A constant challenge with eLearning (and face to face) courses is managing “overwhelm:” too often the learner is inundated with content and ideas and bullets and more content. Here’s a real example (no, really) once sent to me by an SME. What’s the slide in Figure 1 even about?

Figure 1: SME-created slide

With fonts all the same size, irrelevant clip art, template elements like the sidebar (and why is there barbed wire on the slide?) the learner doesn’t have a chance. The design makes it impossible for her to figure out what she’s even supposed to focus on, much less learn.

Manage your instructional messages

So how can we help learners access and retain what matters? One of my own favorite tools for managing and structuring instructional messages is Richard Mayer’s “SOI” model, which supports designing so that the learner can Select, Organize, and Integrate information. This month let’s look at what Mayer tells us about the “Select” component of the model. How can we cue learners to important information? How can we help them focus and make sense of what they’re seeing?

On the most bedeviling issue—extraneous  information—Mayer reminds us that learners can fill in gaps. Look at Figure 2. Who do you see?

Figure 2: Learners can fill in gaps

The images show Einstein, Shakespeare, Groucho Marx, and the Mona Lisa (OK, I can’t prove that isn’t Cher, so will take it as an answer.) The message? Less is more. Learners  can make sense of information when given a fair chance. You don’t need to spell out “and” when an ampersand would do. You can abbreviate and edit and cut, and cut again. Essentially, design is done when there’s nothing left to take out.  

Other ways to help the learner select:

  • Use fonts, color, and highlighting to indicate important information
  • Use white space
  • Emphasize important information

The before-and-after example in Figure 3 shows how these ideas might be applied:

 Figure 3: Eliminate extraneous information and make good use of fonts and white space

And Figure 4 shows a before and after that resulted in a work example, much more useful and memorable to a learner than all the text on the “before” slide at left. 

Figure 4: Why make it hard for the learner to figure out what she is supposed to do?

We know that reducing extraneous information is critical to lessening cognitive load. So when approaching a new design project, especially one in which you’ve been handed piles of source material and maybe even slide decks developed by subject matter experts, take a step back and ask, “What is the most important information here? How can I help the learner grasp that critical content?” and start building from there. 

Want more?

See also: “Find Your 20%”  as well as these items from Mayer.

Mayer, R. E. “Designing Instruction for Constructivist Learning.” Instructional-design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999.

Mayer, R. E., W. Bove, A. Bryman, R. Marsand, and L. Tapangco. “When Less Is More: Meaningful Learning from Visual and Verbal Summaries of Science Textbook Lessons.” Journal of Educational Psychology 88. 1996.

Some material originally appeared in Bozarth, J., Better Than Bullet Points: Creating Engaging eLearning with PowerPoint. San Francisco: Wiley, 2013.