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cognitive load errors

Unpacking Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and Its Impact On Human Error

Human error prevention tools force us to look into one of the many things that makes us quintessentially human: the propensity to err. The relationship between stress and error is important to take into consideration. Some 51% of employees report being less productive at work because of too much stress.

What impact does stress have on productivity? In turn, how do cognitive stressors cause mistakes in the workplace? When looking at how to prevent human error in workplace scenarios, there’s a psycho-educational concept called Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) that stares the issue straight on.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) Unpacked

The presentation of new information presents the initial states of cognitive load. That is to say that the brain power being used to learn new ideas, subjects, processes, etc. increases the amount of processing power being exerted cognitively.

When the cognitive load is too heavy, we’ve surpassed the optimal learning zone and fall into the territory of cognitive load errors. The brain cannot process too heavy a cognitive load and mistakes are made that usually wouldn’t be under more feasible cognitive conditions.

Well managed cognitive load facilitates a harmonious learning environment such that learners are using their brains but not being worn down by unnecessary cognitive stressors. This is the foundation of CLT, though cognitive load can be broken down into three categories.

  • Intrinsic: This aspect of cognitive load refers to the mental demand put upon a learner who is learning something new. Any new process or concept will have intrinsic cognitive load because of the inherent difficulty of learning something completely new. Think of it as cognitive exertion within the learner, stretching the mind.
  • Extraneous: This refers to the learning environment outside of the learner. For example, while a student may be learning a new math concept, the extraneous cognitive load is how the teacher may be presenting the subject. The extraneous cognitive load can make or break a learning environment.
  • Arcane: This refers to the commitment of an idea to memory, such that a learner who encounters this new concept in the future will know what to expect. A germane cognitive load causes new learners to pay attention and remember a process so they know what to expect the next time it comes up.

In human error prevention training, cognitive load errors should be a major focus, especially since they pertain to the learning and teaching process. One of the best human error reduction tools is the presentation of new information with a minimal cognitive load. Drastically reducing cognitive load errors begin with effective communication between learners and teachers who, together, can optimize learning. The pedagogical equivalent of many hands makes light work.