Overwhelmed student

Be nice to your learners’ brains!

You’ve heard the expression “drinking from the firehose,” right? If you’ve ever worked in a startup, taken an unfamiliar course, or started a new job, you’ve probably also felt it: an overload of information that your brain just can’t handle.

Cognitive Load Theory explains why incoming information is sometimes too much to handle. In very short form, it states that your brain has a major bottleneck: its working memory is severely limited. Prevailing wisdom says its capacity is somewhere between four and six pieces of information.

At the same time, your long-term memory is effectively unlimited (at least, no one has ever discovered an actual limit to the amount of information one can learn). So the trick is getting information through your working memory and encoding, or storing, it in your long-term memory.

Cognitive Load Theory has some hints on how to do this in the design of learning materials and learning environments, as well as for anyone who teaches, trains, or presents. In order to maximize learning and minimize cognitive overload, information and materials must be tailored to the limitations of working memory. This might involve “chunking” (breaking information into smaller, more manageable chunks), or limiting the amount of information delivered between activities that encode the information, or using visual aids or other multimedia to aid understanding and retention.

I’ll follow this with a post on Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning, an important derivative of Cognitive Load Theory that describes its application in curricular or presentation materials. For now, just remember that long-term memory is essentially limitless… once we get past that working memory bottleneck.

For more information on Cognitive Load Theory, try these links:





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