It seems like I’m constantly creating and delivering training both in person and online, so you’d think I’d have this part of the process down to a science. But no. It’s inevitable. If I’m left unchecked (like with no adult supervision in my head) I will dump and dump and dump information until it’s all squeezed out and there’s not a drop left.
Then, and only then am I satisfied. It’s just like when I’m starting to eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Super Fudge Chunk ice cream and I SWEAR I’m only standing at the freezer for a spoonful of chocolaty goodness. 10 minutes later the brain fog clears and I’m left standing with an empty pint of ice cream in my grubby hands.
It’s like that.
You get writing and writing (or talking and talking) and all of a sudden the brain fog clears and you realize you have 20 hours of content but only 2 hours allocated to teach it. Whoops.
Beware of Cognitive Overload
It sounds kind of evil, “Cognitive Overload.” And frankly, it is. Cognitive overload happens when the instructor’s content exceeds the capacity of the student’s working memory.
Here’s what it looks like. Exactly:
Okay, not really, but I’m sure you’ve been this guy. Someone is yammering on and on at you and the info goes in one ear and out the other.
Let’s take a sec to delve into the science about this so you get it’s a real thing…
One of the most cited scholarly articles in psychology is from the 1950’s. George Miller a professor at Princeton University, set out to understand our cognitive limitations. No one wants to feel limited, but there we have it. We are. Miller’s Law proves it. His law basically says that the human mind can take in about 7 plus or minus 2 things at a time before what we learned gets dumped out.
This explains why I can memorize a phone number but rack my brain to remember my grandmother’s famous cookie recipe. (Phone numbers have 7 digits while the darn recipe has something like 15 ingredients).
Less is More
So maybe it goes without saying that continuous blabbing on and on about everything your learner might ever need to know leads to overload. Overload impedes learning. One of your secret goals of your ecourse design, therefore, needs to be drastically reducing cognitive overload while still delivering great content.
In order to do this you’ll want to follow a “less is more” strategy. “Less is more” in practice means that the list of items that you think your students vitally need to know must be very, very… very lean.
FILTER FILTER FILTER!
So, how do you do that? I like to think of it like getting a little adult supervision inside our heads so we don’t eat the whole metaphorical pint of ice cream in a brain fog in front of the fridge. Well, maybe you can’t relate. Maybe it’s just me. 🙂
So here’s what you do –
You think of the most ruthless “No” person you’ve ever met, and channel their inner monster. NO I’m not going to talk about A. NO I’m not going to talk about B. And on and on until what you have left is just the most important things your student needs to know or do in order to meet your definition of success. So if success means making a tomato frittata, don’t tell me how to grow a tomato. That’s just not a “need-to-know” as much as you may love to raise tomatoes from little sprigs into full grown beauties. Even if you have expertise in tomato raising. Even if you are in love with your little tomato heads.
So, yes, there’s all this stuff you could teach. There’s Everything That Could Be Known, there’s what you’ll Never Need to Know, there’s the Nice to Know, and there, at the very itty bitty bottom is the Need to Know content.
This is when a little distance from your content is helpful. This is where someone else’s opinions are critical.
Regardless, force yourself to ask your smart, wise, parental self these questions:
- Is this item/thing I’m teaching critical for learner success? In other words, if your students did not learn how to do this thing, would they still be able to do well enough to be deemed successful in whatever it is they’re trying to do (by taking your course)?
- Can your learners (or will your learners) learn this content elsewhere? Or are you the best person to convey this to them?
- Even if this item is important, is it important for these particular learners with their particular goals for taking your course?
- If you have a time metric that you’re trying to meet (i.e. this course should take no longer than x hours), is it even possible to include this item in the time allotted? Even if it can be squeezed in, would it just contribute to cognitive overload and damage the potential learning of other items on the need-to-know list?
Okay, are you going through your content now with a red pen? Are you moving some of the “Nice to Knows” into a bonus section? Are you moving some of the “Nice to Knows” and “Everything that Could be Known” items into your advanced course?
Good! One of the biggest gifts you can give your learners is to manage their cognitive overload.
It’s super hard to do. I go CONTENT CRAZY all the time! You should come to one of my presentations where I can catch myself off-script talking a million miles per minute (my Jersey side coming out) cramming interesting tidbits down my audience’s throats. Ruthless I am!
At least in the online course environment we can all be more reflection, more considerate and s-l-o-w ourselves down forcrissakes!
Give it a go. It’ll be worth it. Promise!
Get a handout you can pin up in your office of
The 3 steps for avoiding cognitive overload