Is Your Training a Lean, Mean Learning Machine?

Do you belong to a health club? Perhaps you just walk 20 minutes every other day. Maybe you run one of the famous marathons sponsored throughout the United States. Actually, here in Chicago, there is even a marathon to walk up the stairs of "Big John", the John Hancock building on Michigan Avenue. That's 94 floors and 1,632 steps! In order to achieve the end goal which is to cross the finish line, the participant must be in superb physical condition and mentally attuned to achieving the goal. That takes training the body and the mind. Part of this training includes eating the right foods, performing the right exercises, and getting the proper rest. Perhaps it's time to get your e-learning training "in shape."

Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load could be your "personal trainer" in performing this learning design tune-up. Along with Frank Nguyen and John Sweller, Ruth Clark has written a textbook that offers scientifically based evidence that suggests guidelines in managing cognitive load. In more pedestrian language that means the authors offer principles to follow in examining your training content and how effective it may or may not be. And, they offer suggestions on how to fix it. Cognitive load is the amount of information that can be processed in short-term memory at any one time. This book discusses the three levels or conditions of cognitive load: intrinsic cognitive load, extraneous cognitive load, and germane cognitive load. Intrinsic cognitive load is contained in the training goal(s), extraneous cognitive load is that information that is "nice to know not need to know," and germane cognitive load is that information needed to support the training goal(s).

What's an example of cognitive overload? Have you ever looked at a tutorial with music in the background? Actually, that's one of my real pet peeves. Talk about extraneous cognitive load, I find music very distracting in a didactic learning situation. Following the rules of instructional design, I ask, "Does it add to the instructional content or goal." If not, the music does not belong there. It's just a distracter! The music distracts your short-term memory from processing the information considered pertinent to the instructional or performance goal. Understand it? If not, that's OK, the textbook concentrates on explaining how the instructional designer or developer can design for optimum intrinsic cognitive load of the content. In other words, use the optimum amount of content or the "best" delivery tool possible to deliver the training content so that short-term memory can "handle" or process the information and transfer the information to long-term memory for future retrieval and use.

Here's the layout for the book. It is divided into five parts:

Part 1: Introduction to efficiency in learning summarizes the basics of cognitive load theory and that describe its psychological basis.

Part 2: Basic guidelines for managing cognitive load summarizes all of the proven ways you can reduce extraneous (irrelevant) and intrinsic cognitive load.

Part 3: Instructional guidelines for imposing relevant cognitive load features proven techniques you can use to increase germane cognitive load.

Part 4: Tailoring instruction to learner expertise features recent research using cognitive load theory and features how instructional methods must be adjusted as learners gain expertise.

Part 5: Cognitive load theory in perspective contains two chapters; Chapter 12 discusses how and when you can apply cognitive load principles in the context of your instructional decisions. Chapter 13 offers an opportunity to integrate the principles in the book through a personal account by John Sweller of how cognitive load theory originated, developed, and evolved over the past 25 years.

Not only does Efficiency in Learning offer guidelines for determining the cognitive load in your training materials, there are suggestions on how to apply cognitive load theory to target the most effective use of short term memory during the learning process. Four of the five ADDIE stages of instructional design are addressed through these guidelines: design, development, implementation, and evaluation. For example, using a table designating What to Doand Ways to Do It, Clark outlines how to adjust for prerequisite knowledge, content complexity, content type and media delivery method. There are also discussions about developing explanations of visuals and performance aids, examples and practice for major tasks, the challenges in implementing cognitive load theory when using authoring software, and finally, applying cognitive load theory to training implementation with discussions about learner support in asynchronous training and training handouts.

To quote the book:" Cognitive load theory has its modern origins in experiments conducted by Dr. John Sweller at the University of New South Wales, Australia, in the early 1980's. Today cognitive load theory has grown into one of the most widely recognized sets of proven principles governing learning and instruction in the training profession." Dr. Sweller's work is featured on the CD-ROM which is included with the textbook. The CD-ROM contains demonstration lessons and commentary on the lessons by Dr. John Sweller.

This book was written for "all instructional professionals" who create synchronous as well as asynchronous training events. To reiterate the book's purpose, "This book provides you with evidence-based guidelines on how to create efficient instructional environment which result in faster learning, better learning, or both." The pressure is on to accelerate the learning process and the only way we, as instructional designers, can begin to achieve that goal is to help learners learn better. Maybe we can't climb 94 floors but we can cut out the "noise." You can start by reading this book!