The best way to help learners see the big picture? Start small
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The best way to help learners see the big picture? Start small

When you’re teaching a technical skill – creating a chart in Excel, say, or how to operate a new piece of machinery – it makes sense to go with short, narrowly focused lessons.

But what about more complex skills, such as closing a million-dollar sale or fixing a dysfunctional team?

For situations like these, learners must master more than discrete skills. They need the big picture – a “conceptual framework” that helps them see how Concept X relates to Concepts Y and Z.

It turns out that the best way to help learners see this big picture could also be with short, narrowly focused lessons.

The research
In a study, researchers looked at two ways to teach a complex skill – specifically, electrical engineering.

For one group (the “single-concept” group), the instructors started small. They broke down the training into a series of lessons, each focused on a single engineering concept.

For the second group (the “multiconcept” group), instructors taught the big picture. They conducted sessions where they integrated all of the various elements into a conceptual framework.

In a follow-up test, the single-concept group got twice as many right answers as the multi-concept group.

Reducing the cognitive load
Why would learners exposed to seemingly unconnected bits of information learn better than those who were given a road map?

The answer can be found in previous research on working memory and cognitive load, the researchers said.

They concluded that the single-concept learners experienced less cognitive overload than the multi-concept group.

The brain can only hold so much information in working memory at one time. When it’s simultaneously trying to keep an unfamiliar conceptual framework in mind and learn new concepts, it’s more likely to get overloaded.

True, the single-concept learners didn’t understand at first how all the concepts fit together. But they could devote more of their working memory to mastering each element in turn. And later, they were able to put all of the pieces together rather easily.

More reasons to start small
In addition to reducing cognitive load, there are other compelling benefits to single-concept learning:

  • It creates a series of “small wins” that increases learners’ confidence and keeps them motivated.
  • Single-concept lessons are more easily integrated into the schedules of busy workers. Employees can learn something and get back to work.
  • Short lessons create more opportunities for spaced follow up and interleaving, both of which have been shown to enhance learning (see Rapid Learning Insights vol. 1, no. 12).

Implications for trainers
Here are some ideas on how to apply these research findings to your training:

  1. Design training with cognitive load in mind. Constantly ask yourself, “How much information am I asking learners to keep in working memory at any one time?”
  2. Start small. Don’t try to cover too much in a training session. The less you teach, the more they’ll retain.
  3. Teach one concept at a time. The goal isn’t just to make lessons shorter. It’s also about making them focused. In the study, the researchers built each lesson about a single idea or concept.For example, instead of training your managers on the complex skill of “effective communication,” you might conduct a series of single-concept sessions, such as “How to have a difficult conversation” and “Handling an employee with a bad attitude.”
  4. Move the overview to the end. Traditional instructional design often puts the big-picture overview at the beginning, with the goal of giving learners a guide to help make sense of the lessons that follow.But until learners have mastered narrow concepts, an overview is just an abstraction. It’s hard to keep in mind and interferes with learning.

    A more appropriate place for the overview could be at the end. Learners will be better able to see the whole if they’ve mastered the parts first.

  5. Be ruthless about distractions. Training content isn’t the only thing that contributes to cognitive load. Distractions such as a noisy venue or needlessly busy PowerPoint slides also clog up working memory. Get rid of them.

Pollack, E., et al. (2002). Assimilating complex information. Learning and Instruction, 12, 61-86.
Oberaurer, K., et al. (2009). Accessing information in working memory: Can the focus of attention grasp two elements at the same time? Journal of Experimental Psychology, 138(1), 64-87.

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