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Phil Parker

Learning Development


Nimble Elearning

How pizza can improve your

course writing

If someone gave you a 10-inch pizza, you

wouldn't try to put it all in your mouth at once,

would you? Of course not. You'd cut it up into

bite-size portions. Yet there is often a danger of

expecting our learners to do just that; feeding

them too much information and expecting

them to consume it all without difficulty. The

consumption of information, learning, in other

words, needs to be 'chunked', broken up into

pieces that can be handled easily.

Cognitive Load Theory originated in 1988

when John Sweller, an educational

psychologist at the University of New South

Wales, developed theories around the working

memory. His work showed that learners who

were given too much information, or material

that wasn't always relevant to the learning

objective, got confused, lost interest and

retained very little of it over time.

Working memory can only hold 4-5 pieces of

information at one time (try memorising half a

dozen new phone numbers and then

repeating them fifteen minutes later!) and

information in working memory lasts only

around ten seconds. It's easy to overlook this

vital educational psychology, but we ignore it

at our peril.

The temptation is to cram as much content

into a course because it's what our people

need to know. The secret is to find ways in

which to PROCESS that content. Let's look at

the THREE types of cognitive loads that our

brains try to handle:


This is the information that is imposed on the

learner - it might provide context, relevance,

perhaps even motivation. As the title suggests,

it isn't strictly necessary. It can confuse the

issue and provide too much for people to take

in (like a 10-inch pizza).


This is the information directly linked to the

learning objective - it's what we want people to

actually learn. We need to be focused on the

detail here. Learning objectives need to identify

exactly what should be consumed. Vague

objectives can inadvertently introduce

extraneous cognitive load if you're not careful.


This is the creation of processes that consume

the content. These are the chunks. These

processes (psychologists call them 'schemas')

can become automatic when embedded into

the working memory. For instance, the first

time you saw a 10-inch pizza, what did you




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