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Less is More: Cognitive Load and Learning

Posted by Dave Coodin on Thu, Nov 24, 2016

How many phone numbers do you know by memory? Five? Six? If you count the phone numbers of relatives you memorized as a child, maybe as many as 10?

That makes me a little sad. I remember a time when I could recall the phone numbers of all my friends and family with little effort. Being able to roll off those seven-digit beauties without hesitation was a point of pride, one that I doubt my iPhone feels whenever it robotically sends a text message to the appropriate contact in my pre-populated list.

Feelings aside, though, there’s something very beneficial about using technology in this way. Stuffing my head full of phone numbers was fun, but why use brain capacity on something that can be recalled more easily and more accurately by reaching into my pocket? Plato may have feared that writing knowledge down would make us forget it, but he never had 600 Facebook friends’ birthdays to keep track of.

What’s more, we now know that outsourcing knowledge can actually increase our capacity for learning.

In instructional design, there’s a concept called “cognitive load,” which refers to the amount of mental effort that the working memory uses when you’re learning something new. A cognitive load that is too heavy can make learning arduous and stressful. When you’re trying to master a difficult concept, the last thing you need is to be bombarded with information, especially if it’s information that can be easily accessed elsewhere at any time.

Good design tries to reduce the load that we place on learners. As eLearning author Clark Quinn says, it’s about doing the least possible to guide performance, not the most.

So, how do we reduce cognitive load while enhancing the learning experience?

First of all, lean design means distributing the load so that it’s less overwhelming in the learning moment. Using visuals, for example, helps break up the way learners process information, while providing another route for that information to be accessed in your memory. The same goes for breaking up long chunks of text into more manageable bites. It’s about keeping your brain engaged by making the information being delivered feel less cumbersome. 

Secondly, we can reduce cognitive load by producing resources throughout the learning experience. Instead of having learners memorize a list of information, for instance, design an interactive exercise where learners selectively place that information into a table. That table then becomes a resource that learners can take with them as they perform their work. When designed with a visually intuitive sense, these kinds of concept cards or reminders not only take stress out of the learning moment; they also offer a boost during the performance moment by outsourcing long lists of facts or information, allowing the brain to focus on other critical tasks.

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Designing programs so that learners produce their own resources can help reduce cognitive load and offer performance support.

And speaking of the performance moment, we can also strategically place knowledge where people are likely to need it most. If you are a salesperson, you no longer need to have all the details of your entire product line committed to memory. Instead, having that information available on a point-of-sale tool, such as SwissVBS SET, allows you to devote your attention to the customer and their needs. That information is still there for immediate recall; it’s just that you’re accessing it through your smartphone or tablet, rather than retrieving it from your memory.

If you still have old phone numbers bouncing around in your head, by all means, don’t try to forget them. Just know that the more we embrace the digital, the less you need to rely on memory to keep those digits safe.

At SwissVBS,we embrace solutions that make learning stress-free and boost performance. To see some examples of our iconic brand of digital storytelling, micro-learning, and authentic interactivity, click below.

SwissVBS Content Solutions

Topics: SwissVBS, Performance Support, Storytelling, Skills, Mobile Learning

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