Photo by: Elisa via Pixabay
Cognitive load refers to the total amount of information your working memory can handle. If the demands placed on working memory are too high, learners may give up in frustration or fail to comprehend.
Instructional designers and trainers want their trainees to retain the information they’ve learned in training and apply it to their job, improving their job performance. Reducing the stress on working memory allows for greater success in training.
Incorporating these three valuable approaches can reduce cognitive load and improve learning in your training sessions:
Our brains can only process a certain amount of new information at a time. Often instructional designers and trainers overload learners with content, decreasing motivation and success.
Chunking the content into smaller bits makes it more digestible for learners. Most experts suggest taking long tasks or topics and breaking them into smaller parts, each containing five to nine steps or teaching points. The learners are then given an opportunity to apply each part of the task or topic before being introduced to the next chunk. It’s important these chunks of content represent something meaningful for the learner, giving them a way to organize and make sense of the information. When multiple bits of information are chunked, there is more working memory capacity available for processing new information.
Typically, instructional designers are tasked with making a one-size-fits-all course. One course often makes sense economically and logistically, but this works against the learning principles of cognitive load.
Consider developing different practice exercises for various experience and knowledge levels, or “branching” from critical content to varying levels of practice based on learner expertise. For example, have novices analyze pre-worked examples while experts work with problems to solve. Gradually fade the pre-worked examples for beginners toward skilled application.
Pareto’s Principle of 80/20
If you’re finding there is just too much content or learners are exhibiting signs of cognitive overload, the training may have too much “nice to know” information.
Remove extraneous content, especially content incorporated only for interest. A useful tool to help you manage content is Pareto’s Principle of 80/20. This principle states that 20 percent of the inputs or activities are responsible for 80 percent of the outcomes or results. In training, applying this principle means focusing on the critical 20 percent of the content, rather than distracting learners with the other 80 percent.
I challenge you to approach your next instructional design project or training session by asking yourself, “How will learners best learn the content?” rather than, “How can we teach the content?” Incorporate chunking, branching, and Pareto’s Principle and reap the benefits of increased learner success.
If you’d like to experience these principles in action and learn more about each of them, enroll in Langevin’s workshop, How Adults Learn—available as a public workshop or online in the virtual classroom.