Information Overload: Executive Function & Cognitive Load

What is Executive Functioning?

Executive functioning issues are common among students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, learning disabilities, mood disorders, concussions, and chemotherapy. Executive functioning refers to the higher-order thinking skills that we use to learn and function in our daily lives. Executive Skills include impulse and emotional control, flexible thinking, working memory, self-monitoring, and organization. Any or all of these skills might be necessary to accomplish a given task. If a learner has an impairment in any of these areas, completing an assignment might pose a significant challenge. Imagine having an impairment and what the process would be like if you tried to complete a task in your course. The Executive Functioning Process includes the following steps:

  1. Analyze a task. Figure out what needs to be done.
  2. Plan how to handle the task.
  3. Get organized. Break down the plan into a series of steps.
  4. Figure out how much time is needed to carry out the plan, and set aside the time.
  5. Make adjustments as needed
  6. Finish the task in the time allotted.

Do any of your students have problems completing these steps? Is there anything you can do to faciliate this process? Of course there is! Read on.


Supporting Executive Functioning in your Online Course

By being deliberate in your course planning and instructional design, you can easily incorporate strategies that will assist learners with executive functioning impairments, and make the course content more user-friendly for all of your students. It is important to be explicit in your expectations for completion of coursework, provide consistent structure to the course activities, and engage in regular communication with your learners, including specific constructive feedback. Additional strategies you can employ include:

  • design clear, interactive course headings and icons
  • chunk course content into logical units composed of smaller segments
  • provide progress checklists and opportunities for self-reflection
  • provide self-check quizzes or other knowledge checks
  • provide outlines or prompts to help learners create mental schemes for digesting content
  • provide models or hints to help students get started on problems or assignments


Cognitive Load 

Working memory is one executive function that is crucial to learning. Are your students overloaded? Cognitive load theory (Sweller, 1988) tells us that there is a limited availability of working or short-term memory, and it is important to manage that load for optimal learning, i.e. storage and retrieval in long-term memory. The three types of cognitive load are: (1) Germane (devoted to processing information, constructing and automating schemas--the good kind of cognitive load); (2) Intrinsic (imposed by the complexity of the learning task--you can't change this); and (3) Extrinsic (imposed by the manner in which information is presented to learners--limit this).

Richard Mayer (2009) suggests strategies for effective use of multimedia to manage cognitive load.

  1. reduce extraneous material & highlight essential material
  2. do not add on-screen text to narrated animation
  3. place printed words next to corresponding graphics
  4. provide pretraining on key components
  5. present words and pictures rather than words alone and use conversational style rather than formal


Universal Design for Learning 

 Google Docs