Web usability experts sometimes use the mantra “don’t make me think”* to describe the ideal for clear, clutter-free web design and navigation. 

While this may sound simplistic or lazy, it’s actually just a catchy summation of one of the fundamental principles of “cognitive load theory”. 

In broad terms, cognitive load theory breaks the types of thinking needed for a college course into two types:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load. This is the thinking required to master the actual course content.
  • Extraneous cognitive load. This is the thinking required to manage the learning process (parsing texts and examples, finding important content and references, figuring out where assignments are, and so on). 

While as instructors we cannot change the “intrinsic” cognitive load required to learn our subject, we have a great deal of control over the “extraneous” cognitive load that is imposed by our course design.

Thus, “don’t make me think” might be more appropriately expressed as “don’t make me think about the nonessential stuff so that I can think better about the stuff that really matters in this course”.

That’s why the Center for Learning and Teaching has developed the Canvas Templates. The templates are designed to ensure that all Canvas courses use the same basic navigation and organization system. Importing and using the Canvas Template is one of the best ways to reduce your students’ extraneous cognitive load.

Once you’ve loaded your content in the Canvas Template, a good way to test the usability of your course is to look at your course in “student view.” This is easy to do — simply go to the homepage of the course and click the button marked “Student View” on the top right. (Here are the full instructions for getting into student view.)

Tip: recruit someone in your household who isn’t familiar with Canvas to take your course for a test-drive in student view and adjust it based on their feedback.

Don’t Make Me Think is the title of one of the classics of website usability design, first published in 2000 by Steve Krug. Here’s a PDF of an updated version that was published in 2014.

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