How do attending physicians describe cognitive overload among their workplace learners?

Med Educ. 2020 Dec;54(12):1129-1136. doi: 10.1111/medu.14289. Epub 2020 Aug 12.


Objectives: Cognitive load theory (CLT) focuses on the limited bandwidth of working memory. Core to CLT is the concept of cognitive overload, which occurs when working memory demands exceed working memory capacity, and learning and performance suffer. Within health professions education (HPE), workplace learning settings are very complex, placing learners at high risk of cognitive overload. Although continuous monitoring of physiologic parameters can indicate states of high cognitive load, how to practically identify cognitively overloaded learners within everyday workplace settings is not well understood. We sought to characterise how attending physicians described their perceiving of cognitive overload among learners in two different workplace settings: the gastrointestinal endoscopy suite and the intensive care unit.

Methods: We performed a secondary qualitative analysis of transcripts of interviews with workplace teachers that had been carried out during two previous studies. These studies had addressed different objectives but both were informed by CLT. Each included questions that prompted participants to reflect on how they perceived cognitive overload to manifest among learners in the workplace. To investigate the phenomenon of cognitive overload, we developed a new codebook and performed content analysis.

Results: We analysed 42 interview transcripts (22 endoscopists, 12 hospitalists, eight intensivists). Participants described four behaviours they had witnessed among learners they thought were cognitively overloaded: poor performance on workplace tasks; non-verbal physical manifestations (including posture, eye and body movements and autonomic functions); verbal utterances (words and sounds), and interpersonal interactions with team members. Endoscopists often described individually oriented examples, whereas intensivists and hospitalists tended to frame examples within an interpersonal context.

Conclusions: We identified four overarching ways in which HPE workplace teachers perceived learners as appearing to be cognitively overloaded. Workplace teachers and learners should be mindful of and watch for these signs, which may signal states of cognitive overload. Earlier recognition of cognitive overload may facilitate timely action to reduce cognitive overload and promote learning.

MeSH terms

  • Cognition
  • Health Personnel
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Physicians*
  • Workplace*