Understanding cognitive load in digital and online learning: A new perspective on extraneous cognitive load

Alexander Skulmowski*, M. Xu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


Cognitive load theory has been a major influence for the field of educational psychology. One of the main guidelines of the theory is that extraneous cognitive load should be reduced to leave sufficient cognitive resources for the actual learning to take place. In recent years, research regarding various design factors, in particular from the field of digital and online learning, have challenged this assumption. Interactive learning media, immersion, disfluency, realism, and redundant elements constitute five major challenges, since these design factors have been shown to induce task-irrelevant cognitive load, i.e., extraneous load, while still promoting motivation and learning. However, currently there is no unified approach to integrate such effects into cognitive load theory. By including aspects of constructive alignment, an approach aimed at fostering deep forms of learning in order to achieve specific learning outcomes, we devise a strategy to balance cognitive load in digital learning. Most importantly, we suggest considering both the positive and negative effects on cognitive load that certain design factors of digital learning can cause. In addition, a number of research results highlight that some types of positive effects of digital learning can only be detected using a suitable assessment method. This strategy of aligning cognitive load with desired learning outcomes will be useful for formulating theory-guided and empirically testable hypotheses, but can be particularly helpful for practitioners to embrace emerging technologies while minimizing potential extraneous drawbacks.
Original languageEnglish
JournalEducational Psychology Review
Issue number2
Early online date28 Jun 2021
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jun 2021


  • Cognitive load theory
  • Digital learning
  • Online learning
  • Extraneous cognitive load
  • Germane processing


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