The Main Responsibility of Every Instructional Designer

Posted by Katelind Hays on Aug 30, 2018 12:36:12 PM
Katelind Hays
Managing Training Content Overload as an Instructional Designer

Virtually There session recap

Our learners have a lot going on. Work, media, and the responsibilities of day-to-day life bombard them with data. Their brains must process a metaphorical mountain of information. Individuals consciously and subconsciously determine which stuff to pay attention to, and which to ignore.

Theoretically, training content focuses on critical information, right? We may think so, but if our learners have other priorities, our L&D programs get lost in the noise.

Expert Julie Dirksen argues that instructional designers can not only combat this problem, but that they have a professional responsibility to do so. In fact, she hypothesizes that “one of the primary responsibilities of instructional designers is the ruthless management of cognitive load.” Simply put, we want to:

  • Protect our learners in their ability to take in new information
  • Not overwhelm them during the learning process
  • Avoid bludgeoning people with content

A Crash Course in Cognitive Load Theory

During her recent Virtually There session, Julie covered John Sweller’s popular Cognitive Load Theory, which includes three primary elements:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load: the inherent difficulty of the material. For example, differential equations includes greater intrinsic cognitive load than basic addition.
  • Germane cognitive load: the effort people put in interacting with material
  • Extraneous cognitive load: additional features or influencing factors that add to the complexity of an experience, like unclear eLearning navigation or access difficulties.

Instructional designers must consider all types of cognitive load within their programs and make a concerted effort to reduce the number of things pulling attention away from the intrinsic cognitive load. Julie urges us to “create learning environments that are as friendly for learners to pay attention to as possible. We can do this by minimizing the stuff around the periphery so people can absolutely pay attention to the core material.”

Julie Dirksen’s Tips for Lessening the Cognitive Load

Instructional designers, review your designs. Facilitators, take a look at your facilitation guides. With a few minor changes, you can thoughtfully reduce the cognitive load your learners experience during your training programs. Julie recommends that you:

  • Decrease text density. “When you use conversational writing, it’s easier for people to allocate their attention and its more memorable.”
  • User test content. “Find out where the interface isn’t working for people and discover ways to make it better for learners.”
  • Make choices easier or harder. “Consider what you want your learners to accomplish and adjust the difficulty of the tasks accordingly.”
  • Give people choices they have control over. “If possible, allow learners to choose which content to learn first. People’s voluntary attention is highest at the beginning of the training, so when they move to the other sections, they’ve learned how to navigate the learning environment.”
  • Create a sense of immediacy. “Give learners the opportunity to apply the content as soon as possible. Learners pay more attention to relevant content.”
  • Make it as short as possible. “Not everything should be microlearning. But, make content as lean as possible for the subject.”
  • Don’t strip out the emotion. “In learning and development, we tend to strip emotional context out of our programs. But when we use emotions in our training materials, we give learners cues for how to feel about the information.”
  • Tie learning to their own experiences. “When we relate content to the prior knowledge of our learners, it activates long term memory and makes new information more memorable.”

Managing our learners’ divided attention requires a lot of effort, but the payoff for both our audiences and our organizations is worth it!

Our team thanks Julie Dirksen for her excellent Virtually There presentation, The Science of Attention and Engagement. Watch the full session replay here: and download her complimentary infographic, 8 Ways to Promote Learner Engagement.


Topics: Virtually There, Instructional Design