In Gary Larson’s famous cartoon, a student asks his teacher if he can be excused because his brain is full. It’s funny as a cartoon, but it is not funny in a corporate training program and it is not funny that there is eLearning creation authoring software that makes things complicated.
Cognitive overload is an all-too-common condition that results from presenting an amount of information that exceeds the capacity of working memory and the encoding process.
It’s tempting to think of cognitive overload like overfilling a glass with water; the excess just spills over the top and is wasted. But cognitive overload is more complicated and more costly, than that.
When people are presented with too much content too quickly, it is not just the extra “nice-to-know” information that is lost. Because learners are unable to adequately process the content, they cannot create rich neural networks and easily retrievable long-term memories.
Cognitive overload leads to confusion and interferes with mastering even basic concepts.
There is a finite limit to how much a person can absorb and process in any one session. This is due, in part, to processing capacity, and in part to the challenge of paying attention for prolonged periods. Even if the topic and presentation are interesting, sooner or later attention begins to wander. And once learners stop paying attention, they stop learning.
Why is cognitive overload so common?
Partly because we rely on subject-matter experts—people with deep knowledge and passion for their chosen fields. In their eagerness to share their expertise, subject matter experts often forget how hard it was initially to master the core concepts and specialized language of the field. As a consequence, SMEs frequently include far more detail than novice needs. The extra details and theoretical digressions create cognitive overload, which has the opposite of the intended effect and slows the acquisition of competence.
There is also the “tyranny of time.” Most L&D departments are under pressure to reduce the amount of time that employees spend in training. They try to do so by packing as much content as possible into each program. But this is a false economy. As Ruth Clark famously observed: “Content covered is not content learned.” Just because the information was presented, doesn’t mean people learned it or will be able to apply it to their jobs.
What can we do about it?
- First, we need to rigorously analyze—and then prioritize—what it is people need to learn to enable them to achieve the organization’s business goals.
- Second, we need to follow Joe Harless’s advice: “Never ask a subject matter expert ‘What do people need to know about this subject?’ Only ask, ‘What do people need to be able to do?’” Shifting the focus from content to performance is one of the best ways to prevent information overload.
- Third, employ approaches like chunking, microlearning, spacing, interleaving, and reflection that break up the content and space learning out over time, and result in improved focus and deeper learning.
Deep versus Shallow Learning
Shallow or superficial learning is the ability to recall specific facts or concepts, without necessarily understanding or being able to apply them. Deep learning, on the other hand, entails understanding the underlying principles and how the concepts can be applied to novel situations. Shallow learning can be achieved quickly in a single pass or through a simple drill (think flashcards). Deep learning requires more mental effort and practice to create the rich mental framework needed for effective problem-solving. Success in most jobs requires deep learning; just knowing the “facts” of management does not make you an effective manager.
Training techniques that help facilitate deep learning – and simultaneously avoid cognitive overload—include:
- Breaking the subject or skill into smaller, logical segments or subroutines. Chunking is how experts overcome the limits of working memory. Chunking content for instruction helps improve focus, reduce the potential for overload, and increase recall. As you might expect, novices benefit more from chunked instruction than those who already have considerable knowledge or experience in the subject. Effective chunking makes the relationships among the component parts clear as well as showing how they fit into the larger context.
- Learning a topic in several sessions with intervals in between. Spaced learning is a much more effective strategy than cramming (trying to learn everything in one session). In part this is because of the forgetting that occurs between study sessions, which creates a “desirable difficulty.” When you return to a topic after doing something else for a while, extra mental effort is require to recall where you were and what you had learned previously. That extra effort results in richer understanding and more durable learning.
- Mixing related, but distinct, material during the study. A surprising finding of recent learning research is that it is more effective to interleave subjects, rather than to concentrate on just one at a time. Although it seemed counter-intuitive to art teachers, students learned to recognize paintings better when they studied more than one artist at a time – interleaving different works by different painters – than when each artist’s paintings were studied separately, probably because it forced them to pay more attention to the differences.
Taken together, these observations suggest that we can improve the effectiveness of corporate training programs by chunking the content into smaller units, revisiting topics at intervals, and interleaving topics.
- is a way to accomplish these goals. Microlearning involves keeping learning experiences relatively short but without sacrificing good learning practices like active engagement and practice. Good microlearning depends on appropriate chunking and is well-suited to spaced learning and interleaving. Because each learning experience is relatively short, it is easier for learners to maintain focus and attention. It is also easier for learners to return to topics they found challenging. As with chunking, the microlearning topics need to be part of an overall framework and the relationships among topics made clear. They also need to include an appropriate amount of repetition and cross-references to reinforce prior learning. Otherwise, they will be perceived as separate, isolated bits and won’t build toward a deep understanding of the subject.
Corporate training is not about stuffing people full of facts the way one would stuff a Christmas goose. The goal of corporate training is to improve performance. Improved performance requires deep learning and practice. Chunking content, limiting the cognitive load, and spacing out shorter micro-learning sessions can improve training effectiveness across a wide range of topics and skills.
Author: Dr. Roy Pollock, Chief Learning Officer of the 6Ds Company and the co-author of The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning: How to Turn Training and Development into Business Results.