Cognitive load: 12 tips for maximising knowledge retention

Cognitive load: 12 tips for maximising knowledge retention

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One of the common mistakes eLearning course creators and trainers make is cramming too much content into their sessions.

The aim of all eLearning courses is for learners to retain information after a session has ended, but this can be difficult if there’s too much going on for people to digest.


What is cognitive load?

“Cognitive load” refers to the optimal amount of information a learner can absorb without feeling overwhelmed by too much information being thrown at them.

Short-term memory has a finite limit on its capacity.

Once complete, the learner suffers “cognitive overload” and can’t process any more information to long-term memory for future recall.

The result for learners is a confusing, unmemorable learning experience with no longevity in retained learning for future use and application.

In our experience, it’s often caused by over-optimistic planning by trainers and course creators.

A checklist of crucial learning points is drawn up that must be delivered when designing and creating the course content. Trainers and course leaders cover everything on the list, ensuring all the boxes have been ticked. They often either assume cognitive load is optimised or, worse, don’t consider it.

Much academic research has been undertaken in this area, and the purpose of this article is not to add yet another to the impressive catalogue.

What we’ve tried to do here is to provide course creators with twelve simple, practical tips and tricks to prevent cognitive overload and improve knowledge retention.

We hope you find them helpful.


Managing cognitive load and maximising knowledge retention

  1. It’s not what you put in. It’s what’s taken out that counts.

Course designers and creators assume that the words and stimuli used in their eLearning delivery to convey meaning are immediately shared and understood by the recipient learner.

Here we can learn from TV advertising, where a simple message needs to be delivered and understood by the viewer in a couple of seconds.

The 1959 TV campaign for Strand cigarettes is a classic case in point. It features a stylish, young Frank Sinatra lookalike smoking a cigarette in a romantic city at night. The idea was to present smoking a Strand cigarette appear cool and desirable to a particular young male target audience.

Unfortunately, the “take out” was very different and opposite to what was intended. The man was seen as sad and lonely and not someone anyone wanted to be associated with.

Making the key takeaways concise and clear will go a long way to improving the retention of your learners.

  1. The rule of 3

When planning course content to prevent cognitive overload, have a maximum of three key points you want your learners to understand in any given session. That way, they will absorb and use the learning for practical application in the future.

These three points can then be measured at the end of the course delivery to ensure optimal cognitive load during the session, allowing refinement to occur if required for future delivery.

The rule of three therefore can help to keep things simple for both learners and trainers and course creators.

  1. Limit each eLearning session to 40 minutes

Maximising knowledge retention is directly related to the length of learning sessions. A quick Google search will measure the recommended time frame from 15 to 90 minutes. And it does depend on the type of session, the media used and the subject matter.

However, we can borrow from our experience at school and college here. Most run classes that are 40 minutes in length for a good reason. Research proves this. This will ensure the right level of cognitive load.

If a course is longer than this, try to break it up into digestible segments so that learners have time to reflect on the previous session, before moving on to the next one.

  1. Use gamification and problem solving

Humans are much more engaged with the learning experience when they are asked to solve problems. The recent success of Wordle and the enduring popularity of crosswords and quizzes bears this out. Include these types of techniques when delivering your eLearning programs.

Gamification techniques to show measurements in learning improvements, such as scorecards, leaderboards, badges, and the awarding of prizes, also help to improve motivation and knowledge retention.

Authoring tools such as Articulate 360 provide you with all the tools you need to create these in-house easily.

Essentially, the more engaging a course was, the more memorable it is likely to be.

  1. Keep it simple and clean

Use everyday, simple language where you can. Avoid clutter on slides and other media so that the key messages are clear and easily accessible by the learner.

  1. Let the learner control the pace

When the session is running, let the learners control the pace. Check for understanding with open questions or ask learners to replay the key points back to you.

When delivering complex subject matter, break the content into smaller pieces and take learners through each element before moving on to the next point.

You can also remove time limits on course content to improve accessibility and give learners time to reflect and digest the information at hand.

  1. Include breaks

Even within a 40-minute eLearning session, it’s good to have short gaps between delivering your three key points. Allow learners to stretch their legs and breathe in some fresh air. Even a two-minute gap will increase their receptivity to the remainder of the session, and learning will be enhanced.

If it is an online course, with lots of different parts, encourage learners to spread the training out over a period of time. This will make each section more impactful and less of a tick box exercise.

  1. Use a range of appropriate delivery techniques

Avoid death by PowerPoint. Use video as part of your mix to bring things to life. It’s easy to create dynamic, entertaining video content using packages such as Vyond.

Show fun, attractive graphics to illustrate points and improve engagement rather than words.  And if you need to use slides, show a maximum of ten for every forty-minute session.

If it’s in-person training, get people off of their feet with different exercises and team sessions. Doing, rather than listening, is a great way to reengage the brains of your learners.

  1. Make the sessions interactive

There are lots of options available to improve knowledge retention.

Articulate Storyline 3 allows you to create and implement interactive learning elements in your eLearning courses. You’ll be able to adapt courses to be mobile and accessible for every device in minutes.

eLearning can often feel like a tick box exercise, but encouraging learners to problem solve is more likely to get them engaged in the training you’re offering.

  1. Make learning personal

Make the learning relevant to the lives of individual learners. Apply it to real-world situations that people can relate to, providing them with a frame of reference to which they can assign meaning.

If the training is related to the job they do, create a scenario that they might face in their day-to-day lives.

Adding a personal touch shows not only that you understand their role, but also that you care about their learning and development.

  1. Deliver consistent eLearning programs and track performance

Learning Management Systems, such as Docebo, will enable you to create consistent learning environments through access to centralised content. It offers ease of reporting and tracking and the ability to drive engagement.

This allows you to monitor the cognitive load and maximise the knowledge potential of your learners.

  1. Encourage reflection on the key takeaways

Before you end the course and send your learners on their way, give them something to ponder. Whether it’s ways to take their knowledge even further or a relevant video they should watch, try to think of a way to keep what they’ve learned front and centre of their thoughts.

Even something as simple as a post-session survey can encourage them to revisit what was covered in the course as part of their feedback.


Why is knowledge retention so important?

It should go without saying, but the primary aim of any course is that those that take it learn something new and use that information in the future.

A cluttered or confusing course is only going to frustrate learners and stick in their minds as a waste of time and resources. Learners want to feel that the training they’ve taken is worthwhile and beneficial to their development.

Keep content clear and concise, and following guidelines like the rule of three can help you ensure maximum knowledge retention, without overloading your learners.


Need help with your course content and creation?

If you would like help to optimise your cognitive load and improve knowledge retention, we’d be delighted to help. We advise hundreds of global organisations on all aspects of eLearning.

Omniplex Learning provides everything you need in one place to implement effective eLearning programs in-house. And if you need help creating content and templates, our highly skilled course content designers can help you.

Please get in touch.


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