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Are your learners drowning in content?

IMHO, learner overload is probably one of the most interesting challenges we face as library instructional designers and teachers. This is because for most of us we might never see this particular group of learners ever again. All we probably have is the 50-minute, the 1 hour, or the 90 minute timeslot with them total. Of course we panic. There is SO MUCH we want to pass onto our learners. There is so much important content, so many important lessons, so many tips and tricks and survival skills and just-in-cases and pearls of wisdom. And all that in a few measly minutes! These poor learners. They deserve days of workshops, they deserve a semester, a 3-credit course, a minor! But all they get is a few measly minutes with us.

I think that the step in the process for filter content (step 4) may well be the most important step in the entire process. It takes an enormous amount of willpower to keep the perils of cognitive overload front and center in our minds, and pick, pick, pick away at the content until we get to the kernels – the most important, critical pieces of content. My advice is to take this step very seriously. Keep asking yourself for everything you want to include in the workshop, is this item critical for learner success? Will they learn it on their own or somewhere else? Are you certain that it’s critical? But most importantly, if you do include it, does that mean that other things you’ve included in the workshop get diluted?

Think about it this way – the human brain has limited capacity to take in new content. There are lots of methods to address this capacity problem (some which I address in the book), but as many clever ways that you as a designer and teacher address this capacity problem, you’re still going to hit a wall at some point.

If there’s only one thing that you take away from the instructional design process, it’s that if you can’t manage the volume of your content and integrate methods to help your learners process that content, they’re dead in the water. Are you sure you're doing all you can to keep them afloat?

In order to help your learners process new information and move it into the long term memory, you have got to be serious about integrating frequent opportunities for learners to DO SOMETHING with the content. You can't expect them to take it all in by just sitting there in your classroom and watching you lecture and do a demo, and then in the last 10 minutes jumping on the computer and doing some searching. Instead, modularize your content into small enough segments so that every 8-12 minutes (or even sooner, after 7+or-2 information items) they have to DO SOMETHING with the content. You doing something - you doing a demo or asking a question and having one person respond - is not the same as your learners doing something. Get them in action, get them practicing and applying every 10 minutes or so, and you’ll be doing them an enormous service. Sure, it means that you have to cut back even more on your need-to-knows, but you can feel confident that at least the ones you have left will be learned and not just immediately dumped out of the other ear or in the trashcan as your learners exit your workshop.

If you are intrigued by this whole concept and want to read more beyond what I've got in chapter 4, I highly recommend reading Ruth Colvin Clark’s work. She’s got some great articles out there in the training and education field, but check out her books too. One that I recommend came out a few years ago and is called Building Expertise. She’s got a new one out that I haven’t gotten to read but it looks great - called Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. So, if you’re inspired, please do take a look at her work. There’s so much there we can take into the library world of instruction!

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