jump to navigation

Cognitive Load vs. Load Time October 9, 2009

Posted by B.J. Schone in eLearning.
Tags: , , , ,

This article, by Eric Matas, is the first of a three part series on the Psychology of Elearning. Eric is an Instructional Designer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Thanks, Eric!!

Designers love a little cognitive load theory. Any glimpse into the brains of learners sparks a trainer’s curiosity. It makes sense: if you want to influence brains with new knowledge, it helps to know how brains function best while learning.

Cognitive psychology certainly aims to give trainers such a look inside the brain.

Cognitive load theory inspires designers to influence various neural systems so attention is focused and retention is optimal. Influencing different neural systems means developing different events. And using different events in elearning means a multimedia approach. Recently, wired with cognitive load theory, I made the perfect elearning course in Captivate.

It was beautiful.

But I write that with a sigh because it never worked. It blended narration, text and image; it encouraged, nay, required interaction—more meaningful than simply clicking to advance; and it matched learning events to attention spans, appealing to different parts of the brain. Colors were lovely. Fonts were harmonious. And hover-over sidelets opened without causing visual disturbance.

I won’t go on. As you know, it failed. When we tested out of the LMS, we saw some strange effects but wrote them off: surely the great and powerful LMS would handle the files more seamlessly. Yeah, no.

Bottom line, the sheer size of the files was too much to handle. Cognitive psychology ran smack into the hard wall of file size. In the LMS, we heard strange sound reverberation, and load times were unbearable. The lesson? To develop multimedia elearning that succeeds, juggle image, sound and text without creating long load times.

By reducing (and reducing) until the CBT would run, I learned valuable tips for running on fewer kilobytes. Three design tips stand out, curiously titled:

  1. Necessity is the Gender Nonspecific Parent of Invention
  2. Don’t Look at the Designer Behind the Curtain
  3. Extreme Makeover Elearning Edition

In this post, I list the three and explain the first with examples. I explore the others in two follow-up posts so I can convey real, tangible tips without one blog taking too much bandwidth.

#1 – Necessity is the Gender Nonspecific Parent of Invention: Do what I did—just go for it. Make it big, as theory and SMEs dictate. Then cut, cut and cut some more. I got creative when reducing. So will you. Letting go of original designs is too hard, so you will make that thing work on a kilobyte budget.

In creative writing courses I’ve taught, we call it sculpting. First, get all the clay you want or the biggest hunk of stone. Then sculpt. Remove, chisel and scrape to the essential statue within. In developing elearning, you sculpt by removing redundant assets, cutting images or narration and combining everything possible.

First, some no-brainers—I include them, however obvious they seem, because I didn’t always know! With software like Captivate, you finish with superfluous background material and images. Just by deleting unused items in your library, file size shrinks significantly. In PowerPoint-driven tools like Articulate, take advantage of the master slide templates to reduce. Find instances of a similar asset appearing on multiple slides, and then consolidate, creating a new template that only uses the image once.

Remove Redundancy

I’ve read many evaluations that express venomous hatred for text on the screen that is also narrated. I read them right after I wrote them. Since narration is probably preferred, remove the redundant text, especially if narration is available in closed captioning or notes. Occasionally, keep some text, using only key words to augment the narration, not mimic it. Sometimes, an image is titled by a text box: ask yourself if that’s necessary, and if not, cut the title box. The best images show viewers what they are. (I have special tips on reducing redundancy in post 2 of this 3 part series.)

Cut Images and Narration

Images devour megabytes. I love images, but they are expensive when bytes are the currency. A quick, democratic decision: reduce all images by ¼ inch. Smaller is smaller. But deleting images will free up megabytes faster. Don’t be afraid to link to a website instead of using a picture of the site—just set the website to open in a new window, keep your elearning open for learners.

Narration can be cut several ways. We originally recorded very personal, casual narration to warm up the elearning. In other words, it was wordy. I found that I could cut unneeded words with Captivate’s editing tool, and it still seemed personal because of the tone. Be careful: the audio can become bizarre when cutting certain words—save the original. I also saved megabytes by cutting silence out of the narration: at the start and end but also within the narration.


Everything from sentences to text boxes can be combined. Long paragraphs are not a learner’s favorite thing to see. You can shorten them by combining sentences. Wait—let me combine those last two sentences: Combine sentences to shorten annoying paragraphs.

