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TMI! Cognitive Overload and Learning


Thu Jul 13 2017

TMI! Cognitive Overload and Learning

If you want to get a sense of the vast amount of data exploding every second, visit Internet Live Stats and watch the numbers for Internet users, websites, emails, and many other statistics updated in real time. But watch out—you might find yourself mesmerized by the rolling numbers and the dizzyingly rapid pace of expansion they represent. This is an example of what we call “cognitive overload.”

Cognitive Load Theory was introduced by John Sweller to explain why people have so much more difficulty learning complex content. While this may seem obvious, his work explained how instructional designers need to break down content into more manageable chunks, allowing the brain to convert short-term memory into long-term memory and application. We make use of his work today whenever we talk about “chunking” as part of our design.


However, the concept has wider applications. Aerospace companies, for example, consider cognitive load when they design airplane and spaceship control panels. In these high-stakes environments, too much information can become deadly if the pilot’s brain is unable to process it. Marketing companies also consider cognitive load when considering how much product information should be presented in an ad or on social media and game designers use it to decide how complex a game can be before it simply overwhelms the player.

The theory states that there are three types of loads; they all add up in the brain and contribute to the total amount of effort required for learning to take place.

Intrinsic load is the complexity of the content itself. The more challenging the content, the more likely that the learner will experience an excessive cognitive load.

Extraneous load is information that doesn’t support the learning objective. Unfortunately, many of us are guilty of contributing to the learner’s total cognitive load by including information that really isn’t pertinent. For example, have you ever included a history of a tool, process or concept, when the learner really only needs to know how to use today’s version? Some clip art images, fancy multi-stage buttons, and animations may look snazzy, but they only add to the work the learner’s brain has to exert to figure out what is really important on the screen.

Germane load refers to information that helps the learner process the new information. For example, you may present an acronym that helps them remember the five steps of a process. In a perfect world, we would only include germane load in our learning designs. The key to effective design is to include everything—and only everything—that supports the learning objective. Here are a few tips for you to consider:

  • Make graphs, charts and images that support the learner. Make sure they aren’t just pretty window dressing that will draw attention away from key concepts.

  • Present germane information in multiple ways. For example, if you overdo text or audio, the learner will be unable to process the incoming information quickly enough to move it from short to longer term memory. This technique has the added benefit of helping form multiple neural pathways to the same information, so that learning “sticks” and is more readily retained, retrieved and applied.

  • Break up the content into small digestible bites of information. Microlearning is a great example of this approach to mitigate cognitive load, but you can do it within longer designs as well (See ATD Microlearning Certificate.). For example, you might add an activity after each step in a process is presented, so that the learner can become comfortable with each step before moving to the next.

  • Aggressively delete non-essential content or move it to an optional appendix. Be ready to resist the “kitchen sink” approach to learning design. If it doesn’t fit , get rid of it!

  • Don’t narrate on-screen text word-for-word (or read every word on a slide.) Summarize and direct the learner’s attention to the most important words or images on the screen.

  • Avoid splitting the learner’s attention. If you want them to watch a video, don’t present it with a bunch of text that will draw attention away from the video. It is hard enough to maintain learner attention, so don’t make it harder by being the cause of pulling their focus away. Introduce each medium separately, not all at once.

  • Use the contiguity effect to reduce confusion about the meaning and purpose of illustrations. Make sure the explanatory text is clearly paired with the image or graph you are presenting.

  • Build in plenty of opportunities for reflection. These quiet spaces allow the brain to consolidate, cross-reference and reinforce fragile, new neural pathways, so that learning can be converted from short to longer term memory and give the brain a break from the effort of learning.

Don’t leave your learners screaming “TMI!” during your training! Leave that for when your mother-in-law thinks you actually want a detailed medical report when you ask how she’s feeling.

For more on how to use brain science to boost training results, join me for the next session of ATD’s Essentials of Brain-Based Learning program.

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