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Combatting Content Overload in eLearning: Strategies for Dealing with Too Much Content

Once you’re at a place where you’ve cut everything unnecessary out of an eLearning course, it’s time to go back and cut some more.

No, really, go back and cut even more out until you’re left with only what employees need to know to do their job, do it better, or fix what they’re doing wrong. If any content in an eLearning course doesn’t directly help one of those three things, then you’re doing it wrong.

That’s why we’ve successfully created custom digital training that’s effective, relevant, and, most importantly, doesn’t overwhelm employees. Our goal as instructional designers is to help people do their job better, not overwhelm them.

Whether you’re in the instructional design world and are familiar with cognitive load theory, content overload can hurt workplace learning. Aside from our strategy for starting every course with nothing, this post will help you deal with too much content in eLearning courses.

Dealing with too much content effectively can make or break eLearning.

In eLearning development and instructional design, there must be a balance between the experts and employees who must be trained. Creating content with only the essentials is important and doesn’t risk inducing content overload.

Sounds easy, right?

Unfortunately, getting the right content and only the right content is the most challenging task of eLearning design. That’s especially true when dealing with people who think everything is necessary. That’s because it is essential… To them.

They’re the experts, and they need to know everything. But not all employees need to know everything. It’s your job to find out what employees need to know, but not more. Any more than the essentials will overwhelm them and detract from the essentials.

Content overload is a genuine issue in eLearning because people can become overwhelmed when presented with too much information all at once. If you gorge yourself on pie, your body can’t digest it fast enough, and you either get sick or puke; your brain does the same thing.

Luckily, there are some strategies you can use not only to work through content during the design phase but also to limit content overload from the required content. The strategies in this post will help you make better content that’s not quite as overwhelming and ultimately leaves the control in employees’ hands since they’re the ones who have to take the course.

The key to success for custom eLearning development is to take an intentional approach to combatting content overload by presenting only necessary information. In this post, I’ll cover some of the most effective strategies we use to combat content overload in eLearning.

But first! What is content overload in eLearning?

What Is Content Overload in eLearning

Content overload in eLearning comes down to too much content that overwhelms the brain and severely harms learning.

Content overload typically comes down to a subject matter expert, being the wise one who knows so much about their topic. They indiscriminately want to share everything they know because it’s a course about what they know, right?

Nope, you’re never creating a course about what a subject matter expert knows. You’re creating a course about what employees need to do. The subject matter expert is simply a means to accomplish that goal because they know the job that needs to be done well better than anybody. They also know much more, which is where the problem comes in.

Too much content that becomes overwhelming in eLearning is content overload.

So, it all comes down to people being overwhelmed by too much content to make sense of it all at once.

No matter how noble the goal of a course is, if people feel overwhelmed by taking it, they shut off to new information and feel overloaded and burned out.

Content overload can happen from a combination of factors, the most common being too much information. An hour-long course? That’s too long. Even 45 minutes is too long. Thirty minutes of learning at a time pushes it to the maximum, and it should be the absolute maximum that someone is expected to consume instructional content.

It could also happen from too much text-heavy information, too many interface elements, and the lack of visual aids or interactivity.

If a course has too much content, it defeats its purpose. You’re wasting everyone’s time, including yours, the subject matter experts, business partners, and everyone who takes the course.

What are some of the other risks of content overload?

The Risks of Content Overload

I just mentioned one of the most significant risks: wasting a lot of time on development and taking the course. But there are some additional risks of content overload that make it a must that you combat it as much as possible.

  • Employees not taking the entire course and learning little to nothing.
  • Disengagement and decreased motivation leading to a lack of caring about the task.
  • Lower comprehension rates mean great course completion but little to no workplace change.
  • Train brain! An overwhelming foggy feeling leading to our inability to think, process, or learn more. We’re just simply burned out from training.
  • Missing essential information because it was watered down by nice-to-know information.

That’s likely not all the risks of content overload, but it makes a pretty good case for making every effort possible to reduce it in eLearning. Now that you know what content overload is and the risks of it, you have a better foundation for overcoming it.

Content overload risks making eLearning useless, which means developing it wastes time.

Your first step is to ensure the course content never comes straight from the SME. If you’re an eLearning developer and not an instructional designer (they are incredibly different), then you should always insist that an instructional designer or instructional design consultant has thoroughly analyzed the content.

Here is one crucial role an instructional designer plays in reducing content overload.

Make Sure All Content Is Essential

The best way to combat content overload is to assess the relevance of each piece of content and how it relates to the overall performance (not learning, please) goals. This is part of our process when developing a self-paced course from nothing. Yes, we have a process that starts with nothing, and we even have a template for it.

