Eight Tips for Managing Cognitive Load in Your Online Teaching

by Chris Ryan, Executive Director, Product Strategy, Kaplan Admissions Group | May 6, 2020

If you’re concerned about engagement in your online courses, join the very big (though socially distanced) club. It worries us all. Many factors need to go right for students to be highly engaged. One factor that can be overlooked is cognitive load. How much must your students juggle mentally, in order to keep up with you? How much demand are you placing on their working memories? If the cognitive load grows too great, students will check out.

During online instruction, how are you actively managing your students’ cognitive load—and helping your students manage that load? What about between sessions? Can you reduce unnecessary cognitive demands?

These are good questions to ask as you design any instructional experience, under any circumstances. Now they’re even more pressing.

The Shrunken State of Working Memory

Online, your students are not just further away. They are physically elsewhere. Through the alchemy of technology, our students’ minds are temporarily translated to a cyberspace “here and now”: the digital classroom. 

But this translation is at constant risk of disruption. Any little distractor can weaken the psychic link. A Facebook alert, a chat from a friend… or anything in the separate physical world of that student can shatter the connection. 

What does this mean for your teaching? As your students dodge online distractions, expect them to be able to juggle fewer mental apples all at once. If you want a very rough rule, imagine that everyone’s working memory shrinks by a quarter.

This memory contraction is made worse by the stress we’re all experiencing in the background (and for many, in the foreground). As our “fight, flight, or freeze” reactions are jolted awake again and again, our rational brain’s powers wane. Working memory capacity shrinks.

So now, more than ever, you’ve got to break everything down simply. Avoid distractions and unwanted misdirects. If you can, reinforce your key points with direct visuals.

This doesn’t mean you spoon-feed your students pre-digested morsels of thought. Continue to challenge your students to think for themselves. But direct their mental energies at clear targets—and you might move these targets a little closer, so to speak, while keeping them authentic challenges. 

In his book How to Solve It, George Polya lays out a wonderful Socratic dialogue as a math class wrestles with how to find the length of a diagonal of a rectangular box. The teacher doesn’t just let the students wriggle on the hook in frustration, trying to solve the whole problem in one go. That’s placing the target too far away. Nor does the teacher ever ask “Can you apply the Pythagorean Theorem?” That’s a spoiler, ruining the “a-ha” moment. 

Rather, the teacher prompts the students with a series of well-calibrated intermediate targets, posing straightforward but non-trivial questions such as “What else do you notice?” Everyone can answer that. And yet it’s an interesting challenge as well, to wonder what no one has noticed that’s still important. Consider how you might use such questions even more in your own teaching, in order to direct your students’ thinking without doing it for them.

Two Modes of Thinking

Another helpful construct for managing cognitive load comes from Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor who created the immensely popular Coursera course “Learning How To Learn.” 

Oakley distinguishes two modes of thinking. One mode is focused, when your thoughts and your attention stay, well, focused on a particular goal. The other mode is diffuse, a more relaxed state in which your thoughts roam further and more freely.

As educators, we give the focused mode lots of love. We want students to pay attention, complete tasks, and be “productive.” But brains need relaxed, off-pressure time to make connections to prior knowledge, to wonder about deep, interesting questions, and to synthesize disparate pieces into a powerful whole.

In other words, we need diffuse mode to clear our minds and make sense of focused-mode work. This is how “brain breaks” and other occasions for diffuse-mode thinking can help us with cognitive load management. 

Keep this principle in mind for your students and for yourself too. Schedule more of these breaks into your lessons, and, depending on age, explain why these breaks are important to the class. After all, recognizing the importance of breaks is a good lesson for all of us. Additionally, for students who may be worried that they are not being productive enough, this could be a welcomed and relieving reminder. 

Eight Tips for Managing Cognitive Load in Your Online Teaching

Let’s get to the eight tips I promised. The first four are for when you’re actually teaching online.

