How to use ‘content chunking’ to prevent cognitive overload in online learning

Written by Blaze Haselau
Apr 12, 2018

Cognitive Overload

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Scrolling through endless reams of on-screen text will turn even the strongest mind to mush. This is what is commonly referred to as ‘cognitive overload’, which results in loss of engagement, lower levels of comprehension, and decreased motivation. However, all of this can be avoided by making use of ‘content chunking’.

What is cognitive overload?

Before we begin, it is helpful to consider what is meant by ‘cognitive overload’.

Cognitive load refers to the amount of mental effort that is required in order to process information. From this perspective, cognitive overload occurs when the brain is provided with too much information simultaneously, resulting in an inability to process the content effectively. Consequently, crucial information can be lost.

Effects of cognitive overload

  • Reduced comprehension and understanding
  • Increased confusion
  • Reduced engagement
  • Reduced learner motivation and enjoyment
  • Inability to identify key learning points
  • Forgetting key concepts before reaching the end of the lesson

What is ‘chunking’?

Content chunking is a profoundly helpful tool when it comes to online learning – particularly in that it avoids cognitive overload. It refers to the process of condensing long passages of text into bite-sized, easily digestible portions of information. As such, it removes any extraneous content, and leaves behind only the key learning points. In this way, long lessons can be broken down into multiple ‘micro-lessons’, which can be easily accessed, understood and internalised.

Using content chunking to combat cognitive overload

Any e-learning content that contains long passages of text should undergo a chunking process. The following list summarises some best practices for content chunking:

  • Weeding: Condense the content by removing any extraneous information, and highlighting the core learning points.
  • Segmenting: Divide information into individual concepts, and segment it with headings and subheadings.
  • Signalling: Highlight the most vital information and key learning points, so that they can be easily identified by the learner.
  • Gear text for online reading: These days, most people read by skimming through the text, until they find what is important. Use bolding to highlight important words, and bullet points to summarise key concepts.
  • Use multimedia: Where possible, include images, videos or animations throughout a lesson. Rather than presenting long passages of text, assess whether these could be converted into a short video, for example.
  • Avoid cluttering your page: Scrolling through a long lesson can quickly make the content seem dull and unengaging. It is therefore helpful to divide a lesson into multiple pages. From a cognitive and psychological perspective, moving to the next page of a lesson has the same effect as turning the page of a book. This can help learners to form spatial memories and improve information retention.
  • Provide additional resources: When chunking and weeding text, extraneous information can be removed. By providing additional resources like hyperlinks to case studies or additional readings, learners have access to more detailed information. This can be used to improve overall comprehension and understanding.

By using these best practices for content chunking, you can successfully combat cognitive overload in your online course. In addition, these strategies will improve learners’ comprehension, engagement and overall enjoyment of the course.

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