Content that is not essential to meeting an eLearning course objective should be removed or minimized. Any irrelevant content should also be excluded. This ensures that only the necessary content for employees to be able to do is included in the course.

Each piece of content in eLearning should help achieve overall learning goals.

Even things that aren’t used regularly aren’t needed in the course, even if an employee may need to perform it. Sometimes, those need-to-know but not used very often items are best left to performance support. Be sure to educate employees on where they exist and where they can find them. That’s good enough for the occasionally used content.

Just please don’t forget performance support; it’s just as important (or more critical) than any other type of training.

Another essential strategy to ensure your eLearning course doesn’t succumb to content overload is considering prior knowledge and experience.

The Role of Prior Knowledge

Just like too much content can overwhelm and lead to content overload, the wrong type of content can also do the same thing. Subject matter experts, along with knowing too much for the average user, also might not know what they know. That means some tasks are so much part of their workflow they skip right past them, thinking everyone knows how to do it.

So, it is helpful to ensure you know your audience and their existing knowledge and experience. If they have no prior knowledge, you need to start from where their knowledge begins. If you don’t know your audience well, then you risk all the content being content overload.

Know your audience and create content to fit their needs.

On the other end are people knowing too much and becoming bored. They won’t feel content overload, but it’s related because you could still lose your audience to boredom.

Sometimes, a helpful way of helping even those with no prior knowledge is to connect the content to something else similar that they do know.

Using prior knowledge is a strategy from Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction (Gagné, R. M.) to stimulate recall of prior learning.

So, you have to know your audience and do a complete audience analysis to ensure you’re approaching the content in the right way to be the most helpful. This also allows you to scaffold learning so you don’t just jump to the advanced level without ensuring the proper prior knowledge is in place.

However, you can use many more strategies when working with the actual content.

Strategies for Limiting Content Overload

If a good analysis and a thorough design phase in the ADDIE process have been done, you have many options within the development phase of a training project to reduce content overload.

This assumes you didn’t just accept a 140-slide PowerPoint deck from your SME and turn that directly into eLearning, though. You will fail if you do that and must make it fit into something engaging, relevant, and without content overload.

No content can be presented in its entirety without properly breaking it down and cutting out the fluff first.

These strategies can be divided into two categories: those that reduce the amount of content presented and those that improve the ability to process and understand the content.

Let’s get started hiding, chunking, reducing, clarifying, and more to make your eLearning course less prone to content overload.

Hide Information That’s Not Essential (More Information)

The first strategy is to hide information that is not essential to the topic. This could be information that’s helpful to know or provides more context but isn’t crucial. Hiding that information beyond a button, hover, information icon, or whatever helps put people in control of what they want to learn.

This helps reduce the amount of information presented simultaneously, making it easier to process and understand the content.

When business partners and SMEs insist information be available in the course, this can be a middle-ground solution that doesn’t overwhelm employees. Less content presented or required leads to less content overload. When using this strategy, you need to balance those you’re working with since it’s their content and the content itself that isn’t essential.

You can use accordions, tabs, layers, states, or any other method to hide information and only make it available when the user wants it. Sometimes, it’s not always about cutting everything but instead burying it a bit.

Breaking Down Content into Bite-Sized Chunks

This one is typically done in the design phase of a project, but you can also chunk content in development. Just because there’s a bunch of content on one slide doesn’t mean you have to build the course with all that information presented on one slide or screen.

Even if you’re working with an endless scroll tool such as Rise, it doesn’t mean you have to have an infinite scroll of information. Break it up so only a bite-size chunk of information is presented at a time.

You’d be surprised how much information you can read without even knowing how much you read if it’s broken up into a sentence or two at a time. It’s a great way to make it feel like the content is more readable and not quite as overwhelming.

If it doesn’t feel overwhelming, you’ve successfully reduced content overload. Good job!

When breaking up content, just be sure it’s still meaningful and relevant. Additionally, the chunks must still connect to the overall learning goal. This helps ensure the content is still comprehensive without risking content overload.

Use Visual Aids

When used effectively, visual aids can help comprehension and reduce content overload. That doesn’t mean finding images that loosely relate to the text on the screen. It means using pictures to communicate some of the content when possible.

Just don’t double up on text and images with duplicate information; that’s not helpful to anyone and will increase content overload.

Excellent and purposeful use of visuals can supplement text-heavy content, making it easier to process and understand the material.

Visual aids are great for emphasizing key points or illustrating complex concepts. Not to leave videos out, but they’re also great visual aids that can explain even more complex concepts when necessary. Blending meaningful visuals and multimedia in your eLearning course ensures content is more engaging, interesting, and clearer to understand.

