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How Can We Avoid Overloading Learners?

How Can We Avoid Overloading Learners? Read to learn more.
9.4
As we saw last week, the amount of new knowledge and new skills that can enter our brain, our mental ‘city’, at one time is very limited. Well-planned training ensures learners concentrate only on what’s important for them to remember, and ensures they are not overwhelmed. Despite light-hearted comments about multi-tasking, we know that humans can actually only do one thing at a time. When we multi-task, we actually switch very quickly back and forth between different tasks. When it comes to learning new knowledge and skills, we can usually only manage one new thing at a time. So training ensures one concept is understood and absorbed before moving to the next; similarly one section of a skill is developed before adding to it.
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We’ve shown it here as one lorry passing into our city of mental models at a time. We call this division of learning into manageable tasks ‘chunking’ and it’s really important if training is to be effective and not overload learners. As we saw last week, images which support learning can enter our mental city alongside language and this can really help learning. Well-designed training which includes images with an educational purpose can actually increase our ability to process new information.

In Step 2.7 we noted that an overload of information is occasionally found in online learning. A similar excess can also be experienced in presentations and lectures. It usually arises because a subject expert did not take learner capacity into account. If someone with educational expertise is involved in planning learning, such an overload is unlikely to occur. If a sample of the intended learners is also consulted at the planning stage, a new lesson or online module is much more likely to match participants’ existing level of knowledge.

Chunking

In the video, we mentioned that training arranges learning experiences into manageable ‘chunks’. In her book Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen offers an example of chunking when teaching someone how to cook an apple pie. She notes that you could teach all the steps together, but it is much easier for the learner if the process is divided into 4 chunks:

    1. Prepare the dough
    1. Prepare the filling
    1. Assemble the pie
    1. Bake the pie

In this way, they process one manageable amount (or chunk) of new information at a time. Once they have mastered one chunk, they move on to the next.

Make Every Minute Count

We know from psychology that what takes place in the first minutes of a training session impacts strongly upon what is remembered. Well-designed training takes full advantage of this and focuses learners’ attention right from the start.

For example, a Recruitment and Interviewing course may begin by sharing the day’s aim in a memorable way. The trainer may say,
‘This course will give you the skills and confidence to ask probing questions of your applicants. It will ensure you discover their true values and ability.
This could be followed by a story of an interview panel who did not probe and appointed someone who went on to cause a serious incident.

In this way, the trainer motivates and prepares learners for the approach the course will be taking. Many experienced trainers begin with a story. A story acts as a hook on which other key points can be hung as the session progresses, by referring to elements and characters in the tale. We will be exploring the benefits of storytelling in more detail in Week 5.

Don’t Begin With ‘Housekeeping’

It is an urban myth that training should start with a list of information about fire alarms, the location of exits, and so on (so-called ‘housekeeping’). The legislation ensures workplaces and colleges are safe for their occupants and contain emergency signage. Theatres and cinemas do not commence events with such announcements, and training should not waste its first valuable minutes in this way either. Expert trainers always use the first few minutes as a primer for learning.

Avoiding Overload in the Virus-enforced Move to Online Learning

Anyone who has trains in a classroom can see when learners are overloaded. At moments like these, trainers usually suggest a short break or introduce a different activity. But with online learning, there is no one to observe body language (or yawns!). Now that a large amount of material is moving to online platforms, it is as important as ever to design so that we do not overload learners.

In topic areas which may be new to online learning, an important part of the planning stage is observation of a sample group as they undertake a new module. This can provide a wealth of information which tends not to crop up in post-learning evaluations. An observer can see the learners’ body language and hear frustrations, perhaps in the form of a sigh or whispered word. Small moments like these are often forgotten by learners, or regarded as the norm and may not feature in a later evaluation. But if witnessed in real time, an observer can enquire about the difficulty and make notes so that it can be remedied before the course goes ‘live’.

Talking Point

Consider sharing with other learners an experience of overload in a learning situation, as well as the answers to the following questions:

  • Do you divide planned learning into manageable chunks? If you do, share an example.
  • If you haven’t planned to learn in ‘chunks’, can you think of a course or module where this approach might help learners?
  • Have you ever begun a training session with a list of ‘Housekeeping’? What could you do instead to prime your learners?

Managing Comments

Comments on a step can be ‘filtered’ which helps you access them in a way that’s best for you. You can do this by selecting comments by ‘All comments’, ‘Bookmarked’, ‘Your comments’ or ‘Following’ from the drop-down menu in the comments section of the step. You can also sort by ‘Newest’, ‘Oldest’ or ‘Most liked’.

You can also bookmark comments to remind yourself of certain contributions that you might wish to refer back to at a later stage.

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