Less is more. Too much, too fast, it won’t last.
That’s a favorite adage used by some educators.
The underlying concept is that you can present more and faster. But your listeners will simply forget more and faster!
Overloading The Mind
Organizations and conference planners are often pressured to offer more presentations and content. More, more, more is the customers’ cry, not just the lyrics of a disco song.
Pushing more content in a fixed time only burdens the mind. It guarantees that little is retained or learned. It creates mental overload.
Cognitive overload occurs when the limited capacity of our working memory is exceeded. When overloaded, working memory processing is corrupted. We can’t learn. We corrupt education.
Working Memory’s Three Critical Parts
Working memory is both the engine and traffic jam to learning. It can create a bottleneck with restricted access to new information.
1. An Active Processor
Working memory is the conscious part of your brain. It’s the part that thinks, solves and learns. It’s an active processor.
Your working memory is actively processing the words you are reading right now. It’s processing meaning and connecting new information to past information. If you don’t recall what you are reading from this post, your working memory did not receive sufficient time to process and retain it.
2. Limited Capacity
Working memory has limits.
Working memory can only hold three to five items (some say three to seven) at one time. Once it is full, new items replace older items or new items are ignored. If new items are not processed fully, they are quickly forgotten.
3. Dual Processers
Working memory also has dual processers: visual and auditory. It stores and processes auditory information in a separate area from visual information.
When you read a tangible word like dog, you process it in two ways: as phonetic data and as an image that forms in your mind. When you read an abstract word like concept, it is not easy to visualize. You only encode it as phonetic data.
When speakers explain a complex visual with a lot of bullets and text on a slide, they overload the visual processer of working memory. When they explain a complex visual with narration and little text, it divides the load between the visual and auditory channels. Then it’s more likely to be learned and retained.
Successful Education Considerations
Successful presenters take into account all three parts of working memory. They understand that the brain needs time to process new content. They avoid too much content too fast. And they engage both the visual and auditory channels.
Conference organizers need to understand that a fundamental prerequisite of all effective learning environments is managing the mental load. If the content is complex and the audience is novice, this is extremely critical. Less is more. Otherwise the conference content becomes a mental hog and little is learned.
Ultimately, more presentations need to provide time for audiences to discuss and process content. Discussion time after every 15-20 minutes of content works well. Short breaks every 30 minutes to give the brain some down time also helps.
Read more tips for successful education:
How do we get conference organizers and meeting professionals to give as much attention to effective learning environments like managing the mental load as they do room sets and food and beverage? What are some other ways to engage participants in learning that stimulates active processing of the working memory?