The SimTutor Blog

Is cognitive overload hindering your training efforts?

Posted by SimTutor on Dec 4, 2018 3:27:44 PM

Developing a successful training program can be a daunting task. Have I covered everything that I need to whilst keeping my learners engaged? What types of content and formats will they better respond to? What if they tell me they understand it but they actually don’t and an accident happens?

Every trainer feels personally responsible for their learners when they’re adopting new training and for those in high-risk industries, there’s a very serious reality behind the importance of mission-critical training being learnt successfully.

The truth is, creating a training programme that every learner can pick up easily the first time around is difficult. This is often due to something called cognitive overload - a situation where the trainer presents too much information or too many tasks simultaneously which in turn overwhelms and stuns the learner. This results in the learner being unable to process new information, ultimately compromising the learning effectiveness. It’s not that the trainee doesn’t want to learn, it’s that they’ve become so overwhelmed that they can’t.

In today's market - companies are continually updating their traditional training programs to make them more engaging, safe and self-directed through simulation and scenario-based eLearning platforms, we discuss this in more detail, here:

Recognising Cognitive Overload  

As trainers, you want to maximise your results, use your budget wisely, and ensure that your learners are safe from cognitive overload while they train. But how do you do this, while also trying to get as much information across to the learner as possible?

It is therefore essential to recognise the tell-tale signs of cognitive overload. These signs include:

Forgetting previously learned information

Sound like you? “We went through this training yesterday, how does nobody remember!?”

● The inability to apply knowledge learned to a real-world context

Sound like you? “They passed the test in their training every time, but their boss says they keep getting it wrong when they’re on the job”  

● Failure to make decisions on the job

Sound like you? “There was a huge mistake made on the client's project and nobody knew how to handle it!”

When developing training programs, you can dilute the risk of cognitive overload by recognising these signs and addressing the possible causes before they happen within your program.


Provide a recognisable environment where it's safe to fail

In many traditional learning and training settings, learners listen to and are shown information and are then expected to apply all their learnings in the real world, often without the opportunity to practice or prepare themselves. This can lead to cognitive overload as the learner is just not well-equipped enough to apply their learnings, which in turn can cause panic and fear of failure. It’s important to provide an environment where the learner is able to test their new learnings without consequence if they don’t apply them right the first time.

Simulation-based eLearning is a method used to impart real-world knowledge and practical experience to trainees. Learners can use their knowledge in a realistic, functional context, to accomplish a task or overcome a common challenge in a safe, risk-free environment, where they can continually develop their confidence. This increases the value and engagement of the training course.(1)

Encouraging self-directed learning

Self-directed learning helps to overcome cognitive overload as learners drive their own learning. Research has shown that scenario-based eLearning allows for problem-based learning and Cathy Moore, a widely respected authority on Scenarios in eLearning, stated:

“Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt.” (2)

Scenario-based eLearning helps the learner discover what works, what doesn’t and in the process, they learn - even if some of their attempts result in failure. Scenario-based eLearning allows learners to feel empowered and limits the risk of cognitive overload resulting in a positive learning experience.

To summarise, simulation and scenario-based eLearning programs are useful tools in overcoming cognitive overload that every part of a business will benefit from— no more rote learning and memorising pages of notes or feeling of being overwhelmed. Instead, trainees can drive their learning and be confident in doing so. By adopting an eLearning platform that allows both of these, as a trainer you’ll be able to reduce risk, maximise efficiency and build ROI. And employers will feel the positive repercussions as the program empowers their workforce through positive learning experiences that actually work.


1 A. Majumdar, “The value of simulations when creating e-learning solutions for application training”, eLearning Industry, 2015, n-training (accessed 28 November 2018)

2 C.Moore, “Where’s the research support for Scenarios”, Cathy Moore: Let’s save the world from boring training! 2016, (accessed 28 November 2018)

Topics: "scenario-based eLearning", "learning programs", "simulation"

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