Why simpler relates to better learning
Recently I watched a webinar from Harvard Business School Publishing (HBSP) presented by Bill Schiano. HBSP has been an excellent resource for online teaching tips, and Bill has been one of the most insightful presenters. One tip from this webinar was to reduce extraneous load.
Bill shared insights from the book Cognitive Load Theory in Action, suggesting that when we learn, we have a finite amount of working memory in which to absorb new information. We need to reduce the extraneous so our listeners can focus on the important.
Cognitive Load Theory
The fundamental recommendation of Cognitive Load Theory: In order to increase learning, reduce extraneous load and optimize intrinsic load.
We have all heard advice like this before:
- Don’t read your slides
- Keep diagrams simple
- Keep video clips short
- Combine speaking and images
There are only so many bits of information that we can juggle in our minds at one time. The good news is that extraneous load comes from the manner and structure in which information is presented, and we have control over this. The book gives tips to reduce it based on these key concepts.
Redundancy: Eliminate unnecessary information.
Show only the key concepts. Don’t read your slides. If you want to show a long text quote, give people time to read it without speaking.
Split-attention: Information that must be combined should be placed together in space and time.
Put any explanatory text on your diagram, not in a bullet point list below. Keep diagrams simple.
Transient information: When information disappears, listeners must hold it in working memory, causing extraneous cognitive load.
Break videos into digestible segments, shorter than 6 minutes. If you ask a question related to information presented previously, summarize it on the question slide so listeners don’t have to remember.
Modality: Working memory has a portion dedicated to language processing (auditory) and a portion dedicated to image processing (visual). Using both channels in tandem enables listeners to absorb more information.
Show a picture and speak the explanation – following the example of creative types who use a picture to fill the slide. This allows listeners to process and retain more of your interesting message.
Putting these ideas into practice
This week I have been preparing a presentation and have tried to put these ideas into practice. It is an adaptation, and I have revised it already many times before to make it simpler. Still there was more I could improve.
Writing text on slides and reading from them takes less preparation time and is easier to remember on the day. Yet, I remember times when I have presented information in a way that was too complex, and I could see the eyes of my listeners glaze over. Too much extraneous load.
Taking the time to remove redundant information and integrate visual elements does just that – it takes time. Yet the extra effort required gives a better chance for listeners to remember your points.
This is an interesting book to understand why reducing extraneous load is important. It provides clear tips for simpler presentations that relate to better learning.
Questions for consideration
1. Take a look at one of your recent presentations. Does it follow these guidelines or do you have extraneous load?
2. What could you do to simplify your presentation? Could you use auditory and visual channels in tandem so your learners can absorb more of your interesting message?
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