Once you’re at a place where you’ve cut everything anything unnecessary out of a 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 the necessary information for employees 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 been so successful at creating custom digital training that’s effective, relevant, and most important doesn’t overwhelm employees. Instead of overwhelming our goal is to help people do their job better. That’s what dealing with content overload helps you do.
Whether you’re in the instructional design world and are familiar with cognitive load theory or on the content side of things, content overload has the same negative impact on workplace learning. Aside from our strategy for starting every course out with nothing, this post will help you deal with too much content in eLearning courses.
In eLearning development and instructional design in general, there must be a balance between demanding subject matter experts (SME), business partners, and employees who have to take a self-paced course. It’s important to create content that has the essentials, is just the right amount of comprehensive, yet not overwhelming to people, and risks inducing content learning content overload.
Sounds easy right? Unfortunately getting the right content and only the right content is the most difficult task. That’s especially true when dealing with people who think everything is important. That’s because it is important… To them.
They’re the expert 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 a bit more that will overwhelm them and take away from the essentials.
Content overload is a very real issue when it comes to eLearning because people can become overwhelmed when presented with too much information all at once. Just like if you gorge yourself with pie your body can’t digest fast enough and you either get sick or puke, your brain does the same thing just a bit more cleanly.
Luckily there are some strategies you can use not only to work through content but to limit content overload from the content you have to use. 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 that have to take the course.
The key to success for 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 I use to combat content overload in eLearning.
But first! What is content overload in eLearning?
What Is Content Overload in eLearning
The root of all evil is content overload in eLearning. It pretty much comes down to too much content that because overwhelming to those taking your course.
Content overload typically comes down to a subject matter expert, being the wise one that they are knowing so much about their topic, indiscriminately wanting 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. They also know a whole lot more which is where the problem comes in.
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 taking it then they shut off to new information and feel overloaded and burned out.
Content overload can happen from a combination of factors, the most common simply being too much information. An hour course? That’s too long. Even 45 minutes is too long. Thirty minutes of learning at a time is pushing it to the max and should be the absolute cutoff.
It could also happen from things such as too much text-heavy information, too many interface elements, and the lack of visual aids or interactivity.
You may think big deal, there’s a lot of content and it’s kind of boring. But if it defeats the purpose of the course then aren’t you wasting everyone’s time including yours, the subject matter experts, business partners, and every single person who takes the course?
Yes, indeed you are. So what are some of the other risks of content overload?
The Risks Of Content Overload
I just mentioned one of the biggest risks, a lot of wasted time both for development as well as taking the course. But here are some additional risk of content overload that makes it a must that you combat it as much as possible.
- Dropping out of the course entirely and learning nothing.
- Disengagement and decreased motivation leading to a lack of caring about the task.
- Lower comprehension rates which mean great completion of the course but little to no workplace change.
- Train brain! We mention this on our home page and what we mean by this is an overwhelming foggy feeling leading to our inability to think, process, or learn anything 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.
Your first step is to make sure the content you’re working with doesn’t come straight from the SME. If you’re an eLearning developer and not a trained instructional designer (they are extremely different) then you should always insist that the content has been thoroughly analyzed by an instructional designer or instructional design consultant.
Here is one important 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 learning goals. This is part of the process we go through when developing a self-paced course from nothing. Yes, we have a process that starts with nothing and even have a template for it.
Content that is not essential to meet an objective of an eLearning course should be removed or minimized. Any content that’s not relevant should be excluded. This helps to ensure that only the content that is necessary for employees to learn what’s needed regularly is included in the course.
Even things that aren’t used regularly aren’t needed even if ultimately an employee will need to know it. Sometimes those need-to-know but not used very often items are best left to performance support where employees simply know 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 important) than any other type of training.
Another important strategy to make sure your eLearning course doesn’t succumb to content overload is to consider 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. Subject matter experts along with knowing too much for the average user, also might not know what they know. That means some tasks become obvious to them and they skip right past them thinking everyone knows how to do it.
