Cognitive psychology focuses in on the way the human mind processes internal thoughts.

When research from this field is leveraged in an eLearning context, we can create courses that take into consideration the way adult minds process and interpret new information.

Let’s start by looking at a few of the basics within this field to build up a foundation of understanding.

Cognitive Psychology and Basic Units of Knowledge

When designing an eLearning course, it’s important to look at your content much in the same way a cognitive psychologist would, so that you are presenting knowledge in a format the human mind can quickly and easily understand.

The basic units of knowledge are commonly referred to as concepts, prototypes, and schemas.

Concepts are large categories of knowledge in which similar ideas are grouped together. They can be concrete (like a book) or more abstract (like anger).

Prototypes are the most recognizable examples of a concept. So, for example, if when you think of a computer and a Macbook is the first thing that comes to mind, that’s your prototype.

Schemas are the frameworks you employ to understand the world. When one encounters information that doesn’t fit with an existing schema, learning happens—either through assimilation or accommodation. Assimilation means broadening an existing schema, while accommodation means creating a completely new one. For example, when you learn a new way to to tie your shoes, you’re creating a new schema.

Information Processing

Next, we need to understand how these different units are processed. There are two key principles of information processing:

Data is gathered from our surroundings constantly and by multiple different systems.

Our information processing systems modify the data we collect.

Knowing this, we have to be mindful of how we present new information. Since our processing systems tend to modify incoming information, concepts need to be presented in multiple ways to drive the lesson home. As they say in public speaking, “Tell them what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you told them.”

We also need to be aware that the format of learning (be it classroom, computer-based, or blended) impacts the data collection as well. Think about what distractions in the learning environment may lure your learner’s attention away.

What can you do to make the mode of presentation more effective? Are there instructions and best practices you need to send to instructors along with the training materials?

Know Processing Limits

Finally, we need to be mindful of the human mind’s limitations of information processing. In order to design courses that are memorable, you need to avoid the information dump at all costs.

Cognitive Load, or the max amount of information that can be retained at one time, should stay top-of-mind so that information is properly spaced—not dumped all at once. When we overload learners, retention rates suffer.

Keep Learning

The field of Cognitive Psychology is always changing, but staying up to date on this area of study will help you create stronger eLearning courses that are designed to stick. There’s much more to instructional design than simply presenting information—you need to know the right way to present it, too.