The Goldilocks Principle & Workload

Updated: Aug 10

The Goldilocks Principle is known globally and across industries as the “just right” concept. The origin stems from the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. During Goldilocks' visit, she tasted three bowls of porridge of which one was too hot, one was too cold, and one was “just right.” She also found in trying out three chairs and three beds, a chair and a bed that were "just right." In the literature this concept is also referred to as the “sweet spot” or “just enough.”

For educators, the Goldilocks Principle provides a strong framework for instructional design and teaching. It is particularly important when teaching online or pivoting across learning formats from face-to-face to hybrid or emergency remote. The challenge is knowing how much is too much, too little or just right.

A course that is front loaded with too much content in the first few weeks can result in early attrition. Complex activities or assignments that are not scaffolded or unclear can affect cognitive load. According to Sweller et al. (2019), “If cognitive load becomes too high, it hampers learning and transfer” (p. 261). Too little content can lead to demotivation, boredom, disengagement, and affect academic progress. McTighe and Willis (2019) state students are likely to persist when they are engaged at achievable levels of challenge and believe they can meet stated goals - just right.

The Goldilocks Principle and importance of interaction are not new to education, particularly online education. In 1989, Moore published an editorial on Three Types of Interaction: Learner-Content, Learner-Instructor, and Learner-Learner. The connection between of interaction and learning is also linked historically to many other renowned thought leaders such as Dewey (1916), Vygotsky (1978), and Kolb (1984). Today, advancements in technology and neuroscience reveal the brain changes over a lifetime through our interactions and experiences, which is referred to as neuroplasticity.

Student with papers flying out of computer, Bored student, Active Student, Three Bowls

On July 1, 2021, the U.S. Department of Education Distance Education and Innovation regulations went into effect, which included clarity on demonstrating Regular and Substantive Interaction (RSI) (NC SARA, 2020; Office of Postsecondary Education, 2020). Why is regular and substantive interaction important for educators? Because it is through interaction with instructors, learners, and content, both in and outside of the courses, that learning occurs. In reflecting on Moore’s Editorial from 1989, his final statement is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago:


In short, it is vitally important that distance educators in all media do more to plan for all three kinds of interaction, and use the expertise of educators and communication specialists in both traditional media-printed, broadcast, or recorded-and newer teleconference media. (Moore, 1989, p. 6)

As educators design and redesign courses across learning formats, it is important to reflect on the Goldilocks Principle and RSI. Educators are encouraged to stay current with research, build upon evidence-based practices, balance content and cognitive load, and align courses with regulations to support learning through regular and substantive interaction.


Author: Dr. Kristen Betts


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