So, it’s helpful to make sure you know the audience of the course and what their existing knowledge and experience are. If they have no prior knowledge then you need to start from where their knowledge begins. If you don’t then you risk all the content being content overload.
On the other end of the spectrum are people knowing too much and becoming bored. They won’t feel content overload but it’s somewhat related which is why I mention it.
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.), stimulate recall of prior learning.
So, you have to know your audience and do a full audience analysis to make sure you’re approaching the content at the right level to be the most helpful. This also allows you to scaffold learning so you don’t just jump right to the advanced level without making sure the proper prior knowledge is in place.
There are a lot more strategies you can use when working with the actual content, though.
Strategies for Limiting Content Overload
If a good analysis has been done as well as a thorough design phase in the ADDIE process, there are lots of options you have within the development phase of a training project to reduce content overload.
This all assumes you didn’t just accept a 140-slide PowerPoint deck from your SME, though. If you did that and need to make it fit into something that’s engaging, relevant, and without content overload then you will fail.
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 essential. Hiding that information beyond a button, hover, information icon, or whatever helps put people in control of what they can learn.
This helps to reduce the amount of information that is presented at once, making it easier to process and understand the content.
For when business partners and SMEs insist information is 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 make sure to balance those you’re working with since it’s their content and the content itself that isn’t essential.
You can use things like accordions, tabs, layers, states, or whatever method you find works for hiding information and only making it available when the user wants it. Sometimes it’s not always about cutting everything but rather 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 too. 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 doesn’t mean you have to have an endless scroll of information. Break it up a bit 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 it if you’re reading 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 as overwhelming then you’ve successfully reduced content overload. Good job!
Just be sure when you’re breaking up content that it’s still meaningful and relevant. Additionally, the chunks must be still connected to the overall learning goal. This helps to ensure that the content is still comprehensive without risking content overload.
Use Visual Aids
When visual aids are used effectively they can help comprehension and will reduce content overload. That doesn’t mean going out there and finding images that loosely relate to the text that’s on the screen. What it means is you should use images 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.
With good and purposeful use of visuals, text-heavy content can be supplemented. This will make it easier to process and understand the material.
Visual aids are a great way to emphasize key points or illustrate complex concepts. Not to leave videos out, but they’re also a great visual aid 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 there’s no place that makes sense to pause for a second and digest the content. It’s helpful to have a small amount of content presented at a time. That way there’s plenty of time before new content to process the current info.
So, give time to process content, and don’t ever limit course content with a timer. Neither of those is helpful to anyone and will create a huge amount of content overload.
Self-Assessment and Reflection
Self-assessment and reflection isn’t just a method to be used to see if a course was effective, it can also be used to limit content overload. If you have occasional assessments or reflection activities interspersed throughout heavy content it will allow employees to gain a better understanding of their understanding.
That means they can identify areas where they might not have fully grasped the content allowing them to review or revisit parts of the content. It’s never a bad thing to reflect on important content and think critically about it.
This helps to ensure that the learner is actively engaging with the material, as opposed to simply zoning out. If the goal is true comprehension then this might be a decent option. Of course, you have to judge if it would be effective for the content because it won’t always be.
Make It All Relevant
If the content isn’t relevant then it’s not interesting. 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’m talking 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 back 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 SMEs that you can lock the timeline so be it. If you’re ever asked if the timeline can be locked then 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 bad.
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 that isn’t relevant 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.
There’s rarely a powerful enough reason to lock the timeline that justifies the increase in content overload.
Content overload can be a serious issue when it comes to eLearning. It will ultimately lead to wasting a lot of time for both course creators and course takers.
When an eLearning course content is overwhelming people will either not finish the course, tune out from the content, or just not even complete it if they don’t have to. To combat this issue, it is important to take an intentional approach to assessing content relevance and implementing strategies to limit content overload.
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 taking an intentional approach and employing these strategies, an eLearning course will be relevant, comprehensive, and useful 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 your needs and help you get the most from your project.
Gagné, R. M. (1971). The Conditions of Learning. United Kingdom: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.