#1. Say Hello to the Elephants

The biggest distraction in the digital classroom isn’t actually another browser tab. It’s whatever real-world stressors the students are dealing with in their own lives. A sick relative. A rent payment that’s overdue. In other words, the elephant in the room. Actually, there’s a different one for each of your students.

So, say hello to the elephants―plural. Acknowledge the human concerns of the humans who’ve joined you for a time. 

Now, how you do this hello is a judgment call—and a shifting target. Stick to generalities in public, even if you know specifics in confidence. But generalities can be authentic and meaningful.

One move that’s always effective is to nod to your own elephant. Again, control what you share. Acknowledging your own concerns, though, is a way to open up to your students and invite others to be more open, too.

At the beginning of class, you could invite students to share briefly how last week went for them in a chat, private or public, or even an ongoing Google doc you’ve shared with them. Students who have something to say will say it.

What does all this have to do with cognitive load? It’s Maslow over Bloom, as we sometimes say around here.* If you have an elephant in the room, it takes up all the space in working memory. But once you’ve said hello to the room’s elephants, you can ask them kindly to sit in the back. Then everyone can concentrate on the work at hand.

* “Maslow over Bloom” is shorthand for the concept that primal human needs (at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy) take precedence over ideal learning design (e.g., matching activities to Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives).

#2. Make Focused Tasks Really Focused

When you ask for focused mode, keep the task as focused as possible.

As I mentioned earlier, you’ll want to break things down into fundamental, straightforward pieces. Simple doesn’t have to mean shallow. Each bite of the apple ought to be worthwhile. The end of the academic year is an excellent time to focus your students on the most important learnings.

In fact, focused tasks don’t have to be small. If the capstone project is the most meaningful activity that lies ahead, ditch peripheral side-tasks and direct even more effort and attention to that capstone. Just make its purpose crystal clear.

#3. Make Takeaways Short and Memorable

What was my first tip? Don’t glance back. Do you remember it?

I’m not claiming the phrase about the elephants was Shakespeare. But I strove like heck to make my point both short and memorable.

If you don’t have these kinds of punchy takeaways in your material, write some! Phrase them as commands (like “phrase them as commands”). Or use the “When I, Then I” model for a skill that requires a contextual clue. “When I see a difference of squares, I factor it into x+y times x-y.”

You might argue that your subject lends itself less to short verbal takeaways. Fair, but I’d counter that you should try to articulate at least some guidance in this manner. 

How do you want your students to think their way through a historical dilemma that you’ll present on the final? Good advice, short and simple enough to be remembered during that stressful final, is invaluable. 

When you say your takeaways aloud, utter them slowly, and surround them with reverent silence. Imagine them carved into marble, in a classical font with foot-high letters, displayed above the pillared entrance to a temple of learning. You don’t slur or rush those kinds of words.

Ideally, put your takeaways verbatim on supporting visuals, such as slides or PDF handouts. Give your students multiple ways and multiple chances to absorb the pithy wisdom.

#4. Create Quiet Space for Togetherness

Most of the time we structure in a live class is for focused-mode activities. That’s all well and good. For one thing, it’s what students expect out of class, and diverging too much from their expectations in this regard can be distressing. And at the end of the day, being in “class” will never feel that diffuse.

That said, you can still open up a bit of room for the diffuse mode. Meta-cognitive activities (thinking about one’s own thinking) provide one opportunity. As a lesson wraps up, invite students to free-write on paper what they got out of the lesson. Time-box the activity but give it enough time to let new ideas flow and the diffuse mode to wake up a little.

It’s important not just to assign these kinds of tasks for homework, i.e. outside of class, or in the last two minutes of a three-hour online session. Having some meta-cognition happen during the meat of live instruction validates the activity. And there’s a sense of quiet, relaxed togetherness that’s worth cultivating. 

Meta-cognition helps reduce cognitive load in at least a few ways. When you think back on what you’ve learned, you reprioritize and rearrange. Core ideas rise to the top. You then have stronger, more robust knowledge structures on which to add new knowledge. Related concepts become “chunked” together, taking up fewer slots in your working memory.

