Cognitive Overload & How to Prevent It

man thinking at this desk

Developing a successful training program can be a daunting task. Have you covered everything that you need to, whilst keeping your learners engaged? What types of content and formats will they better respond to? What if they tell you they understand it but they actually don’t and an accident happens?

Every trainer feels personally responsible for their learners when they’re adopting new tutelage. And for those in high-risk industries, there’s a very serious reality behind the importance of mission-critical training being learnt successfully.

The truth is, creating a training program that every learner can pick up easily the first time around is difficult. This is often due to something called cognitive overload - a situation where the teacher presents too much information or too many tasks simultaneously which in turn overwhelms educating the learner. This results in the learner being unable to process new information, ultimately compromising the learning effectiveness.

It’s not that the trainee doesn’t want to learn, it’s that they’ve become so overwhelmed that they can’t.

In today's market, companies are continually updating their traditional instructing programs to make them more engaging, safe and self-directed through simulation and scenario-based eLearning platforms. We discuss simulator education in more detail, here:

3 ways to recognize cognitive overload  

As a trainer, you want to maximize your results, use your budget wisely, and ensure that your learners are safe from cognitive overload while they use your materials. But how do you do this, while also trying to get as much information across to the learner as possible?

It is essential to recognize the tell-tale signs of cognitive overload. These signs include:

Forgetting previously learned information

Heard this before? - “We went through this training last week, how come nobody remembers!?”

● The inability to apply knowledge learned to a real-world context

Heard this before? - “They passed the tests in their training, but their boss says they keep getting it wrong when they’re on the job”  

● Failure to make decisions on the job

Heard this before? - “There was a huge mistake made on the client's project and nobody knew how to handle it!”

When developing training programs, you can reduce the risk of cognitive overload by recognizing these signs and addressing the possible causes before they happen within your program.

How to provide a recognizable environment where it's safe to fail

In many traditional learning and training settings, learners listen to and are shown information and are then expected to apply all their learning in the real world, often without the opportunity to practice or prepare themselves. This can lead to cognitive overload as the learner is just not well-equipped enough to apply their learning, which in turn can cause panic and fear of failure. (Note that this kind of stress in itself will hamper learning, aside from the cognitive overload issue.) It’s important to provide an environment where the learner is able to test their new learning without consequence if they don’t apply it right the first time.

Simulation-based eLearning is a method used to impart real-world knowledge and practical experience to trainees. Learners can use their knowledge in a realistic, functional context to accomplish a task or overcome a common challenge. Furthermore it's a safe, risk-free environment, where they can make mistakes without consequence and continually develop their confidence. This increases the value and engagement of the training course.1 

How to encourage self-directed learning

Self-directed learning helps to overcome cognitive overload because learners can drive their own learning and control the pace, the individual need for repetition, and so on. Research has shown that scenario-based eLearning allows for problem-based learning and Cathy Moore, a widely respected authority on scenarios in eLearning, stated:

“Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.” (2)

Scenario-based eLearning helps the learner discover what works, what doesn’t and, in the process, they learn - even if some of their attempts result in failure. Scenario-based eLearning allows learners to feel empowered and limits the risk of cognitive overload, which results in a positive learning experience.

Solution: Harness the power of simulations and scenarios

To summarize, simulation and scenario-based eLearning programs are useful tools in overcoming cognitive overload that every part of a business will benefit from — no more rote learning and trying to memorize pages of notes or feelings of being overwhelmed. Instead, trainees can drive their learning and be confident in doing so. By adopting an eLearning platform that provides both of these features, as a trainer you’ll be able to reduce risk, maximize efficiency and build ROI. And employers will feel the positive repercussions as the program empowers their workforce through positive learning experiences that actually work.

Check out SimTutor Author, the easiest-to-use and most flexible simulation-based platform


  1. A. Majumdar, “The value of simulations when creating e-learning solutions for application training”, eLearning Industry, 2015, n-training (accessed 28 November 2018).
  2. C.Moore, “Where’s the research support for Scenarios”, Cathy Moore: Let’s save the world from boring training! 2016, (accessed 28 November 2018).


About the author


SimTutor Inc is a global leader in simulation-based learning.

SimTutor Author is an authoring tool designed to help you build interactive procedural simulations and branched scenarios for any industry where realistic, just-in-time, measurable training is critical. 

SIMTICS is a library of ready-to-use simulations for learning medical and healthcare procedures and skills, powered by SimTutor Author.