A drop is better than a firehose. A common error in the design of learning experiences is burdening the learner with too many facts and lengthy explanations all at once. This is problematic because of the small capacity and duration of our brain’s temporary storage system—working memory. When it comes to learning, less is more. People retain more if they are given less at one time.
This is why experienced practitioners often recommend strategies like spaced learning and microlearning in learning design.
Cognitive Resources are Limited
It’s helpful to think of the brain in terms of processing power. Because it has a finite amount of this power, it can only handle a limited amount of information at once. In fact, the original idea that working memory can process 7 to 9 chunks of information at once has been questioned for decades. Cowan’s research (2001) demonstrates the number is closer to 3-5 chunks. (Read more about working memory.)
New Information Fades Quickly
An important function of working memory is connecting new information to one’s existing network of knowledge. Information quickly deteriorates in working memory if it is not encoded—written to long-term memory. Without rehearsal or the use of an external aid (like writing it down), information fades in less than 30 seconds (some estimates say 10 seconds).
Experts Are Efficient Learners
It is often tempting to design eLearning and full days of training that are no more than a knowledge dump. This is particularly true if you are a subject matter expert or if you are working closely with one. Experts often can’t remember what it is like to be a new learner in their area of expertise.
Generally, experts are able to quickly see patterns, to deduce cause and effect, and to solve problems. In contrast, novices are often working at a level where they do not yet see the connections between concepts. Novices can be easily overwhelmed and are more likely to stumble around at first. (Read more about the cognitive psychology of expertise.)
Certainly, the learner will not have the required resources to process the information and transfer it into long-term memory. So when it comes to course design, remember that less is more.
Eight Ways to Lighten Cognitive Load
To avoid creating a high cognitive load learning experience, consider this guidance:
- For most workplace training, focus more on building skills more than on transferring information. This means there should be many opportunities to practice.
- Encourage and provide external resources to reduce the load on working memory. These can range from note taking to job aids.
- In fields that require complex explanations, such as technical, medical and scientific topics, space the information out over time. Use visuals to make explanations concrete. Use case studies and realistic scenarios to provide context.
- Prevent the split-attention effect, which occurs “when learners are required to split their attention between at least two sources of information that have been separated either spatially or temporally (Sweller, Ayers & Kalyuga).”
- Allow learners the mental space to absorb new concepts using spaced learning and reflective questions.
- Provide opportunities for learners to make the content meaningful through discussion and collaborative practice. (See 8 Principles on Cognitive Load and Collaborative Learning.)
- Organize information into small chunks. (See more about organizing and structuring content.)
- Take a break. Then review all the content you want to present with fresh eyes. Remove everything that isn’t required to meet a performance objective.
- Cowan, N. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24(1), 87-185.
- Cowan N. (2010). The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? Curr Dir Psychol Sci. Feb 1; 19(1): 51–57.
- Sweller, J., Ayres, P. and S. Kalyuga (2011). Cognitive Load Theory. Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.