It’s a win-win as long as you use them meaningfully.

Allocate Enough Time for Processing Information

Thinking about using a timer on the content or test? Don’t.

This one also goes hand in hand with breaking up content into bite-sized chunks. When information goes on and on, it makes no sense to pause for a second to digest it. Having a small amount of content presented at a time is helpful. That way, there’s plenty of time before new content is presented to process the current information.

So, give time to process content, and don’t limit course content with a timer. Neither of those is helpful to anyone and will create considerable content overload.

Self-Assessment and Reflection

Self-assessment and reflection aren’t just a method for determining whether a course was effective; they can also be used to limit content overload. Interspersing occasional assessments or reflection activities throughout heavy content will help employees better understand their understanding.

This could be a relevant scenario and a simple question in which the employees must make a decision. There’s no punishment for the wrong decision, but it’s just a gentle mind exercise.

That means they can identify areas where they might not have fully grasped the content, allowing them to review or revisit parts of it. Reflecting on important content and thinking critically about it is never bad.

This helps to ensure active engagement with the material instead of simply zoning out. This might be a decent option if the goal is true comprehension. Of course, you must judge if it would be effective for the content because it won’t always be.

Make It All Relevant

If the content is irrelevant, it’s not interesting or valuable because relevance is king in training. This somewhat leads back to finding only essential content but with a different twist. Relevancy is the most important factor in every eLearning course.

Engagement, interactivity, entertaining, and all those other words are useless if the content isn’t relevant. That doesn’t mean the topic of the course, either. When I talk about the course being relevant, I’m talking about every part of the content. Each piece of content should relate to the objects and be relevant in some way to how employees will use it on the job.

Relevant content will also present less content overload because people will be interested in it.

Don’t Lock the Timeline

Last but not least, don’t lock the timeline if you can ever help it. If that means not telling your business partners or SME that you can lock the timeline, so be it. If you’re ever asked if the timeline can be locked, it should be a “yes but” answer.

When you answer that it can be locked when explicitly asked (don’t volunteer that information, please), then it should also be presented with reasons why locking the timeline is terrible.

Why is it bad, you ask?

  • It removes control from the course user.
  • It doesn’t allow people to skip information they already know or irrelevant to them.
  • A lot of time will be wasted because everyone has to watch until the very last second.
  • Many times, the implementation of a locked timeline doesn’t work as simply as making all content required.
  • It increases content overload by forcing every second of content to be viewed.

I’m sure there are many other reasons, but those are pretty decent reasons not to lock any eLearning course timeline. Ultimately, the negatives related to a locked timeline far outweigh any benefits, even for compliance training.

Locking the timeline rarely provides a powerful enough reason to justify the increase in content overload. Locking eLearning navigation is a mistake in almost all circumstances.

Wrap Up

Content overload can be a serious issue when it comes to eLearning. It will ultimately waste a lot of time for course creators and course takers.

When eLearning course content is overwhelming, people will either not finish the course, tune out from the content, or not complete it if they don’t have to. To combat this issue, it’s important to take an intentional approach to assessing content relevance and implementing strategies to limit content overload.

Don’t waste your time developing eLearning unless you will at least try to do it right.

The best strategy starts with working during the analysis and design phase to know your audience and cut out content that’s not required. After that, it’s helpful to remove content that’s not essential, break down content into bite-sized chunks, utilize visual aids, allow enough time in each section of content, give opportunities for self-assessment and reflection, make sure all content is relevant, and never lock the timeline if your course has a timeline.

By intentionally employing these strategies, an eLearning course can be relevant, comprehensive, and valuable for employees without risking overloading people with too much content.

Above all other things you can do to combat content overload in eLearning, working through a good process that includes proper analysis and design is paramount. A good eLearning course always starts with the instructional design process. If you’d like to discuss your next eLearning project and how to make it effective, schedule a free consultation, and we’d be happy to discuss how to make your next technical project a success.


Gagné, R. M. (1971). The Conditions of Learning. United Kingdom: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

2 thoughts on “Combatting Content Overload in eLearning: Strategies for Dealing with Too Much Content”

  1. I just stumbled across your site and this is a kicka** article! I work as an ID-now LXD consultant and I love how blunt and *true* this is. (Paraphrasing)–Why bother if you’re not even going to try to do it right? Exactly.

    I can’t wait to read more of your site!

    • Great to hear it resonated with you KiKi! This is really true in everything we do; if you’re not going to do your best and quality work, then why do it at all? Glad to have you reading and hope you get as much value out of other posts as well.


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