According to Forbes.com, "there are 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created each day at our current pace, but that pace is only accelerating with the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). Over the last two years alone 90 percent of the data in the world was generated."
While technology promises to make our lives easier, the information which comes with it can overwhelm our mental capacity with an excess of input. When trainees or any other kind of learners surpass their cognitive capacity and can no longer learn efficiently this, in a nutshell, is called “Cognitive Overload”.
Not to be confused with work overload, cognitive overload refers to a situation in which learners are presented with more information than they are capable of processing at once. The human memory may be divided in this context into two kinds: working (or immediate) memory and long-term memory.
• Working memory is relatively limited and can quite easily become overloaded
• Long-term memory has a far greater capacity but requires that information come to it through the working memory
If the long-term memory is pushed too far, the information will not be stored correctly, if at all. Therefore it will not be available for future retrieval. Simply put, when a cup is full, any additional water poured into it simply runs over and is not collected. And since it is not collected, it will not be available to learners when they need it.
The effects of cognitive overload on memory and overall learning capacity in a learning environment are similar to the side-effects multitasking in a work environment. The implications of such overload exceed mere ineffective learning.
They negative effects include:
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Today’s corporate jobs are more complex than ever before, requiring employees to retain a staggering amount of professional and work-related knowledge. But technologies and trends change so fast that sending employees to long “traditional” courses might not be effective or even cost-effective.
Microlearning has emerged in response to the needs of the modern learner. It is distinguishable from “traditional” information delivering methods, by its focus on short, goal oriented and versatile lessons, usually presented in-context. That is, a guide for performing a certain task is displayed to the learner when and where the task needs to be accomplished.
As the great American author Mark Twain has famously stated: “Intellectual food is like any other; it is pleasanter and more beneficial to take it with a spoon than a shovel.”
While Twain lived in a very different time from our own, the author has stumbled upon a fundamental truth: there is only so much intellectual food a person can “digest” in one go. In other words, if knowledge is our food, microlearning is the spoon which delivers information in a palatable way, while keeping cognitive overload at bay.
Some students are visual, while others are auditory. Using different presentation styles enables instructors to engage learners in a variety of ways. It invites them to process the presented information each according to his/her own natural proclivity, without causing their working memory to overload.
This, however, does not mean that lessons need to be just one thing. Understanding the cognitive and mental mechanisms behind human learning sets the ground for designing lessons which engage every type of learner or trainee.
For example, targeting visual learners may involve guides with vivid images, bright colors, catching video, etc. Needless to say, not only visual learners stand to gain from visual guiding techniques. An instructive short video, for example, may also engage auditory learners. At the same time, a video can direct to a textual summary of the information, and the microlesson can end with a short test.
Whether employees work at home or the office, there are plenty of tempting or super-urgent distractions which threaten to derail the workday and reduce productivity. This is doubly important when learning is concerned. There is no need to explain why distraction is detrimental to the learning process.
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While checking Facebook, email, or the news might seem like a legitimate break from learning, these activities often fail to relieve pressure and deflect cognitive overload. In fact, they might even escalate the situation. For one thing, these activities also require an expenditure of mental and cognitive resources. Furthermore, distractions may actually increase the chances of overload, because “getting back on the wagon” is much more stressful and energy consuming than remaining focused.
When can such distractions be beneficial in coping with cognitive overload? During planned breaks, between lessons, and in moderation so as not to lose focus.
According to Julie Morgenstern, author of Time Management from the Inside Out, it has been “scientifically demonstrated that the brain cannot effectively or efficiently switch between tasks,” (On the Dangers of Multitasking). Morgenstern goes on to observe that “multitasking actually costs time. You also lose time because you often make mistakes."
When it comes to learning, studies have shown that we have a much lower retention rate of what we learn while multitasking. This means employees may have to redo a great deal of work. Alternatively, when the moment of truth comes, employees may find they cannot perform the next task well because they forget the information they have learned.
In the age of information, learning is key to both personal and organizational success. But new ideas and technologies require new strategies for effective learning. Awareness of hindering factors such as cognitive overload paves the way for searching and developing new ways of helping learners overcome the challenges of knowledge retention and skill adoption.