Combating Cognitive Overload in Education Design

Cognitive overload. The term is dense and rests heavy on your lips. Cognitive overload is the moment when a learner becomes overwhelmed during the education experience. There is too much content. The content is presented in a complex or confusing manner. The learner cannot focus, make meaning, or progress. The learner is stuck. Even with the best intentions, education can be delivered in a manner that overloads the learner. There are many reasons cognitive overload can occur in education, so there is no easy fix. No matter what modality you are designing instruction for, there are a number of general strategies you can follow to reduce the odds of creating cognitive overload.

Develop Clear Learning Objectives: Learning objectives form the foundation of the entire education program. Without learning objectives as a guide it is easy to lose focus in program design and to develop content that does not fit well together. The Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy is a great place to start. There are many online resources and books available on the taxonomy to help get you started. 

Design with Mapping Software: Concept maps or mind maps are a great way to lay out the plan for your education program. Mapping provides a visual way to show how each aspect of your education program relates to other parts. A map helps organize the program. Mapping also gives you a good idea of scope. There are a variety of free and paid programs available, including Visio, Inspiration, CMAP Tools, and VUE. 

Use a Storyboard: Storyboards began in the film industry but have become popular, useful tools in education, particularly in e-learning. A storyboard provides a detailed overview of each aspect of the education program. Each page of the storyboard should contain several key elements: education information (such as the title of the course, the objectives, and the order in the sequence), the script, media (if any), navigation (particularly if it is e-learning), and a sketch of the design. The storyboard can help you spot confusing script points, complex narration movements, or overwhelming screen designs in advance of developing the actual curriculum.

Write in Simple Language: Language can be a primary source of confusion, anxiety, or frustration for learners. The language you use is especially important when working in a diverse workplace where the chosen language to present may not be every learner’s first language. When writing a script or selecting text to present on a screen, keep it simple. Use basic descriptive words to convey meaning. Keep sentences short. Do not use compound sentences. Allow others to review the language to ensure it is accurate and conveys the intended meaning. 

Visualize Information: Using meaningful visuals to convey information is a powerful way to create meaning for learners. As the adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. It is important that any images used directly relate to the topic, or meaning can easily be lost. In addition to pure images, graphic organizers are another visual way to group information together in meaningful ways. You can create your own graphic organizers, even simple ones such as the default tables, charts, and SmartArt available in programs like PowerPoint can be of great value.

The cause of cognitive overload for learners in education is difficult to pinpoint. There are numerous strategies that you can employ to reduce the odds of cognitive overload occurring, only a few of which have been presented here. At the end of the day, it is important to continuously review education programs from a learner’s perspective to hone the product into a clear, concise and engaging learning opportunity.

Joshua Mathews Ailsworth currently serves as Informatics Educator Lead at Sidra Medical & Research Center in Doha, Qatar. Joshua is an experienced learning and development professional with a background in higher education, long-term care, and medical centers. Joshua is passionate about the philosophy and psychology of learning, learner engagement, and the role of technology in enhancing the learning experience.

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