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Are fancy visuals and sound effects distracting? The Problem with Extraneous Information in your E-learning Training Program

We’ve all been behind drivers who fail to notice when a light turns green, even worse when it turns red,  or who cross several lanes of traffic, seemingly unaware of the squealing brakes in their wake.

What might cause drivers to make these potentially deadly mistakes?


 According to the U.S. Department of transportation, 18% of traffic accidents in 2010 were all caused by distracted drivers.  Distractions are cited as a major cause of human error across many arenas. In 2009 the New York Times reported that a commercial pilot flew 150 miles past his destination. When asked by a controller about what happened, the pilot cited “cockpit distractions.” A study published by MedPage revealed that surgery residents committed eight times as many errors during simulated procedures when faced with realistic distractions than when they completed procedures without distractions.

E-learning training programs and distraction…

 As much as we might like to believe that we can focus on more than one task at a time, science has proven otherwise. Clearly, people, even when doing tasks that have life-or-death implications (e.g., flying, operating, driving), are susceptible to the dangers of distractions. Understanding this susceptibility is important when you’re designing your e-learning training program.

If you want to minimize distractions in an e-learning program, you can start by minimizing extraneous information. Extraneous information is anything that is not relevant or essential to the task at-hand.

Extraneous information creates additional overall processing required by working memory (cognitive load) that does not contribute to learning.  If you want to minimize extraneous cognitive overload, you should

  •  Avoid audio or visual that doesn’t directly relate to your objective
  • Avoid information that isn’t aligned with the learner’s level of expertise
  • Avoid information that’s presented simultaneously with redundant information
  • Avoid poor interface design

The problem with adding extra bells and whistles…

Information that is not relevant to the training objective can distract the learner. Decorative visuals, irrelevant sound effects, and background music, for example, draw the learners’ attention away from the training objectives, using up limited working memory resources. Along with this, extraneous text for the purpose of entertainment or to elaborate on key concepts should be avoided. In general, working memory can be overloaded by the addition of extraneous information, especially when the lesson content is new to the learner, the content is being presented at a rapid pace, or the learner does not control the pace.

The problem with ignoring the learner’s level of expertise…

Information that is presented at a level of complexity that is below or above the learners’ expertise can also create cognitive overload. For novices, this occurs because they have no prior schemas or mental models to help them contextualize incoming information. If the information is too complex, then the novice will likely experience problems. Experts can also experience cognitive overload when incoming information does not match their current schemas or mental models. When this happens, they must use working memory resources comparing or reconciling the two schemas.

The problem with reading and hearing the same thing at the same time…

Similar information that is presented simultaneously using different modes (e.g., text and audio) can overload learners’ working memories. This occurs because learners use their working memory to reconcile the different information rather than understand it. For example, if you’re listening to audio that appears to be reading onscreen text, rather than focusing all of your working memory on understanding the information, you will likely expend some of your mental resources determining if what you hear matches what you see.

The problem with poor interface design…

Poor interface design can also lead to extraneous cognitive overload. When training programs do not provide intuitive, consistent navigational tools and standardized formats, for example, the limited resources of the learner’s working memory must be spent trying to figure out how the program works rather than attending to information related to the training objective.

To Sum it up…

It’s true that distracted learners–unlike distracted drivers, pilots, or surgeons–do not pose a great risk to themselves or others. However, learners who are distracted are less likely to acquire the objectives of the training program. Applying lessons learned from studying the effect of distractions on people who are dealing with critical situations will help increase the chances that learners will master the training objectives.   Eliminating extraneous information is one way to help learners maintain focus on the relevant information and minimize cognitive overload. In my next post, I will address how to effectively direct learner attention to the most relevant information.

I’d like to hear about ways that distractions have interfered with learning in your e-learning training programs, or let me know about strategies you use to minimize them.


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