Cognitive Load Theory and Employee Training

DAVE ANDERSON | 5 MIN READ

Thinking back, you can probably recall a class in school where you were always a couple of steps behind the teacher’s lecture. Or perhaps you’ve read a book that was so dense, you struggled to keep up with the plot.

It wasn’t until you reviewed the notes from the lecture or reread a few pages of the book that a clear picture formed. In a perfect world, things would click right away but that is not how the memory works. Information needs to be learned, or more accurately “processed.” And the human brain can only process a few pieces of information at a time.

In psychology, this concept is known as Cognitive Load Theory. In this article, you’ll learn what this theory entails and how you can create a training program that doesn’t overwhelm your employees.

Information’s journey to the long-term memory

When we’re trying to learn something new, the goal is to imprint it in the long-term memory. Once it’s there, we can recall it at any time.

But first, that information must pass through two other stages in the brain—the sensory memory and working memory.

Sensory memory

The sensory memory is the gatekeeper for the rest of the brain. Everything we experience in life must get through this filter or it exits the memory, forever to be forgotten.

Think about when you get home in the evening and sit down to relax. As you recap the day, you can recall the important events (e.g. the meeting with your boss) and a few other interesting highlights (e.g. the funny billboard you saw on the drive home).

But, of course, the day is not a movie you can replay in your mind. That’s because the unnecessary details have been removed by the sensory memory.

Working memory

The working memory acts as a tighter filter and a staging area for the long-term memory. It’s here that Cognitive Load Theory really comes into play.

This second step can hold about 5-10 distinct pieces of information so only important memories make it through (bye, bye funny billboard). However, new experiences, ideas, or complicated concepts are not immediately processed into the long-term memory. We need to learn them through repetition, examples we can relate to, or breaking the idea into smaller “chunks” that complete the puzzle.

The takeaway here is you can’t overload the working memory with too many complex ideas at once. And the few we can take in must be hammered home before we can move onto the next one.

Long-term memory

Once a concept clears the working memory, it’s learned and processed into the long-term memory. Here it is categorized so we can quickly access it when we need it.

Our long-term memories are full of knowledge we slowly acquired over time and can act on when we need to.

How to reduce cognitive load in employee training

It’s easy for a new concept to pass the sensory memory. The hard part is getting it through the working memory to the long-term memory. Clearing that hurdle requires effective learning techniques.

Let’s explore how you can create an employee training program that reduces cognitive load:

  • Focus on one concept per lesson – Take training one step at a time. Create multiple learning modules that incrementally build on each other and work toward a big idea.
  • Present the learning goal at the start – Outline what trainees will learn at the start of each course and module. This insight helps them identify the small pieces of information that are important as they work through the training.
  • Recap previous lessons – Additionally, start each module with a recap of the previous one. Help the trainee remember where they left off and prepare to build on what they already learned.
  • Strive for simplicity – Never overload a slide with text or images. If you ever find that a slide has too much going on, start fresh with a new one.
  • Avoid distractive elements – As you strive for simplicity, always ask yourself if visual elements and lesson details are enhancing the training or creating unnecessary distractions.
  • Combine visual and audio elements – Help trainees efficiently process lessons by including narration that further describes the details on the slide. We learn quicker when information is absorbed through multiple senses.
  • Use a consistent format – Ensure every lesson has the same look and feel. Consistent colors, fonts, and layouts prevent the trainee’s mind from needing to adapt to a new format.
  • Tailor content for different audiences – Consider creating courses for beginner, intermediate, and advanced training groups. Employees have different baselines of knowledge and should consume lessons that are on par with their level of expertise.

Understanding Cognitive Load Theory and how our minds process information will help you avoid typical employee training pitfalls. Follow these tips and you’ll find your employees have no problem learning the knowledge they need to excel at their work.

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