David Dylan Thomas opened his keynote talk at Learning Solutions 2022 by sharing a screenshot of a list of cognitive biases, claiming that there are “over a hundred.”

The point is that all humans have cognitive biases, and many—most—of them are unconscious, which means that we are not aware they exist or of how they might influence our behavior.

As our role is to lead stakeholders and learners to good decisions and positive behavior change, Thomas argues that learning leaders, designers, and developers should consider cognitive bias in our learning designs. L&D professionals should also, Thomas said, examine the makeup of their team to try to uncover where cognitive biases might lurk.

What might all of this look like in practice?

Understand how cognitive bias affects learning

Cognitive biases cause us to make errors in our thinking that are the result of “a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment” based on illogical inferences about other people and situations, according to Richard Byyny writing for the University of Pennsylvania medical school’s office of inclusion, diversity, and equity.

Wikipedia lists dozens of cognitive biases, a list that Thomas cited in his talk as the inspiration for his work on cognitive bias, including The Cognitive Bias Podcast.

Some cognitive biases could affect the way learners understand content, whether they believe it, and whether they remember it. For example, Thomas said, people both believe and remember information that rhymes (even if it is not accurate): An apple a day keeps the doctor away. They also tend to favor information they see or hear first, such as the top item on a list.

People also remember content that is easier to use and process—which tracks with research on cognitive load and user-centered design. Simple rhymes, or content presented in an uncluttered way that is inviting and easy to follow, can be more effective than dense text, for example.

Other cognitive biases have to do with what information is presented and how it is presented. For instance:

  • Confirmation bias leads people to look for or interpret information in a way that confirms what they already know or believe
  • Framing is a way of presenting information that can lead learners to draw specific inferences or respond in a particular way
  • Affinity bias leads people to favor—usually unconsciously—people most like themselves

Use cognitive biases to improve training design

Designing with an awareness of cognitive bias can help learning professionals create more effective training materials; it can also help learning leaders influence stakeholders to make better choices as they create a training strategy and choose where to invest training design and development resources.

Guide stakeholders to good choices

This starts with presenting information about training options in a way that guides stakeholders to good decisions. Limiting the number of choices they have to make can avoid decision fatigue, for example, where people who are tired will make increasingly poor choices.

And framing the options in ways that highlight what’s important to a stakeholder can help a learning leader persuade a decision-maker to try an approach, such as microlearning or workflow learning, that they may resist, as it’s unfamiliar. Emphasizing benefits of microlearning, such as how microlearning or job aids could save time or reduce safety incidents or get training in learners’ hands faster, might convince a skeptic to give it a try.

Design with learners in mind

Designing for cognitive bias overlaps significantly with designing to reduce cognitive load and ensure that content is accessible to a broad range of learners—in other words, good visual design. If something is hard to read or use, most people tend to assume that it will be hard to do or understand. Learner-centered design includes:

  • Presenting content in short, manageable chunks
  • Using clean design with plenty of white space
  • Making the information hierarchy and navigation path obvious
  • Offering content in more than one medium or format
  • Using colors with good contrast and clear typefaces

Think beyond online training materials

Some types of learning experiences are built on interpersonal relationships, for instance coaching and mentoring or collaborative learning groups. To avoid affinity bias, carefully consider the amount of personal information provided about mentee candidates or to leaders selecting teams for collaboration. While those making mentorship decisions or creating teams might need to know the professional background and qualifications of potential participants, consider removing other details like gender, race, name, and colleges or universities attended that could, consciously or (more likely) unconsciously, lead them to prefer one candidate over another or form opinions about the candidates.

Learning leaders can shape more inclusive design teams

Because they touch every person in most organizations, L&D teams can advance inclusivity through both their products—training materials—and their approach. Learning leaders who adopt a bigger-picture approach can reshape learning design and influence culture across the entire company: This approach is participatory design.

This would entail examining the learning team and identifying where biases or gaps might exist, then inviting participation from people representing identities, perspectives, and experience that the team lacks. This requires an openness to feedback and willingness to recognize and change practices that might create barriers or unintentionally exclude some learners.

Discover additional steps learning professionals can take to adjust mindset and culture or improve the inclusiveness of training materials. Download The Learning Guild’s free checklist, Designing for Inclusion, today, and begin to identify areas where your team can advance inclusivity and equity.