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I have often wondered what it must have been like for my parents’ generation, needing to memorise things like phone numbers, directions, birthdays.

Nowadays we have no need to remember any of these things; need to phone someone? Just find them in your contacts. Need directions? Just whip out Google maps. Facebook will notify you when your friends have birthdays, so you never have to be the bad friend that forgot.

Cognitive load theory was first introduced in the 1980s and was based on observation

surrounding the teaching of mathematics. There is very little data concerning the use of cognitive load theory, or the learning techniques based on it, in commercial adult learning. We take techniques such as ‘chunking’ and mixed modalities for granted. It is suggested that the way that information is presented is the way to get people to remember it – but does anyone actually know how long a ‘chunk’ should be?

My question is, why do we still design learning as if people still need to memorise everything that they’re told?

It is unusual to have to memorise large chunks of information in order to be able to do your job. There are, of course, exceptions but usually, facts are a few clicks away, so we can check or search for information when we’re sat at our desks, during a meeting or on the go. Cognitive load theory addresses the demand on working memory, but is this issue still top of our list of priorities? At school, we used to learn facts by rote, or memorise times tables to help with more complex mathematical problems we tackled later. However, adult learning generally needs to be practical – because adults need to see the benefits of what they’re learning immediately or we run the risk of losing them.

We don’t read things once and then expect to remember them, so we can’t expect learners to go through a 30-minute e-learning program once and then be able to remember every piece of information from it?

We know that the majority of learning happens beyond the formal training programme, through informal learning. We expect learners to Google or ask colleagues or check the website on a regular basis, deepening their understanding each time they do so. Learning designers even try to facilitate this kind of learning by suggesting online solutions to encourage it, such as forums and portals. The information is all out there, so why not use the e-learning programme (or face to face sessions) to teach them how to use that information rather than focus on how it is presented?

When we design and create e-learning we should be trying to teach skills, not think of the best way to present information. We are teaching learners to make decisions that are going to be crucial when they are carrying out their jobs, and for each one of those decisions, we need to seriously ask ourselves ‘do they need to remember the information in order to make this decision? Would it be very inconvenient in that moment to ask someone, refer to a well-designed job aid or check a piece of information?’

If the answer is no, then do we really need to worry about cognitive overload?

Thinking categories