Understanding Cognitive Load Theory Is Essential for Effective Corporate IT Training

Few things can derail any type of training quite like too much information. Not only is it the most common reason training is ineffective but it’s way more common than it should be.

There are two main reasons why too much information goes into training and it becomes ineffective:

  1. Training is designed by the subject matter expert or product owner.
  2. An instructional designer isn’t experienced and allows the subject matter expert or product owner to overload the training.

But we’re not here to talk about content overload in eLearning or any other type of training. We’re not even here to talk about how nothing is important if everything is important in training.

Nope, we’re here to talk about cognitive load theory which is essential to understand and always keep top of mind when building training. Subject matter experts (SME) and product owners (PO) typically don’t know about cognitive load theory (or don’t care) and instructional designers who don’t design training to it typically got steamrolled by the SME or PO.

Understanding cognitive load theory thoroughly is essential for the effective design of corporate IT training programs.

We’re going to look at how always designing with cognitive load theory (CLT) in mind is essential for corporate IT training. While CLT is essential to all training and learning, it’s even more important with company technology because company tech can already be extremely overwhelming.

If employees aren’t learning corporate technology then how are they supposed to effectively do their job in a world where every job requires non-stop technology usage? Even the most non-technical job in the world now requires some level of technical knowledge.

In this post, we’ll explore what cognitive load theory (CLT) is, the fundamental principles of CLT, and how it can be applied to create effective corporate IT training experiences. So, if you’re ready to master your corporate technical training programs and set your employees up for success in the digital age, let’s dive into the fascinating world of cognitive load theory.

The Challenge of Information Overload in Corporate IT Training

Employees have a lot going on during their workday. No single training is the only thing they have to remember or hold in their memory. Think about how busy your day is at work and how many things you read, discuss, and have to remember.

That’s exactly why training needs to be as minimal as possible and contain the need to know only. That means the things needed to know to do their job daily. If there’s something they may need to know a week or month from now, don’t water down your training with it.

Corporate IT training is essential for organizations and employees to keep up with the rapid advancements in technology and innovations from IT. However, one of the biggest challenges faced by both trainers and learners is information overload.

There’s nothing worse than going into a training session that’s supposed to help you only to lead to train brain. With an abundance of information available, it can be overwhelming for employees to process and retain all the necessary knowledge.

Train brain is a term we coined for that feeling when you’ve been in training all day and feel dazed and groggy.

Instead of processing and retaining the information they just come out looking like a zombie. At least that’s what would happen if you sent them to a four-hour training session. That’s the main reason we insist on short training sessions that are no longer than 30 minutes.

If you can’t fit training into 30 minutes then it should be broken up further into smaller topics. Maximizing employee performance is the goal and high retention from training helps get them there.

When employees are bombarded with too much information at once, their working memory becomes overloaded, leading to cognitive overload. This can hinder their ability to understand and apply the concepts effectively or they simply tune out entirely.

As a result, training programs may not yield the desired outcomes, and employees may struggle to transfer their newly acquired skills into their work environment.

This is where cognitive load theory comes into play.

Introducing Cognitive Load Theory

When employees have to learn something to do their job, understanding cognitive load theory becomes essential to develop that effective training that works.

Cognitive load theory, a concept developed by educational psychologist John Sweller, delves into how the human brain processes information and the limitations it faces when it comes to learning.

It suggests that our brains have a limited capacity for processing information, and when this capacity is exceeded, learning becomes less effective. That means we don’t want to waste valuable memory on items that aren’t essential to know.

It could be that during training only things that need to be memorized and known well are covered whereas anything that doesn’t have to be memorized or used often has resources available to help employees. This is why performance support is so essential, it’s a great tool to help employees perform their job while making training more effective.

Cognitive load theory is the concept that the human brain has limitations for how much information it can process and remember.

Imagine being bombarded with an overwhelming amount of complex technical jargon during an IT training session or nice-to-know information. Your brain would quickly become overloaded, leading to decreased retention and comprehension.

Every piece of information that’s nice to know rather than need to know harms anything that is a need to know. It becomes a case of nothing being important because you’ve overloaded training with everything.

This is precisely why L&D leaders who work with technical content must take cognitive load theory into account when designing and delivering corporate IT training programs. By understanding how cognitive load theory impacts learning, L&D leaders can tailor their training programs to optimize knowledge retention and ensure maximum employee engagement.

To effectively understand how cognitive load theory can be used to help corporate IT training it’s important to also know the three types of cognitive load.

The Three Types of Cognitive Load

Three types of cognitive load apply to instructional designers crafting training:

  • Intrinsic Cognitive Load: This refers to the inherent complexity of the learning materials or tasks. It is determined by the difficulty and complexity of the content itself. When the intrinsic cognitive load is high, employees may find it more challenging to understand and process the information.
  • Extraneous Cognitive Load: This type of cognitive load is caused by external factors that are not directly related to the learning materials or tasks. It includes distractions, irrelevant information, and confusing instructions. Extraneous cognitive load can hinder learning by diverting attention and mental resources away from the main task.
  • Germane Cognitive Load: Germane cognitive load is associated with the learning process and the construction of new knowledge and schema. It represents the mental effort required to integrate new information with existing knowledge, make connections, and develop a deeper understanding. Germane cognitive load is considered beneficial for learning as it promotes meaningful learning and knowledge transfer.

Instructional designers have very little ability to change intrinsic cognitive load but they do have lots of power over extraneous and germane cognitive load.

