Workshop B — Teach Smarter, Learn Better: A Cognitive Load Primer

Alaina Geary, MD, Beverly Heinze-Lacey, MPH, BSN, RN, Luise Pernar, MD, Jeffrey Markuns, MD

Target Audience:

Open to all John McCahan Education Day attendees


Designing instruction that maximizes understanding and retention is a challenge faced by all educators. Learners are often overloaded with information and, as a result, little of what is taught is actually retained. Multimedia technologies (Powerpoint,  ebooks, online modules, educational apps, etc.) have become common in didatics, but poor design and usage often create barriers to learning. Also, the clinical environment is complex and fast paced and learners are easily overwhelmed. How can you help your learners navigate these complicated challenges and optimize their learning potential and help them retain what they have learned?

To help you with these challenges, this workshop will introduce the concept of cognitive load. Through interactive discussion and solving worked examples, you will learn strategies to minimize distractions in educational materials and encounters and optimize learning experiences starting with your instructional design. The three main types of cognitive load (intrinsic, extrinsic, and germane) will be reviewed with specific management strategies for each. Clinical and nonclinical examples will be explored through large and small group discussion. At the end of the session you will be equipped with tools to improve educational experiences and ensure improved learning experiences for your trainees.

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe intrinsic, extrinsic, and germane cognitive load affect a learners ability to process and store novel information
  • Describe at least two design principles used to manage cognitive load
  • Apply at least two cognitive load management principles to case-based scenarios

Session Outline:

  • Introduction and large group cognitive load exercise (5 minutes)
  • Principles of cognitive load theory and how to manage cognitive load (15 minutes)
  • Large group discussion: Multimedia management strategies (15 minutes)
  • Small group discussions: Applying design principles to case-based teaching encounters (40 minutes)
  • Review of take home points and session evaluation (15 minutes)


  • Merrienboer, J. & Sweller, J. (2010). Cognitive Load Theory in Health Professional Education: Design Principles and Strategies. Medical Education 2010: 44: 85-93. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2009.03498.x.
  • Mayer RE, Moreno R. Nine Ways to Reduce Cognitive Load in Multimedia Learning. Educational Psychologist. 2003;38(1):43-52. doi: 1207/S15326985EP3801_6