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The Cognitive Load Theory: There Can be Too Much!

Zoning out during a professional development session? Walking out of a meeting and feeling like you can’t remember anything? Often, this happens when you are presented with more information than you can process at one time. While you may have personally experienced this, thinking about extraneous cognitive load when designing new learning experiences can improve learner retention and engagement. 

How the Brain Works

The human brain can only process so much information at once. Information is taken in and entered into working memory where it’s held for only 10-15 seconds. If information is deemed useful by the brain, it will be organized into groups called schema and become a part of long-term memory. Information that the brain finds irrelevant is forgotten.

Here’s the catch: if too much information is presented at one time, the brain automatically chooses to forget it.

There is hope. Schemas hold the key to long-term learning by acting as a folder for related concepts like math, work skills, or relationships. Each schema becomes prior knowledge and is tapped into when new information is taken in. If new information does not fit into an already predefined schema, the brain creates a new one. 

The more developed the schemas and prior knowledge, the more the brain is able to understand intricate information connected to the schema. Enhancing these connections within the schema becomes a crucial part of the learning process.

Learning Something New

Imagine taking on a new hobby–gymnastics. You show up the first day and witness multiple classes happening at once. The coach tells you to, “Get ready to do a back handspring with a double twist off of the balance beam”. At this point, you are thinking, “I do a what off of what?!” The coach pulls you aside to explain how to do this correctly fully expecting you to land this on your first try. 

This gymnastic experience is filled with the three major factors that dramatically increase extraneous cognitive load–distractions, complexity, and progression. Multiple classes and gymnasts working on their skills at the same time? Talk about distracting. The back handspring double what? Sounds very complex and you don’t remember what it’s called. The coach gives instructions about something for which you are not prepared. Rapid progression requires the brain to build a complicated schema and tries to fill in the skipped foundational information. Face it, trying that fancy trick on the first day would be disastrous.

The Balancing Act

e-Learning experiences can be similar. Too many graphics or interactions on a page can be distracting. A lot of complex information at one time is overwhelming and won’t be remembered. Asking learners to complete a task where they have to play knowledge catch-up is confusing. When information is presented in a way that reduces distractions, breaks down complexities, and progresses in a timely manner, the brain is more likely to file it into a schema. It’s a real balancing act but it can be done with thoughtful and intentional design. 

Check out the following tips on how to address these three factors so information sticks long-term. 

Tips to Lower Cognitive Load

  1. Chunk Content – Most learning designers stick to presenting around 7 pieces of information at a time to keep from overwhelming the learner. Incorporate microlearning through 2-5 minute training games like Jump or Match. This makes learning experiences more engaging and encourages the learner to play again, reinforcing the content.
  2. Scaffold Information – Introduce simple content and build over time to refine the schema. When the schema is better developed, the learner can comprehend more complicated information. 
  3. Mix Modalities – This can be tricky because too many changes add to cognitive overload. However, switching from a page where there is a lot of information to a gamified interaction or change in the way information is presented can give the brain a break. 
  4. Cut the Excess – Removing the extra words or finding a simpler way to say a message keeps the cognitive load in check. This includes redundancies and unnecessary information.
  5. Keep it Simple – Less is always more. The brain can focus on important information instead of being distracted by a ton of images or design aspects.
  6. Be Clear – Choose to present information in the clearest way possible. Remove any confusing examples or complicated phrases.

Let us show you how easy it is to build a game with your training content to add to your training strategy and keep information overload at bay! Schedule a 30-minute call here.

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