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How one decides on the format and medium for eLearning material is usually based on a whole range of considerations including, but not limited to where learners will consume the training, what devices are available, and how learner experience is optimised. The best instructional designers are the ones who understand that in order to create engaging experiences that facilitate retention they need to factor in “cognitive load”.

To quote researcher John Sweller: “Cognitive load theory assumes a limited working memory used to process novel information and a large, long-term memory used to store knowledge that has been acquired for subsequent use. The purpose of instruction is to store information in long-term memory.”

Certain approaches to design aesthetic and presentation aid this process. Others hinder it considerably.
Especially when publishing learning content online, new media and formats may replace more conventional ones. (How often do we still have to enable flash players on browsers when playing dated content?)
“Limited human working memory results in transient, technology-based information having considerable instructional consequences, many of them negative,”
Sweller wrote.

Learning experience consultant Connie Malamed explains that, while working memory is limited to processing small amounts of information at a time, “long-term memory appears to have an unlimited capacity.” In long-term memory, related information is structured into “schemas,” which help us organize the information.

It is quite easy to overwhelm a learner’s working memory, making it harder for that information to be stored for long-term retention.

Good instructional designers employ several techniques to reduce cognitive load:

  • Instead of changing format, use additional media: An effective feature of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), commonly referred to as “Plus-one thinking” suggests adding video or animation to content which is “text heavy”, allowing learners to choose one or both. This reinforces the learning experience.
  • Use of Micro-learning environments: When incorporating Microlearning, Instructional designers are forced to adhere to concise content, thereby reducing a learner’s cognitive load. The use of microlearning to provide performance support tools can act as a powerful learning aid when it comes to grasping more comprehensive content covered in larger blocks of learning content or face to face learning experiences. Microlessons are also very effective when it comes to assisting with “in-the-workflow-problem-solving”.
  • Do not rely on MCQs: Encourage learners to come up with open ended answers rather than choosing from a list of finite options. Additional “generative strategies” can be invaluable when it comes to cementing learning by having learners elaborate on concepts learnt.
  • Reduce aesthetic “Fluff”: Look, I am not judging, as this happens to the best of us! We are often so consumed by the need to create the most visually stunning content, that forget to leave our egos at the door and focus on what’s really important.
    Complex animations and graphs, non-intuitive navigation narratives, loads of unnecessary “nice to have” data and other design decisions which create a strain on the learner’s frontal lobe, add to cognitive load.
    I am not saying abandon every aesthetic bone in your body, and create dull, functional content. I am simply suggesting striking a healthy balance and being aware of your own artistic impulses so that they do not hinder the user’s learning experience.

    Admittedly, this comes with experience. And it is learning the subtle art of striking that balance that creates truly influential instructional designers.

Some of the features I love the most about Global vision’s LG Online courses is how easy the interface is to visually navigate. The content is carefully balanced with entertaining (and more importantly, relevant) media content to accompany facts and text-heavy accordions. Micro assessments are sprinkled throughout the learning narrative to enforce real time retention.

These strategies are important in any setting. They are even more important when the subject matter may not be perceived as the most exciting thing on the planet.

I think there’s only so much passion and excitement that a user will bring with him or her when diving headfirst into Compliance training!

Well I will end here, but I would be remiss not to add, that I am a huge fan of learning about people’s experiences with good Instructional design.

Have you created or experienced eLearning content recently that you really loved or felt inspired by?

I would love to hear your thoughts 🙂