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ATD Blog

Eliminate Needless Mental Effort

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Designing for memory requires removing unnecessary demands on working memory. Doing this frees limited working memory for processing information and building schemas. The following typical-but-unfortunate issues cause needless mental effort and decrease the amount of mental effort available to learn:

  • unnecessary content
  • content that causes split attention
  • content that moves fast and doesn’t allow for needed processing
  • inappropriate control of the learning environment.

Remove Unnecessary Content

Below are common content problems that cause harmful cognitive load and interfere with learning during instruction:

  • decorative pictures
  • background music
  • bells and whistles
  • extra content.

Decorative pictures are pictures that do not offer valuable information, but use memory resources nonetheless. The figure below is an example of a decorative picture on a content page. This picture doesn’t offer valuable information but uses mental effort.

Decorative pictures and background music distract focus away from critical content. Bells and whistles (sound effects, moving text, dancing pigs, and so forth) also divert attention from what is important. Unnecessary content distracts attention and focus and makes these critical learning tasks harder:

  • making sense of new information
  • processing content
  • recognizing what is important
  • building schemas.

Extra content added “just in case” uses extra effort to process—or, at least, to figure out if it is useful or needed. People using instruction should not suffer because we didn’t tie instruction to specific job needs. The image below shows a screen from a ladder safety course for construction workers with nonvaluable content. What content do you see that shouldn’t be there?

In my opinion, most of this content is off-target. The course isn’t about general construction accidents. It’s about preventing accidents with ladders—so the content on the slide does not apply to the learning objectives. Should people have to remember the exact percentage of construction accidents that result in death? Putting in a silly cartoon takes attention away from a serious issue and sends the wrong message.

Try It

Review the high-level storyboard in the table below for an employment discrimination lesson for new supervisors. Which elements do you think are unnecessary? The bolded content is likely unnecessary.

Lesson: Employment Discrimination/Title I

Topic Activities Media
What is employment discrimination/Title I

Audio: Employee describing her case
Types of employment discrimination Match case to discrimination type

Pictures of angry employees

Images of court documents

Legal consequences and remedies of employment discrimination Select the court cases that resulted in a finding of employment discrimination

Pictures of people in the courtroom

Images of court documents

Employment discrimination policies

Scenarios: What policy applies

Application exercises

Typical policies

Video: Applying the policy


Title I

Links to relevant cases

Want to learn more? Check out my new book Manage Memory for Deeper Learning.

About the Author

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a learning designer and analyst at Learning Peaks, an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is an often-requested speaker at training and instructional technology conferences, is quoted frequently in training publications, and is the co-author of Making Sense of Online Learning, editor of TheOnline Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, and co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09.

Patti was the research director for the eLearning Guild, an award-winning contributing editor forOnline Learning Magazine, and her articles are found in eLearning Guild publications, Adobe’s Resource Center, Magna Publication’s Online Classroom, and elsewhere.

Patti completed her PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver, and her interests include interaction design, tools and technologies for interaction, the pragmatics of real world instructional design, and instructional authoring. Her research on new online learners won an EDMEDIA (2002) best research paper award. She is passionate and outspoken about the results needed from instructional design and instruction and engaged in improving instructional design practices and instructional outcomes.

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As I deal with training that requires lots of memorization, I find visuals that reinforce the content useful. Visuals that are tagental to content, but do not reinforce or contradict concepts, still draw the eye better than plain text.
However, interaction is more useful than any other technique to reinforce memorization.Also, if the student is involved in transforming the information from one form to another, there is a large improvement in the amount memorized.
Agreed, using visuals directly related to the content that shows up on cue to provide the learner with something to look at rather than using mental resources to imagine it, helps with understanding. I also find that eLearning courses with only narration and text as the author seems to suggest, are so mind-numbingly boring that a learner ends up drifting off and gets very little from a course. There have to be sprinkles of entertainment here and there in every course to hold attention.
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Good points. I think we're seeing that the momentum has firmly shifted back to minimalism in learning design. New tools and trends like micro learning are best applied with these 'cognitive load' principles in mind. They are also more easily applied when designing for learners instead of executives- or at least executives who are willing to put themselves in the shoes of the learners.
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Hey Patti! Great column. So are you suggesting that all the beautiful pictures TD professionals have been adding to their PPT slides--nice to look at but not necessarily related--are actually distractions? And how about the Prezi animation that may take triple the time to absorb (and probably to design too) than just a quick list of tasks? I often remember the silly spinning, but not the message. Thought it was just me . . . Thanks for making us all think before we design.
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