Helping our learners learn by reducing information overload

Information overload
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Emma Sue Prince
Director
Unimenta
Columnist
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Emma Sue Prince is the founder of Unimenta, a free resource for practitioners delivering experiential learning or soft skills. Join them today. Let’s face it - we are all overwhelmed with information these days coming at us from every angle. From morning to night we are all suffering from a massive dose of information be that through constant email checking, being online without a break and posting, posting, posting on social media sites. It distracts us and can make us less effective when it comes to doing research or finishing a key project or even having a conversation.

Do we ever think about how this kind of thing impacts our learners though and their ability to effectively take part in training?

Researchers tend to agree that it’s not the volume of information that is the problem; it’s our inability to organise and process it all without experiencing “information overload, or what neuroscientists like to call “cognitive overload." In recent years, technology strategists have even compared information overload to physical obesity, dubbing it “infobesity."

Just as our eyes are sometimes larger than our stomachs, our interest can be significantly greater than our brain capacity.

The majority of literature on the subject recommends filtering out much of this information by ignoring it: don’t check your e-mail for an hour! Schedule time to be “unplugged! Weed through your RSS feeds! Take breaks! Don’t read what isn’t relevant to your goals for the day!

But no one is going to do this. First, because people like to be distracted. And second, because people should be distracted; it promotes creativity and relieves stress. Most importantly, though, this sort of advice only reinforces our feeling that we lack control.

Besides, don’t we need to embrace digital literacy and work out the best ways to help both ourselves and our learners to navigate information overload successfully?

Think about what happens in our own lives – being overloaded like this can lead to these sorts of common issues and it is no different for those we train:

  1. Analysis paralysis: How often have you wanted to take action on something but have become overwhelmed with the information being thrown at you? You become paralysed by all of the options, opinions, and conflicting information being thrown at you.
  2. Productivity issues: When we’re researching and absorbing information, we’re telling ourselves that we’re being productive. Because it genuinely feels as if we are! But you’re only being productive if you action what you’re learning.
  3. Lack of focus: Information overload through social media, email, and any number of dozens of causes is the biggest enemy of focus. If you can’t focus on a task, it takes far longer to get done. So writing an article that should have taken an hour turns into a four-hour project.

We can help our learners (and by default ourselves) – here are some simple ideas:

  1. Be aware of how much information you yourself are directing learners towards. Keep things simple, clean and efficient. Help them to focus by providing great content in the form of easily digestible facts, articles and quality sources linked to the topic.
  2. Make more use of experiential learning in the training room. Cut out PowerPoint and hand outs and just focus on the learning that emerges in that moment from a short activity highlighting a particular skill such as decision-making or leading a team. The simpler the better.
  3. Include mindfulness in training sessions – why can’t all training sessions include a mindfulness activity? It helps learners (and you) to be present, helps with honing the ability to focus and creates calm.
  4. Give task-based activities to do outside the training room. Rather than asking learners to research something why not ask them to notice something or observe a meeting or practise active listening next time they are having a conversation?
  5. Allow learners to check email or texts. Many learners find it difficult to switch off from the day-to-day when they attend training sessions. Instead of banning technology let them use it without setting any stipulations or limits. Chances are, if your training is sufficiently absorbing, this will settle down and they’ll normalise their behavior. We need to recognize that checking email and texts is a compulsive habit feeding into our brain’s reward system.
  6. Use job aids in e-learning. They are an excellent opportunity to include important content in an easy to digest format. Checklists, reference guides, lesson summaries, FAQS, and searchable definitions of key terms are just a few examples of useful job aids. However, providing these to the user isn't enough. An eLearning course should be designed to prompt their use and provide a scenario in which the user understands their importance.
  7. Encourage reflection on skills. Encourage time to learn about current skills. Even if you consider yourself a master of a skill, there’s always something more to learn. The day we stop learning, is the day we begin to stagnate. The first priority in dealing with information overload is to focus on what we already know, and to see if we can further that knowledge. Filtering out all the noise becomes very easy when we have a place to start.

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