In today’s information rich world, you’d think that improving skills and learning would be a breeze. But this isn’t necessarily the case. 

Limitless access to copious amounts of information can make workplace learning a real challenge for the learner and for the trainer alike. We have all experienced ‘information overload’ at some points, when we study for exams, in the workplace or even in day-to-day life. There’s only so much information that the brain can process at any one time. Flooding the brain with copious amounts of data results in very little of the information being processed. When considering workplace training, it’s vital to understand the effects of information overload on your workforce’s rate of learning and overall productivity.

Miller’s Magic Seven

We know that the brain can only handle so much at one time. So, how much information can really be crammed in before it reaches capacity? George Miller, a cognitive psychologist of Princeton University, invested much of his career into the performance of the short-term memory; his results - which have since been called ‘Miller’s Law’- are one of the most cited papers in psychology. Miller’s Law refers to the concept that the short-term memory can hold seven items, plus or minus two, depending on individual performance and the type of information that the brain is attempting to retain.

This may not sound like an awful lot, but this information is held temporarily in the short-term memory and then can be processed and stored. Or, if the short-term memory is flooded with numerous pieces of information some of this will be 'lost' and forgotten.

Behind the scenes of information overload

The unmistakable feeling of being frazzled as we attempt to learn a new skill or improve training is something we are all familiar with. But what is actually happening behind the scenes to cause this? Learning new information requires the exertion of short-term memory and the working memory synonymously.

Working memory deals with processing and manipulating visual images and verbal information; this is then stored by short-term memory. As per Miller’s Law, the short-term memory is only designed to handle a small number of information items at any one time. Think of information overload like the brain’s bandwidth, the issue arises when the amount of information presented to the learner exceeds the brain’s rate of processing and capacity.

Computers are good at swift, accurate computation and at storing great masses of information. The brain, on the other hand, is not as efficient a number cruncher and its memory is often highly fallible…”

Jeremy Campbell

In a learning environment, the process of controlling working memory is referred to as cognitive load. In a nutshell, cognitive load represents the amount of effort or ‘brain power’ required to understand information.  By understanding the limitations of these processes, learning should optimise the way that the brain works – rather than push it to its limits.

Easing the cognitive load

It’s clear that the practice of bombarding learners with limitless information isn’t the best means of improving understanding and performance. When faced with vast amounts of information to learn in a relatively short space of time, learners cope by ‘tuning out’ what they perceive to be less important information.

Often, training includes extraneous information which doesn’t impact or benefit learners.  By trying to understand and memorise all of the information presented to them, learners fail to see the ‘bigger picture’ and the most vital parts of the course are missed or forgotten, due to the amount of information being processed at that one time.

Instructional designers can drastically ease the sea of information that the learner is struggling to sift through, by tailoring information specifically to the outcome of the training. By focusing only on critical content, this ensures that learners concentrate on what really matters.

Chunk it

A proven way to categorise information for maximum retention is through a practice called ‘chunking.’ Chunking involves taking smaller pieces of information and grouping them together, into one large ‘chunk’ of information – making it easier to understand, process and remember.

When it comes to workforce training, chunking can be difficult to achieve. Traditional classroom training is expensive, and smaller more frequent training sessions are not always financially viable. This is where effective online training triumphs. Not only is the cost of training per-head considerably cheaper than other forms of training, but information can also be presented in a way that is easy to understand. By organising information into manageable modules, relative information is effectively ‘chunked’ together and learners can progress a pace that suits their own rate of learning.

Information overload causes stress and can be considerably demotivating.  BOLT Learning takes care of the cognitive loads, the working memory capacities and the chunking methods. We have a team of learning experts and learning designers who create valuable training which is anchored in generating valuable results for businesses.

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