In order for employees to learn or change their behavior, your training message needs to make it past the brain’s gatekeeper – working memory – and into long-term memory. To accomplish this goal through e-learning, instructional designers must craft a course in which all elements work together to manage learner attention at any given moment.

E-learning communication happens through visual information, auditory information and on-screen text. How might these elements work against each other to interfere with your message?

Working Memory Models

Psychologist Allan Paivio proposed the idea of dual encoding in a 1971 article. He believed that working memory processes and encodes visual and verbal information independently in separate “channels.” According to this theory, it is not only a bad idea to present disparate information in audio and on-screen simultaneously, but it is also a bad idea to replicate displayed text in audio narration. Either may cause cognitive (i.e., working memory) overload.

Let’s take a look at what other research has to say on the way working memory functions. One of the most influential models is Baddeley and Hitch’s multicomponent theory, which suggests that working memory comprises multiple components, each of which processes different types of information:

  • The phonological loop processes linguistic information that is heard or read. When we read something, our mind transforms it into phonemes, or syllables, that we remember and refresh for about two seconds before they are gone.
  • The visuospatial sketchpad processes visual and spatial information.
  • The central executive function is like a traffic cop that monitors mental processes with respect to goals or priority, decides what to do and when, and maintains the brain’s focus.

Psychologist George Miller theorized that working memory can hold a limited number of meaningful chunks of information at once. Subsequent studies have put this number between four and seven for chunks of visual information, linguistic information and ideas pulled from long-term memory to help make sense of the information coming into working memory. Distractions, such as someone talking in the next cube, the phone ringing, or a fly buzzing around the room use working memory, affect how much additional information a person can process at the same time. According to de Fockert, Rees, Frith and Lavie (2001), the greater the working memory load, the harder it is to distinguish between important and unimportant information.

The Multitasking Myth

Too much information presented at once may cause a learner to go into a quasi-multitasking mode to make sense of it. Contrary to popular belief, we cannot pay attention to more than one complicated or unfamiliar task at the same exact time.

This is how our brain works when we try to multitask: When we attempt one unfamiliar task, both the left and right sides of the prefrontal cortex focus on the job. When we try to concentrate on two unfamiliar tasks, the brain assigns one task to each lobe and switches back and forth. The switching back and forth takes milliseconds, but every time it occurs, working memory needs to refocus. As a result, both tasks are performed with more errors than if each had been attempted alone. Because the brain has two lobes, it can switch attention only between two tasks. If we introduce a third task, the brain either ignores it or kicks out one of the first two tasks. If we force the brain to switch among three tasks, the number of errors triples.

Pictures Really Are Worth 1,000 Words

We typically encourage instructional designers to present ideas visually, because people can remember visual information better than linguistic information. This observation goes back to a 1967 study by Roger Shepard in which he gave each of three groups a stack of 600 index cards. One group received pictures, the second group words and the third sentences. Participants studied the cards for as long as they needed and then took a forced recognition test (“Have you seen this? Yes or no.”). When participants took the test immediately after studying, the average score was 88 percent for sentences, 90 percent for words and 98 percent for pictures. When participants took the same test one week later, the group who had received pictures still scored 90 percent.

How Can Instructional Designers Apply This Research?

Because visual information is more memorable and commands more attention than audio information, try not to distract learners’ attention from important audio narration by indulging in unnecessary visual movement. Only use movement, or the sudden appearance of an item, when you want to focus attention on that element.

To balance on-screen text and audio narration, try to use only as much on-screen text as necessary. Think of on-screen text as a support for the central executive part of working memory: It focuses attention on the main point of the audio. Too much on-screen text, and your learners will miss details in the audio, because you’ve forced them to multitask between two linguistic sources that use the phonological loop. However, if your target audience includes non-native speakers, you may want to use more on-screen text and shorter sentences, since non-native speakers tend to process more of their linguistic information from reading than from listening.

Don’t force learners to use part of their working memory to decipher your meaning. Instead:

  • Use well-designed visuals to support learning.
  • Minimize text with audio narration to keep the phonological loop uncluttered.
  • Break content into small chunks that working memory can handle.
  • Avoid distractions among e-learning elements.

Balancing e-learning elements effectively will help your learners quickly understand and, more importantly, retain your message.

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