How to Reduce Cognitive Overload during Web Searches

When we have challenging questions, we often turn to the internet to search for the answers. However, learning from the web is very difficult. Seneca, a first century Roman philosopher, may have said it best: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
The internet allows us easy access to unprecedented amounts of information. This can be very overwhelming when you are trying to find reliable solutions to the unknown. So how do you search, sort, and synthesize “the convoluted maze of potential answers” (Sieck, 2013)? What things do you need to consider to get the most from your web searches? To maximize learning, one should minimize cognitive load. Cognitive load refers to the “mental effort required to learn new information” (Whitenton, 2013).  Below is a list of guidelines mentioned in the literature to help you deal with the potential cognitive overload that is experienced through extensive amounts of web searching.

1. Assess the credibility of websites (Kent State University, 2012)

Most of us already have mental models about how websites work, based on past experiences visiting other sites. We tend to look for labels and basic layouts that will help reduce the amount of learning. But, why waste time scanning through information from internet sources that may not be trustworthy? To evaluate the quality of the information in the web, we must understand the following:

  • Who created the site and what are their credentials?
  • What is the purpose?
  • Is the information accurate?
  • Is the content current and up-to-date?

Assessing the reliability of websites before reading the content will help limit the amount of information you have to process.

2. Examine validations for specific claims (Sieck, 2013)

Another way to reduce the effort of absorbing new information is to examine specific claims on websites. For example, if you are not certain of a sources credibility, check whether the “facts agree with what you already know to be true.” What do you remember from your education that justifies the information? Also, search for the scientific evidence. Can the information be supported through scientific research?

3. Combine all the facts (Sieck, 2013)

It is important when searching on the web to compare the information you find with multiple reliable sources. This method allows you to organize the overall story and decipher conflicting claims. For example, internet surfers may view one reliable source’s information and compare it with three other reliable sources. Not only will you be able to distinguish patterns in the facts provided but you will be able to understand the general consensus among experts. This helps minimize the amount of information you have to examine.

There is no way to completely eliminate cognitive load — in fact, “even if this was possible, it wouldn’t be desirable” (Whitenton, 2013). We visit sites to retrieve information after all. Nevertheless, having the ability to effectively sort through the content and learn from reliable sources is critical as we continue to heavily rely on this informative tool.

Share some of your strategies that you use to minimize cognitive load. What works for you?

References

Kent State University. (2012). Criteria for evaluating web resources. Retrieved March 11, 2014, from http://www.library.kent.edu/page/10475

Sieck, W. (2013). Cognitive Skills in the Internet Era. Retrieved March 13, 2014, from http://www.globalcognition.org/head-smart/cognitive-skills-in-the-internet-era/

Whitenton, K. (2013). Minimize cognitive load to maximize usability  Retrieved March 15, 2014, from http://www.nngroup.com/articles/minimize-cognitive-load/

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Cognitive Performance Group, LLC is a woman-owned small business with offices in Orlando, Florida, and Cleveland, Ohio. It was founded by Dr. Karol G. Ross, Jennifer K. Phillips, and William A. Ross. The three CPG Principals developed the concept for a company to support cognitive performance improvement in industry and government. (more...)

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