Getting a Handle on Professional Training: Cognitive Load

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Education is an interesting beast.  Everyone wants to learn as much as possible in as little time as possible, so that they can apply what they have learned right away.  Unfortunately, the human mind doesn't work that way.  Instead the brain keeps your short term memory locked up and passes on only a small portion to your long term memory.  So no matter how much you can technically cram into a small amount of time, only a small portion will be translated to long term memory. So what is a professional trainer to do?  How do you deal with cognitive load while still giving a high-quality and timely education experience?  it's a problem that educators have worked on for generations. I was thinking about this in preparation for a training trip.  I will be participating in training to expand our Mac OS X 10.5 Certification offerings, and I want to be sure that any feedback will be timely and well placed.  So I started reviewing in my mind the events, lectures, and material from the first couple classes I attended. For those couple of people who have been following my blog, you may recall previous posts that covered these events.  The materials have a much better design, and provide a lot of great material.  But that's just the problem:  they have a lot of material.  Both classes have been tight to teach in the allotted time.  Why?  Mostly because the exercises tend to be longer, and there are more details in the topics.  In fact, both classes would do well to have an additional day added to the course format.  So what can we learn from this in terms of cognitive load?  More is not better.  In fact, more is definitely that:  just more.  Instead, the material should be either watered down (so more time can be spent on reinforcing the concepts), or more time should be added to the course. But what's the magic number?  How do you determine the cognitive load distribution for your students?  The best way would be to 1) make your lecture time and exercise time half the total course time, and 2) Multiply the Lecture time and Exercise time by the number of skills and knowledge per sub-task.  This gives you roughly equal time per sub-task for students to focus on.  And finally, 3) take the time of day into consideration:  morning is great for lecture while after lunch is best for an exercise.  Of course, in reality, one doesn't necessarily have complete control on the amount of time the training can take.  Most employers want a content-heavy training so as to decrease the training costs.  So the best thing a trainer can do is provide additional, supplemental information in an external resource.  Online materials are ideal.  Also, continuing discussions long after the training is over is wonderful, if time and resources allow.  With reinforcing materials provided in a central repository (either online or in take away materials), the learners are able to refer back to what they think they recall, but can't quite remember.