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Effective eLearning Content Development to prevent Cognitive Overload

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

 A person with a confused expression and multiple question marks around their head.

Did you know that the human brain can only process about four pieces of information at a time? This means that when we are exposed to too much information, we experience cognitive overload, which hinders our learning and retention.

Just like when you are in a crowded room, and everyone is talking at the same time. You try to listen to one person, but you can’t focus because of the noise. You feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and confused. This is what cognitive overload feels like. Your employees may face this in their eLearning courses, if they are exposed to an excess of information without proper structuring or pacing. To prevent this, you need to apply the best practices of eLearning content development and create content that is clear, concise, and engaging for your employees.

In this blog, we will discover the importance of effective eLearning content development that prevents cognitive overload. We will explore strategies to make learning not only informative but also an enjoyable experience for your employees.

Understanding Cognitive Overload

Before we discuss the strategies that can alleviate cognitive overload for your employees, Let's find out what cognitive overload really mean? Cognitive overload is a concept that refers to a situation where our brain is given more information or tasks than it can handle at once. Imagine your brain as a computer with a certain amount of processing power. Now, if you try to run too many programs or open too many files at once, the computer might slow down or even freeze. This is similar to what happens in our brain during cognitive overload.

There are three types of cognitive load:

1. Intrinsic Cognitive Load: It is like the built-in difficulty of a business topic you’re learning. It’s the complexity that’s naturally part of the subject. For L&D professionals, it's important to recognize that some topics are naturally more intricate or complex than others.

For example, understanding the financial market. It’s a topic that has a lot of inherent complexity with various factors like economic indicators, company health, global politics, and more playing a part. This complexity is a part of the subject itself and is an example of Intrinsic Cognitive Load.

2. Extraneous Cognitive Load: This type of cognitive load is all about how the information is presented to your employees. This is where you hold the reins as an L&D professional. For example, if you’re training employees about a new software. Giving them a lengthy manual can create a high extraneous cognitive load.

3. Germane Cognitive Load: This refers to the mental effort a learner applies to create lasting memories or knowledge from the learning material. It’s the challenge that they face when dealing with complex information, requiring them to build mental structures and connections that aid in understanding and remembering the material.

For example, consider the process of learning a new language. The Germane Cognitive Load is the effort that employees invest in practising the language, forming sentences, and understanding meanings. This effort aids in their long-term memory and usage of the language, much like building a mental dictionary for the new language.

Strategies to Prevent Cognitive Overload while developing eLearning Content

A frustrated person, with his hand on his head, exclaims, ‘My head is spinning!

Now, let’s discuss a comprehensive array of strategies that can help you prevent cognitive overload while creating eLearning content for your employees.

1. Start with Core Concepts

Begin your training by introducing the fundamental concepts. This paves the way for a robust foundation before jumping into more advanced information. This approach effectively reduces the intrinsic cognitive load, ensuring that your employees are well-prepared for the journey ahead.

For Example: In a safety training program, start with basic safety principles and gradually move on to specific safety procedures. This way, employees have a solid understanding of the fundamentals before getting into the nitty-gritty.

2. Use Images Thoughtfully

Visuals are a powerful tool in eLearning Content Development. When used thoughtfully, they can significantly enhance comprehension. The key is to ensure that the images you use contribute to a better understanding of the topic at hand.

For Example: In a technical training course, you can use images or illustrations to explain long drawn processes, making it easier for employees to understand.

3. Employ Simple Language

Using plain and accessible language is essential in creating content that is easily digestible and not overwhelming. This practice ensures that all your employees, regardless of their prior knowledge, can grasp the information.

For Example: In financial literacy training, use simple language to explain complex financial terms. This approach makes the content more accessible to a broad audience, ensuring that everyone can benefit.

4. Create Brief Learning Units

The "chunking hypothesis" is a powerful concept in eLearning Content Development. Breaking down information into smaller, comprehensible microlearning chunks improves memory and enhances retention.

For Example: In a software training course, create short, focused lessons for individual software features. This allows employees to learn step-by-step, without feeling overwhelmed by an abundance of information.

5. Offer Information on Time and on Demand

The timing of content delivery is crucial. Present new information when your employees are ready to process it. Avoid overwhelming them with a data dump. Gradually introduce concepts, provide practical examples, and offer simulations to ensure better understanding.

For Example: In a project management course, introduce new project management techniques when employees are actively involved in a project. This ensures that the information is immediately relevant and applicable.

6. Apply the Sandbox Principle

Active engagement is the key to long-lasting learning. The "sandbox" approach creates a safe space for your employees to experiment and practise what they've learned. After providing the learning material, give them time to apply it in real-world scenarios.

For Example: In a sales training program, after teaching sales techniques, provide real-world scenarios for employees to practice their selling skills. This hands-on experience allows them to apply the knowledge gained and better understand how to interact with customers.

7. Choose Learning Andragogies Wisely

Select learning activities that align with your training objectives and help employees achieve these objectives with minimal mental effort. For instance, when demonstrating a task, opt for a video instead of a lengthy textual description.

For Example: In a software training course, demonstrate how to use the software through video tutorials. Visual demonstrations are more effective and easier for employees to follow.

8. Eliminate Unnecessary Information

Content relevance is crucial. Ensure that every piece of the eLearning content development process aligns with the training objectives and adds value to the employees' understanding. Remove redundant or irrelevant information that might confuse or overwhelm them.

For Example: In a compliance training program, focus on the specific regulations and guidelines relevant to employees' roles and exclude information that doesn't directly apply to their responsibilities.

9. Create a Distraction-Free Learning Environment

Distractions can lead to cognitive overload. Maintain a clean user interface free from pop-ups, music, or complex graphics that divert your employees' attention from the core content.

For Example: In any online course, the use of a simple, intuitive layout with easy navigation can significantly enhance the learning experience. Avoid adding elements that don’t directly contribute to the learning objectives.

A flowchart on "How to recognize the signs of cognitive overload in your employees"

10. Highlight Important Elements

Guide your employees to focus on the most crucial elements of your content. Use visual cues, text highlighting, and navigation buttons to direct their attention. This helps reduce extraneous cognitive load and ensures they focus on the essential information.

For Example: In a product training course, use bold fonts and visual cues to draw employees' attention to the key actions that they must perform so that can be the key takeaway of the product they are learning about.

11. Keep Learning Content Uncomplicated

Clarity is key in eLearning content development. While enhancing your presentation with graphics and on-screen text, remember that combining too many elements can overwhelm your employees.

For Example: In a corporate safety training module, use illustrations to demonstrate safety procedures, with short text explanations. Avoid complex graphics or long paragraphs that could confuse employees. If using text over images, keep it minimal as it requires more mental effort. This ensures easy understanding and retention of training material.

Final Thoughts

Effective eLearning content development helps avoid cognitive overload for your employees, making training clear, engaging, and easy to understand.

Consider connecting with professional eLearning content developers. They are experts in creating informative training material that prevents cognitive overload. Working with them can provide an effective and enjoyable learning experience for your employees.


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