Have you ever been to a meeting, workshop, or seminar where you felt overwhelmed with the amount of information that was coming at you? Who hasn’t, right? After all, the standard operating procedure of our educational system in the U.S. (and many other countries) is to inundate students with as much information as possible, and hope that some of it sticks.
Neither inundation nor hope, however, are effective strategies for high-impact learning.
In the mid 1990s when I became an Operations Manager at a bank, I attended my first regional meeting for all Operations Managers. I can still sense that unnerving feeling of being overwhelmed as our Regional Manager rattled on for half the day about new procedures, new requirements, new regulations, and so on. I was definitely experiencing information overload, along with some unpleasant feelings of incompetence.
In contrast, the more experienced Operations Managers were were taking it all in. They were comprehending the information. They didn’t struggle with overload like I did. Why is that? It’s because they had prior experience and knowledge for leveraging their comprehension of the new information. I had limited prior knowledge; my “operational” muscles were still forming and they couldn’t carry the load of information that was coming at me.
Fortunately, as the months and years went on, I became more experienced and capable, and the regional meetings got easier and easier.
The tipping point for the amount of information a person can reasonably comprehend and retain is much lower than most of us expect. Think of it this way – would you want to take a sip of water from a fire hose? Sure – you might quench your thirst, but you may also drown. What good is that?
The amount of new information a person is able to process is called “cognitive load.” In simple terms, cognitive load is like a person’s ability to carry a heavy object. The person who has built up the right muscles or knows how to use leverage effectively or knows how to arrange the items to maximize balance, is naturally able to handle a larger load than others. The same is true for learning and processing new information. The audience’s prior experience with the information, ability to leverage their existing knowledge, and their ability to organize new information plays a huge role in their ability to comprehend and retain new information.
The next time you put together a presentation, training program, workshop, or any type of learning event, think about the following:
- How much information is REALLY necessary? What content does your audience NEED to know? What content is NICE for them to know?
- What can you cut out without losing the integrity of your message?
- What can you do to simplify complex information – to make it more digestible or less likely they will drown in it?
- How can you organize the information so that it flows logically and helps your audience move through it without being inundated by it?
- How can you help your audience leverage their prior knowledge and experience so that they can relate to the new information more easily?
- How can you include activities and exercises to help them comprehend, practice using, and retain new information?
As trainers and instructional designers, we have an obligation to help our audience have the best learning experience possible. Giving consideration to the amount and complexity of information we provide, how we organize it, how we simplify it, and how we help our audience leverage their existing knowledge all contribute to a positive learning experience.