Continuous learning is a common thread among current employee training trends. Companies benefit from a workforce that wants to keep bettering itself. That’s a great thing, but it’s also important to make sure you aren’t pushing your team too hard.
Human beings can learn amazing things, but we have limitations. Trying to do too much at once can cause knowledge retention to grind to a halt. It can also cause negative effects on the learner’s wellbeing.
That’s why it’s essential to provide access to a wealth of learning materials and to ensure that no one feels overwhelmed. Not doing so can cause a problem called cognitive overload.
What Is Cognitive Overload?
Our brains work a lot like computers. Every computer has limitations based on the hardware and software it uses. For humans, we have something called a “cognitive load.” This term describes the number of working memory resources in our brains.
If you throw too much information at those resources, you may end up with cognitive overload. An overload occurs when too much data floods in or too many simultaneous tasks occur at once. The brain cannot perform all tasks or process all information as it normally does due to the high volume.
John Sweller is an educational psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia. He is best known for formulating the cognitive load theory. Sweller breaks human memory down into three activity spaces:
- Germane – Germane cognitive load includes the effort used to build a permanent knowledge library in the brain. It relates to the methods used in training. To maximize the effectiveness of germane cognitive load, try using flowcharts or scenarios instead of bulleted lists or walls of text.
- Intrinsic – Our intrinsic cognitive load relates to specific topics. It determines the inherent difficulty of the material for the learner, which is influenced by the knowledge they already have on the topic.
- Extraneous – The extraneous cognitive load is connected to how information and tasks are presented. It doesn’t relate to learning specifically, but rather to things going on in the background. These are things that can turn into distractions and make it harder to focus.
A training program cannot change the intrinsic load, but it can be designed to allow for an easier transition when going from simple to complex topics. By understanding what we can do to improve how cognitive load is handled, organizations can build more effective training programs that work with our memory resources and cognitive abilities.
How to Prevent Cognitive Overload in Your Training Class
You cannot control all aspects of training for every learner, but you can give them the tools to be successful. This is especially true with the growth of remote learning, where your learners might be in spaces you have no control over.
The following list outlines some of the things that you can do to nurture a positive, successful training environment.
- Present Training with a User-Friendly Interface
The user interface your training program uses should be easy to navigate. You don’t want your training class to waste their brain processing power on extraneous things that don’t directly impact their job role.
A good LMS will provide a clean, professional interface with customization options. These allow businesses to build a branded portal for learning that works with the process rather than slows it down.
Remember to also take time to train employees on the basics of the system. Going in with an understanding of how to access training will help lower stress and preserve cognitive function.
- Keep Training Modules Short and Concise
Training modules should be short and concise. Keep them focused on one topic at a time. You can always add additional modules to cover other topics or to discuss how topics relate.
If you aren’t sure how to begin, microlearning is an effective employee training method. This approach uses short training segments, usually around 5 minutes long, to discuss a single topic. These can be grouped together to create a job role-specific curriculum. They can also be delivered individually to supplement other course material.
- Provide Job Role Resources for Quick Reference
Every business owner wants a team of experts who know what they are doing. However, it’s often impossible to expect a person to memorize every detail of every aspect of their job.
The reality is that they shouldn’t have to memorize everything. Expecting learners to do so is a recipe for cognitive overload. Instead, look for information that can be presented as a supplemental resource that can be accessed on the job.
Many LMS platforms include resource libraries and knowledgebases that work well for this purpose. You can store all documents in one place and give access to all employees or those with the right permissions levels for secure data.
- Stick with Simpler Content and Structure
Content should be simplified to prevent cognitive overload. Avoid including nonessential details or convoluted language. Explanations and instructions should be to the point without elaborate or flowery text.
All content included in a course or module should be relevant and help with understanding and knowledge retention.
- Use Multiple Senses in Your Delivery
Utilizing multiple senses in your content delivery will maximize knowledge retention. Present the information in different ways to address different learner types.
For example, you can include a blend of visuals, sounds, and movement to create a memorable experience. This also ensures that no one is left behind if they are a slow reader or have a hard time processing audio input.
Some options for varied delivery methods include reading, videos, and interactive quizzes. Virtual reality training technology is also beneficial here. Some topics are better with virtual reality because it can create a lifelike scene or scenario that includes visual, audio, and text information.
When using multiple senses, make sure all content is focused on the topic and supplements it rather than distracts from it.
- Build Upon What Learners Already Know
If you already have some knowledge of a subject, you will have an easier time with deeper learning related to it. Trainers can use this to their advantage.
Create a training program that builds upon what the learner already knows. Introduce a subject and create a baseline of knowledge before pushing into more complex concepts. It’s the most effective way to dive into a subject without causing confusion.
That’s why it is also important to have a record of which courses each employee has completed. Trainers can create a learning plan for each individual that is personalized to match their past training and experience.
- Keep the Focus on One Thing During Training
Having multiple types of media in your training program is helpful. However, make sure you aren’t presenting too many things at once. Sometimes, there’s too much happening on the screen. Things that are moving or otherwise grabbing the learner’s attention can distract from the core material.
Take a more minimalist approach by letting learners focus on one thing. Too many things at once can cause the “split-attention effect,” which will slow training progress.
Giving learners one thing to focus on reduces information processing friction. They will be able to apply more of their brain power to what’s important, which can speed up training and increase knowledge retention.
- Use Visual Aids to Support Learning
Different people have different strengths when it comes to learning. Most people benefit from visual aids. These can illustrate a topic or instruction in a faster, more direct way than reading paragraphs of text.
When teaching with text or a lecture, include visual aids to support learning. Process flows, infographics, and images often work better than bullet points and paragraphs. It also eases the cognitive load by streamlining the way information is taken in and processed.
Visit LMS.org to learn more about learning management systems and effective training strategies.