more. A modern video platform can help make the content in your videos easy for employees to search as needed. For Panopto customers, Panopto’s Smart Search technology automatically indexes every word spoken or shown in every video in your video library, enabling anyone in the organization to instantly find and fast-forward to the relevant information they need, whenever they need it.

Related Reading: How To Make Engaging Training Videos For Employees


Make Sure Your Team Has the Right Tool to Create Training Materials that Are Optimized for Cognitive Load Balance

Panopto’s flexible video platform makes it easy to record, manage, and share just about any kind of video presentation, live and on-demand with any audience. To see Panopto in action — or to give Panopto a try in your organization — contact our team today.