Before you can teach anyone effectively, it helps to know how the brain works. Cognitive Load Theory, developed by John Sweller in 1988 has been instrumental in educational innovation. As it turns out, this theory can be aptly applied to any kind of learning.
Cognitive load theory neatly divides our learning process into three sections: sensory memory, working memory, and long-term memory.
Sensory memory is what a person is immediately aware of, before they can understand the context (e.g. reviewing a series of buttons on a control panel before even knowing what any of those buttons do).
That unit of sensory memory moves quickly to working memory–think trying to make sense of the buttons’ significance. Finally, a well-designed training program will help an employee transfer the newly presented information from working memory to long-term memory, where it can remain indefinitely (being able to recall what buttons to select to complete a task safely on the job).
While long-term memory is believed to be infinite, sensory memory and working memory are limited. Sensory memory is instantaneous; it alerts the brain as soon as something of note occurs. Moreover, sensory memory is useful for communicating our surroundings, but has little capacity for recall and doesn’t process information well.
Working memory can, generally speaking, hold between 3-5 pieces of information. So, if the sensory memory is overloaded, the working memory quickly clogs and information is entering and exiting the limited space of working memory before anything can be understood and committed to long-term memory.
With such a limited bandwidth in both sensory and working memory, it is extremely important not to cognitively overload the mind when trying to convey important information.
There are two primary ways in which information makes it from working memory to long-term memory: visually/pictorially and auditorily/orally. Generally speaking, information is best learned when combining visual and auditory methods: this is known as the “Modality Effect”.
Visual information and auditory information don’t compete with each other in the same way that, say two visual pieces of information, would compete with one another.