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Avoid Learner Overload: Five Rules for eLearning Course Design

Imagine sitting down at a computer to complete an eLearning course and instantly becoming confused, overwhelmed, and frustrated with the amount of information that is being dumped on you at once. Many employees that participate in eLearning courses report this as a complaint. Too often, they are inundated with information, data, and related content and the course quickly feels much more like a lecture and less like an interactive learning environment. 

In this attempt to provide as much information as possible, the course falls victim to information overload. That's why, you need to remember that an eLearning course isn't supposed to be an eBook and the user's mind needs time, space, and the opportunity to integrate the most essential understandings. There are a variety of ways to reduce cognitive load in e-learning development and each strategy increases the likelihood employees will learn more and transfer this skill and knowledge to their work.

Here are the design guidelines or rules you need to follow to improve the learning experience and avoid overloading learners:  

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1. Write a clear headline that explains the main idea of every screen.

Vague titles or labels such as "Introduction," "Benefits" or "Challenges" are too generic. They just work as pointer to tell learners where they are in the course, but they don't provide further explanation of what is the screen about.  

A good headline makes people stop and think. For example, “Three Ways Technology Will Transform the Future of Business” is more attractive and self-explanatory than just "Benefits". 

It's necessary for efficient mental processing that your headline is always written on the screen. Studies find that people learn better when the content is organized with clear outlines and headings (the Signaling Principle). 

2. Avoid splitting focus.

If you are planning to integrate both explanatory text and related visuals, make sure they are located close to one another and on the same screen.  Requiring a user to access related information on two different screens can present information overload. This can cause confusion, thereby increasing the cognitive demand of the task.

3. Eliminate unnecessary elements that doesn't support the main idea.

It can be difficult to eliminate content during eLearning development but it is essential to avoid overwhelming a user. Reducing content is beneficial and can be easily accomplished Just dumping information and presenting it in the same boring way, actually shuts down the learner’s cognitive processing. People learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included (the Coherence Principle).

It can be difficult to eliminate content during eLearning development but it is essential to avoid overwhelming learners. This can be easily accomplished by:

  • Eliminating redundant content. This will allow users to process information once instead of having to access the working memory load multiple times. Redundant technical information may seem helpful in repetition but it can leave users confused and overwhelmed instead.
  • Identifying the most important content and cut the nonessential parts.Research has proven that eliminating extraneous text, audio, visuals, and pictures reduces information overload for users.
  • Move it or remove it! Supplemental information is often considered "nice to have" but isn't essential. You can move this information to the side, into tabs, or create links so it is still easily accessible but isn't in a spot that may overload the user.  

4. Provide job aids.

When designing your eLearning courses, consider the fact that 49% of Americans now navigate around Google on their mobile devices, and that we’re relying on Google to store knowledge long-term, instead of our own brains. This means we've become programmed to remember how to access information for future reference.

Try to include job aids in your eLearning courses.They are an excellent opportunity to include important content in an easy to digest format. Checklists, reference guides, lesson summaries, FAQS, and searchable definitions of key terms are just a few examples of useful job aids. However, providing these to the user isn't enough. The eLearning course should be designed to prompt their use and provide a scenario in which the user understands their importance.

For example, an eLearning course can direct a user's attention to a performance aid, suggest a scenario in which it would be useful, require completion of a task involving this scenario, and then provide tips and clues to clarify its use. 

5. Use cues.

Bold vocabulary terms, red circles, underlining, and highlighting are all excellent cues that direct a user's attention to essential content. They decrease the amount of information that must be memorized and recalled and can help direct focus to the most important parts of the content. Furthermore, studies show that highlighting key terms and/or emphasizing on-screen elements helps learners build a relationship between the must-know information and the supporting information. 

What are some other ways you've found to avoid overload?

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Karla Gutierrez

Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT. ES:Karla is an Inbound Marketer @Aura Interactiva, the developers of SHIFT.

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