So give your students a chance to reflect and synthesize. It will keep the cognitive load from peaking too much.

The other four tips are about how to structure homework assignments with the same goal in mind.

#5. Again, Make Focused Tasks Really Focused

As with in-class work, make the endpoints of your assignments completely clear. You might even discard some objectives.

Consider providing time boxes here as well for certain tasks. “Give me 20 minutes of your best thinking on this question…” Is it any less fair than asking for a certain number of words or pages? A time limit can in fact be less stress-provoking, as long as you give guidance as to the shape of the expected result (e.g., make an argument for or against, with one or two supporting claims…).

#6. Ask for Both Practice and Reflection

The goal is to engage both focused and diffuse modes at some point.

If your assignments are practice-heavy, cut a bit of the practice and ask for reflection. Guide that reflection, e.g. 2-3 key lessons from the practice, the best practice item, the hardest practice item, an area undercovered by the practice, etc.

If your assignments already contain a lot of reflection or are missing elements of “practice,” consider adding short practice questions. These could just be replays of in-class practice, changed slightly or even kept exactly the same (with acknowledgements of the repetition, e.g. “On the second time through, what do you notice for the first time now? Why is that important?”

#7. Get Them Outside with Pencil and Paper

To really amplify diffuse mode, separate your students (temporarily!) from their screens. How, when screen and student seem to have been attached together surgically?

Ask your students to take blank paper and a pencil or pen outside for a short assignment. It could be a reflection, or it could be an observation tied back to your course. Take a selfie at some point and submit it.

If the weather is terrible, ask your students to do some dishes but record some of their thinking aloud and send a picture of themselves doing this talking.

By virtue of being assignments, these tasks are not perfect vehicles for diffuse-mode thinking. The temptation will be to ask for the actual writing or the recording. Instead, ask for evidence that it happened. This creates better conditions for diffuse mode. 

The point is to have students think broadly and diffusely about your subject in a less directly goal-oriented way and in a fresh physical environment, one that’s away from the magnetic lure of our screens.

Spoken or written reflections that you’ll never read or hear will bear fruit later. 

#8. Activate the Third Leg of the Triangle

What triangle am I talking about? Two students and an educator form a triangle. Too often as educators, we get caught up in broadcasting or in sequential 1-1’s. Either way, we’re only focusing on the instructor-student legs of the triangle.

The third leg of the triangle is the student-to-student relationship. Activate that leg. During class I’ll redirect: “James, what do you think about what Natecia said?” 

In an online session, we have many “third leg” tools built in. For instance, you can invite everyone to chat back a response to Natecia’s point.

But we can also activate the third leg outside of class. Encourage peer study groups, or even require group submissions of final exam prep notes, for instance. 

Again, how does this help with cognitive load? Student-student discussions about your course tend to focus on simplifying and prioritizing the material. They don’t introduce new material or new challenges, after all. 

So the more that students talk with each other, the more meta-cognition they’re doing, collectively and individually, which we know is good for reducing cognitive load. And the students will likely share more about the elephants in their respective rooms. This can help lower stress levels and release working memory capacity.


Give a thought to how you might experiment with the suggestions above as you wrap up this school year—and begin planning for the next. But take at least one moment to celebrate recent wins. Don’t forget a very big one: that you’ve shown up and kept at it with your students. That alone is worthy of true praise and celebration. Good luck!

For more educator resources to use in the digital classroom, read more articles on our blog.

Chris helps teams across Kaplan develop new products to meet evolving customer needs. After earning a physics degree from Harvard, he taught physics and chemistry for several years in three different high schools across the country. He then got an MBA at Duke (Fuqua) and worked as a management consultant at McKinsey. Returning to education in 2003, he joined Manhattan Prep, a small startup later acquired by Kaplan, and he’s remained happily in the test prep world ever since. It thrills Chris to help students rise to the challenges posed by these difficult tests.

See more posts by Chris Ryan, Executive Director, Product Strategy, Kaplan Admissions Group