Have you ever noticed that once you reach a certain point in learning a new complex idea that it suddenly becomes simpler? It might be a sudden “AH-HA!” moment, or gradually understanding more than you did previously. Either way, once you have acquired a basic understanding of the material, learning new additions becomes significantly easier. Conversely, when you first are exposed to the information, it looks like a wall of new concepts that you have to climb without a ladder.
When you present complex ideas and new concepts to your audience, they face the same challenge. They are in unfamiliar territory and cannot distinguish relationships or relevance of sections of the material. They do not know what they do not yet know, and how best to acquire that new information. Furthermore, they can only hold a limited number of portions of information in their minds at one time with which to build cognitive relationships between ideas. Seminal to these ideas, George Miller presented the psychological idea that humans can only retain five to seven separate concepts in their short-term memory at one time, while. John Sweller expanded upon this idea of with the concepts of cognitive load and schema of related information (Sweller, 1988) that suggested the arrangement of presented content had a significant impact on the learner’s adoption of the material . Furthermore, Sweller proposed that goal-oriented problem-solving might not be the best way to initially learn new material, as the learner may focus more on the resolution of the problem than the principles that it represents.
As producers of on-line educational material, we should take these ideas to heart, because a major focus of our planning and design should be to devise the most effective means for delivering complex ideas in smaller, more accessible pieces. This is not as difficult to implement as it sounds, and has been well described in numerous texts on the subject.
To elaborate on some of Sweller’s main points (Sweller, 1999), there are four specific recommendations concerning cognitive load and the design of instructional material:
When presenting problems as learning tools, structure them so that they stress the learning of the elements of the process, and not merely achieving an end-result.
Let’s say that you are attempting to educate the learner on how to perform a conversion of feet to meters. You should stress the calculations performed, and not the end result. In this way, you focus their attention on the actual objective, instead of a perceived objective.
Combine supporting elements together so that the learner does not need to divide their attention among several sources of information.
If you are presenting an image of car engine in order to teach placement of the engine parts, label and describe the parts within the image, rather than creating a separate legend to which the learner must refer. If possible, isolate the relevant part of the image and supporting text, audio, animation or interaction to present only a few related elements. Break-down complex processes and concepts into smaller and more cognitively accessible pieces.
Eliminate needless thinking over interpreting the meaning of redundant elements.
Have you ever sat through a presentation where the speaker simply reads the words projected on a screen? If you have, then you understand needless repetition. Repetition is an important part of learning, but redundant information elements serve more to distract than reinforce if they do not add additional information or allow for another interpretation.
Increase working memory by stimulating more than one sense in a non-redundant manner.
The truth is, for on-line or electronic learning content, we are still limited to sight and sound for presenting information and understanding, but we can use these forms of media in creative ways. For instance, video of performing a physical exercise can give visual and auditory information that a learner can interpret due to prior spatial and kinesthetic experience. Illustrations of working with a piece of electronic equipment can give essential relational information when the animated to focus on their maintenance or placement within a larger machine.
Adherence to these points can aid learners in developing a network or web or relationships between knowledge areas that Sweller refers to as a schema (Sweller, 1999). A schema or scheme is an internal representation of the world or an area of knowledge that acts as a blueprint for building new structures of understanding in learned material. A developed schema allows an expert in an area to discern what new information is useful and should be translated in knowledge, and what pieces of information are extraneous. This is a psychologically-based explanation of how the acquiring of knowledge in an area is an accelerating process, dependent upon prior experience and cognitive relationships already formed by the learner.
To break this down into tasks for you, the designer of the learning content:
1. Take complex data and break it into smaller learning tasks.
2. Use multiple media types, such as text and images together to build stronger connections between related data.
3. Integrate the media types closely to reduce the number of concepts a learner has to keep in her head at one time.
4. Design your content so that each section builds upon the previous section, in order to help the learner develop a schema more quickly.
Miller, G.A., The magic number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97 (1956).
Sweller, J., Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285 (1988).
Sweller, J., Instructional Design in Technical Areas, (Camberwell, Victoria, Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research (1999).