The Importance of Cognitive Load in Corporate IT Training

Cognitive load theory highlights the importance of creating an optimal learning environment where employees can learn effectively to do their job. There’s nothing worse than taking training and it’s so bad you feel like you still can’t do your job.

It kind of makes you feel dumb even though deep down you know it was poor training rather than you. By managing cognitive load, organizations can enhance training outcomes and ultimately drive better performance in the workplace.

Managing cognitive load for corporate IT training is even more important because it’s already typically a complex topic. Not all employees are comfortable with technology, not even digital natives who grew up with tech embedded in every aspect of their life.

When employees are not overwhelmed by excessive information or distractions, they are more likely to engage with the material, retain key concepts, and be satisfied with their employer. Not to mention good training (especially digital training) leads to less employee turnover.

Taking into account and designing training with cognitive load in mind helps employees and the company. A good instructional designer considers every aspect of this in their design and applies it to corporate IT training also to make it more approachable and retainable.

Understanding the Capacity of the Human Mind for Processing Information

Before we dive deeper into the impact of cognitive load theory on corporate IT training, it’s important to understand the limitations of our working memory. No, I’m not talking about our attention span or that we supposedly have an attention span shorter than a goldfish. That’s false because I personally have never seen a goldfish watch a three-hour movie.

But, the human mind still has a finite capacity for processing information. When this capacity is exceeded, learning becomes challenging, and retention suffers.

Research suggests that the average adult can hold around seven pieces of information in their working memory at a time. That’s why US phone numbers have seven digits in them. Good luck remembering a UK phone number!

This means that instructional designers need to carefully consider how much information is presented at any one time. It’s also good to limit what’s expected to be remembered. Only tasks that must be performed regularly should be expected to be remembered with a bit of practice.

Don’t show someone how to request time off when they only do it every month or so. No training can be effective without presenting information to avoid overwhelming employees’ cognitive resources.

The Impact of Cognitive Load Theory on Corporate IT Training

People have limited cognition for every activity in life but for training, especially corporate IT training, there can be real-life implications that could have real-life impacts.

By applying the principles of this theory, instructional designers can optimize learning experiences for technical topics and improve the ease of learning for employees. Technology is already a stressful topic for many employees so training that isn’t stressful and overwhelming is a welcome respite.

IT in some organizations has a bad reputation specifically because it’s stressful to people and dealing with the help desk can sometimes connect you with that cocky tech who is impatient with you.

Saturday Night Live's Nick Burns bad computer tech skit animation.

If training is done well then employees feel more welcome at their job and know their employer cares. If it’s not and train brain is what the company is going for then employees aren’t going to feel supported and they’re going to dread the next IT innovation.

Because technology is one of the fastest-changing elements of any organization, training must be designed with cognitive load theory in mind every step of the way. Hundred-page decks simply won’t cut it and neither will self-recorded videos where endless assumptions are made about what the audience already knows.

Practical Strategies for Reducing Cognitive Load in IT Training

There are several strategies instructional designers can use to reduce cognitive load in training. Here are some of the most popular methods:

  • Break down complex information into smaller, more manageable chunks. This is often known as chunking content. You can break down content into smaller pieces for separate courses or break down a course into chunks of content that make sense together.
  • Minimize extraneous content that’s not essential to know immediately (or nearly) after training and will be used regularly. Anything that doesn’t need to be used regularly should go into performance support.
  • If you’re building an eLearning course, keep the navigation consistent and boring. Boring is good when it comes to training. That doesn’t mean ugly but it means no extraneous content or wild interactions that don’t serve a purpose.
  • Get to know Richard Mayer’s 15 principles of multimedia instructional design because many of them can be applied directly to reducing cognitive load.
  • For software training, show need-to-know processes but don’t make employees do tedious work. If they have to fill out a lot of fields on a form, don’t make them do it all. Just help them understand the process and point out any differences in the process that might catch them off guard.
  • Don’t ever have a wall of text on any screen, break it up into scrollable or clickable small bits.
  • Have employees perform the steps themselves in software rather than showing them passively. We like to create custom software simulations that give employees real practice in a safe environment.
  • For the most essential do-or-die information, provide additional practice after training. This spaced repetition will help employees learn new information even more.

If you use these practical strategies then you’re going to have more effective corporate IT training. A lot goes into creating effective training, especially for technology training which is inherently difficult for most employees who aren’t techies. And yes, that even includes a whole slew of IT employees who aren’t always great with technology either. I should know, I work with a lot of them.

Wrap Up

Understanding cognitive load theory can drastically change the effectiveness of corporate IT training if it’s used throughout the instructional design process. By understanding the three types of cognitive load and the limitations of our working memory, technical training can be more effective, help employees do their job easier, and make them happier. The organization will ultimately benefit from these improved learning outcomes.

Reducing cognitive load through strategic instructional design techniques makes training more effective and helps employees do their job better with new tech which leads to increased productivity in the workplace.

If you’re an L&D professional seeking to enhance employee learning experiences in the realm of corporate IT training, embracing cognitive load theory is essential. By harnessing this theory’s principles, you can unlock the full potential of your training programs and drive success in today’s technology-driven world.

And if you’re an L&D leader who manages corporate IT training, we can help you take full advantage of all these tricks and help your employees be more successful with company technology. Just schedule a free consultation and we can discuss your next technology initiative and how our digital training solutions can make them more successful.

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