I’ve grouped text and photos in PowerPoint and saved as a single asset (.png) to reduce. Even bigger, you can combine slides.
In my beautiful (failure) project, the seven sections each had a title slide with brief narration announcing the section. The next slide was an objectives slide. But the title slide did the announcing with text and had plenty of room for learning objectives, so I cut the narrative announcement and deleted the 2nd slide, moving the objectives to the 1st slide. This fix I liked better than the original (the objectives appeared after a few seconds to give that title its glory).

eLearning Weekly Combine Screens Example

I hope you return for more tips in parts two and three of this series on winning the battle between cognitive load and load time. The next two posts offer specific tips to reduce file size while still getting what you want in the design. Look for these posts:

     #2 – Don’t Look at the Designer Behind the Curtain
     #3 – Extreme Makeover Elearning Edition

About the Author

Eric Matas designs elearning, teaches college composition, and writes for several blogs like Kidundated! and Blah Blah Bleric. He welcomes you to meet him on Twitter by following @tweric.

Are you interested in writing for eLearning Weekly?



1. Isobel Wallace - October 9, 2009

What was the file size of the overall course? Were you using a streaming server for the audio/video files? What LMS were you using?

It seems a shame to give up on such an elegant sounding pedagogy over filesize alone.

2. Mike Staar - October 9, 2009

LOL – I despise the narrated text box, too. I also fight the file size battle often using the 80/20 rule to get stakeholders to approve reducing the content. Your tips will help when they won’t agree.

3. Eric Matas - October 10, 2009

@Isobel I know! It was a shame. Originally, the main wrapper was thin, maybe 15 screens in Captivate. In that wrapper, the seven sections were imported as flash movies (published as other Captivate movies). The LMS did not like loading so many files. We then made the whole thing as one Captivate, I think around 155,000 kb. I eventualy had it down to 40,000 kb.

@mike I’m glad the tips help. My goal with these three posts is to offer a balance of theory concepts and real advice.

4. Heather - October 11, 2009

I appreciate the tips! You mentioned you were using an LMS. Were you by chance working with WebCT/Blackboard Vista? I experienced the issue with load time in that LMS. Especially with files that have a lot of audio, which increased the file size. I look forward to reading your 2nd and 3rd posts!

5. Eric Matas - October 12, 2009

@Heather Thanks for your comment. It’s been a while since I worked with WebCT or Blackboard. When I designed online courses for comp classes, I did make short video lectures, but the only way that worked was to host them off the learning platform and link to them. In fact we even burned CDs in case students had slower computers–way back in 2000!

What are you making? Videos? Podcasts? Captivate movies–or other elearning flash movies? I might have some ideas to help. I’ll at least have more questions, which often get to solutions. 🙂

Heather - October 27, 2009

Eric- Sorry it has taken me a while to reply. I have been busy looking for another contract! I am creating elearning flash movies. I finally decided to separate them into smaller mini lectures or tutorials. It has helped with the load time, however it it creates extra columns in the grade book. I have the flash videos set up to capture and export the actions to Scorm in the grade book. We would really like one participation grade for the tutorial, though due to the set up we may have five or one for every video. Thanks again!

Eric Matas - October 28, 2009

Hi Heather – This really cute baby, Maxwell Eliot, was just born yesterday, so I’m busy proudly strutting around (or, taking care of the his four older siblings!). I’ll add a more meaningful comment on Friday! Thanks, Eric

6. Tex Brieger - October 20, 2009

What LMS are you using? I love your tactics to deal with your frustrations. Edit and edit until it works (and fits). An effective lesson with less material is always good. Being a Dual Coding theory I love your points about narration as well.


7. Eric Matas - October 20, 2009

@Tex Thanks – when I train people on designing and developing elearning, I say the job is pretty much a matter of editing and revising until you get what you want or the closest thing to it! We are still working in the trial and error era of elearning.

Current LMS is Saba. We’ve just initiated an upgrade, and we have to do a lot of work to understand how to make it work optimally.

8. Sara Kimet - October 26, 2009

Great timing – I just ran into the file size wall. Your tips were very useful. THANK YOU! We still need to reduce the wordiness (IMHO) but that is another battle…

9. Cognitive Load vs. Load Time « eLearning Weekly | getwebsitedesigner.com – WEB DESIGNING, Web Development, Wordpress Theme designing, Joomla theme - July 25, 2010

[…] See the article here: Cognitive Load vs. Load Time « eLearning Weekly […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: