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What’s too much, too little, or just right? Providing the optimal amount of information in your e-learning training programs.

If you haven’t been the victim of a 100+ slide Powerpoint presentation, then likely you’ve been imprisoned by a monotone lecturer droning on about how you can improve what you’re doing. When this presentation began, whether slides or lecture, you were eager to learn, ready to tackle and apply the new information, but as slide after slide infiltrated your vision or minutes turned to hours as a presenter dumped his knowledge onto you, you
likely became overloaded.

Meaningful learning was shut down and replaced by constant time checking, distracting yourself with the idiosyncrasies of the speaker, or fiddling with your computer screen. What began as a training session, promising to improve your performance, has ended in a headache with little retention of information.

Why does this happen?

Although learners, in general, can hold 7 plus or minus 2 chunks of information (associated pieces of information that can be processed as one item) in their working memory, they can only actively process or manipulate 2 to 3 chunks of information at one time.

This means that adding more information to an already overloaded brain will provide no value. For example, if you are being trained on how to create a regression analysis and  forecasting spreadsheet using excel, and you don’t know what regression forecasting is nor are you familiar with excel, the training will likely not be effective unless you are given an opportunity to master the use of excel and an understanding of regression forecasting. Along with that, even if you are familiar with both excel and regression forecasting, you can become overwhelmed in the training if you are provided with large amounts of content and no opportunities to relate that content to your current schemas or mental models.

Chunk It…The right number and size make all the difference!

By breaking content into chunks as opposed to dumping large amounts of information on learners, e-learning programs will be more in tune to the way learners’ effectively process information. Delivering content using manageable chunks allows learners to integrate information into long-term memory. It’s the manipulation of information in working memory that determines whether it will be stored in long-term memory and potentially retrieved later when it is needed.

And that’s what you’re after: Information that can be retrieved when it’s needed.

Learners can be easily overloaded if they are presented with too much information at one time. When training involves detailed and complex topics, the information should be broken down into manageable chunks –  you should aim for about 1-3 chunks of information at a time.

After the appropriate amount of information is provided to learners, they should be given opportunities to use or manipulate that information (checkpoints, exercises, simulations, discussions, etc.)  This will help learners assimilate information into their long-term memory before you introduce the next chunk or series of chunks.

Know Your Learners

The challenge for e-learning training program design is to determine an appropriate amount of information for any particular learning objective and specific set of learners, i.e., a chunk, for various learners. Before you design any e-learning training program, you need to identify the audience:

Is this training program for novices? Experts? Or a combination?

Novices will typically need less information in any given chunk. Therefore, an appropriate chunk of information for a novice learner could be a single fact, while an appropriate chunk of information for an expert could be an entire complex network of information or a schema that is held in long-term memory.

Determining learner characteristics will definitely play a role in how you determine what a chunk of information is.

For example, if you were addressing a group of pilots, and were talking about lift, drag, and thrust; likely, they would be able to quickly connect this information into schemas they have built for landings and take-offs. While a quick review of these principles may be helpful, more likely, pilots would be able to treat these terms as one chunk of information that you can help them integrate more complicated pieces of information into.

On the other hand, if you were developing a course for first year physics students, their experiences with lift, drag, and thrust will likely be more limited. In fact, you may need to limit your chunks of information to one term at a time with examples, explanation, and practice activities that help with comprehension, eventually helping them to see how the three concepts work together.

Some last thoughts…

One of the changes that occurs with the development of expertise in a knowledge area is the ability to understand and manipulate larger and more complex chunks or schemas (sometimes referred to as mental models). Once a learner has acquired a schema for some area of information, the entire schema, no matter how large or complex, can be processed as one chunk of information for the learner. E-learning should be designed to provide the optimal amount of information so that learners can successfully manipulate the information in working memory, which will, in turn, facilitate transfer into long-term memory.

Again, that’s the goal…getting new information into long-term memory so that it can be retrieved when needed!

Continue to look for my blogs about designing effective e-learning training programs, and I look forward to hearing about how your e-learning training uses or does not use “chunking” of information.

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