An exploratory investigation of the measurement of cognitive load on shift: Application of cognitive load theory in emergency medicine

K.M. Vella, A.K. Hall, J.J.G. van Merrienboer, W.M. Hopman, A. Szulewski*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

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Background Emergency physicians often experience a high cognitive load (CL) due to the inherent nature of working in acute care settings. CL has traditionally been measured in educational studies but has not been well studied in the clinical environment. Methods Emergency medicine attending physicians and residents working in an academic urgent care center completed psychometric questionnaires while on shift to measure overall CL, intrinsic cognitive load (ICL), extraneous cognitive load (ECL), and acute stress. Data regarding the patient load, patient acuity, and the number of patients in the waiting room were also collected. Correlational analysis and simple linear regression were used to evaluate predictors of CL on shift. Results Forty-two questionnaires were completed (26 by attending physicians, 16 by residents). Attending physicians carried a significantly higher patient load compared to residents (p < 0.001). No differences in mean overall CL, ICL, ECL, and acute stress were observed between attending physicians and residents. Bivariate analysis demonstrated associations between ICL, ECL, acute stress, and overall CL in attending physicians. In residents, acute stress was the only variable associated with overall CL and the number of high-acuity patients was associated with ICL. Conclusions Factors influencing reported CL during clinical work are different between attending emergency physicians and residents. Further study to appreciate the impact of these differences is required and may help educators elucidate strategies to better manage CL, thereby improving clinical performance and potentially improving patient care.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere10634
Number of pages8
JournalAEM Education and Training: a global journey of emergency care
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2021


  • clinical medicine
  • cognitive load
  • cognitive load theory
  • emergency medicine
  • medical education
  • stress

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