Posted by: Susan Hendrich | December 3, 2010

Hurray for brevity. Less IS more!

Want your learning audience to retain more and perform better?  Then lighten their cognitive load.

Cognitive load theory says that “the more a person has to learn in a shorter amount of time, the more difficult it is to process that information in working memory.” Add to this processing difficulty the fact that we retain less when overloaded with data, information, and concepts. The idea behind cognitive load theory is that reducing the volume of information to be learned to only the “need to know” level lets the learner retain more of the information and make the necessary transfer of learning to be able to perform a skill or task.   And that might just be a very good thing when it comes to designing training.

“By reducing the load on the cognitive system, summaries may enable students to carry out the cognitive processes necessary for meaningful learning.” 

From When Less Is More: Meaningful Learning From Visual and Verbal Summaries of Science Textbook Lessons, by Richard E. Mayer, William Bove, Alexandra Bryman, Rebecca Mars, and Lene Tapangco 

What does this mean about people’s desire and tolerance for information?

Twitter taught us that we’re in a sound bite zeitgeist. When it comes to information and learning, we want it short. Sweet. To the point. Quick. Rapid. Just the facts. Twitter? Yammer? What’s the matter?  

Despite growing research supporting this “less-is-more” notion, it can be hard for subject matter experts to let go of the urge to create an information dump when designing training. Experts sometimes get stuck in the mindset of, “more is more,” and struggle to see how presenting a more basic volume of information might lead to better learning. Parsing out the nice-to-know from the need-to-know is the great challenge of the instructional designer.  Having a little less-is-more research in the back pocket might just come in handy for the designer who’s trying to convince a subject matter expert to limiting content to the need-to-know level.

Check out Cathy Moore’s “Making Change” blog post about an early study that showed the positive impact of reducing the amount of text presented to a summary on the ability to retain and transfer learning.

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