Cognitive Overload: Hurdles on the Path to Student Progress

My college story might sound familiar to many students: I made lasting friendships and studied with faculty I admiredbut I also faced academic challenges that led me to fall behind. In this post, I’m going to walk through the key points of my undergraduate journey to discuss what I believe is a pivotal (and often overlooked) problem that students everywhere experience: cognitive overload.

Hitting Roadblocks

I graduated high school and received early acceptance to my first choice school. I was eager for fall term to start.

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As a Freshman, I didn’t know what I wanted to major in. In many ways, the academic rigor of collegepaired with all the commitments and challenges Freshman year presentscame as a shock. By Sophomore year, I'd committed to a major I was passionate about: Human Development and Family Studies. However, I’d completed almost none of the requirements for it.

If I wanted to graduate on time with my class, I was told I’d need to take five classes a semester instead of four. A five-course schedule was overwhelming. In trying to navigate the volume of course work, in electives and required courses, I struggled. It was a difficult time. In classes where I didn’t perform well, I repeated courses during summer and winter terms to improve my GPA. 

Finally, in senior year, I found myself within inches of graduation. But there was one required class where I was still hitting a wall: Introduction to Nutrition. I was taking a few elective courses at the same time, with four time-sensitive projects on my plate and was overwhelmed with course work.

I failed Introduction to Nutrition three times. Each time my advisor, skeptical about online courses, recommended I retake the class in person—on campus or at a community college. I moved back home, without my diploma, and tried one more approach: I took the class online, without any other courses on my schedule. I passed and graduated.

What happened here? How did I get off track so quickly, and why did I struggle so much with my course load? To answer this question, let’s talk a bit about Cognitive Load Theory.

What is Cognitive Load Theory?

Developed by John Sweller in the mid 1980s, Cognitive Load assumes that there’s only so much information human memory can hold at one time. There are a number of ways this feeling of “overload” can manifest, particularly for students. Let’s track how Cognitive Overload posed significant challenges to my progress:

  • Non-Essential Distraction: Sweller argued that instructional methods should limit the amount of additional activities that don’t directly contribute to learning. Pamela Baker from Every Learner Everywhere provides a concrete example of this: “There’s less room for an unfamiliar subject when the learner is also managing unfamiliar processes, environments, and stimuli.”

    Freshman year (and college in general) can feel like one big distraction, especially for students struggling with the transition. So much is new and unfamiliar. As a student with ADHD, I felt these distractions acutely. 

  • “The Problem Space”: According to a Mind Tools article, the ‘problem space’ is the gap between the current situation and the desired goal. If this is too large, people's working memory becomes overloaded.” Focusing on the end goal often obscures a student’s ability to effectively learn the information right in front of them.

    Consider how this happened to me firsthand in “Introduction to Nutrition”: I was so focused on getting the necessary requirements for my degree that I couldn’t absorb the content I needed to be successful.

  • Competing Attention: When you’re trying to digest a high volume of varied information, your attention is divided. My course schedule, overloaded with major requirements, made it impossible for me to fix my attention on the task at hand: passing the class I needed to graduate. 

  • External Pressures: The external factors in cognitive overload can’t be overstated. For me, the stress of performing poorly in courses and falling behind my classmates had taken a toll. Adjusting to new environments as a freshman in college, or ongoing feelings of anxiety and depression all contribute to this sensation. In a global pandemic, the pressures on students today can be particularly debilitating.

How Educational Leaders Can Help

Given the challenges students face, how can high schools, colleges and universities help students avoid cognitive overload? 

Þ  Lighten the load and offer flexibility with online options: Online learning has undergone transformational changes since I was a student in 2006. Back then, taking a course online was a lifesaver: I could fully invest my time and energy into a class and digest the material at my own pace, without the distractions of campus life.

Þ  Recommend Dual Enrollment courses early on: Dual Enrollment courses (like those offered by Acadeum’s partner K-12 Private Academy) can help students test out courses in high school before being fully immersed in a packed college schedule. It also helps students get ahead with credits and requirements before freshman year begins.

Þ  Make it easier for students to catch up: Students can get off track with credit and course requirements as early as freshman year without realizing the implications. Advisors should work proactively with students to ensure they’re aware of prerequisites and requirements to alert them early if they’re falling behind. Acadeum courses are a great solution for students in this position (students can, for example, take online courses during summer and winter terms, instead of overloading course schedules - a strategy leveraged by Western New England University).

Þ  Offer personalized solutions when students need it most: Patience and kindness goes a long way. In Higher Ed, things can often seem black and white—giving students options that address their specific needs can be a game changer on their path to graduation.

 > Cognitive overload is one of many challenges students face. Learn how to support students progress, no matter what hurdles stand in their way, by downloading our Course Sharing Guide.