Publish at October 15 2020 Updated February 24 2022

Distance learning: let's not overload it!

What to do when the content is too heavy?


It's like going on a trip, Trina Rimmer tells us.  It's always easy to fill the suitcase, to add more and more. You never know, it might come in handy. In distance learning, the temptation to fill the platform, to add text and text, to multiply the slides lurks for trainers, especially when they are more content-oriented than skills and activities.

But the risk is that participants are overwhelmed by an excess of information and no longer see where the priorities are. What should they remember, what should they know how to do? What is essential? As indecisive as a mosquito flying over a nudist camp, the learner no longer knows how to orient himself.

The Zeigarnik effect

Introduction to the effect

Everyone knows  we learn a lot in coffee shops. Bluma Zeigarnik is still a student when she makes a decisive observation. The waiters remember the orders perfectly until the customers have paid. When questioned afterwards, they have forgotten a large part of the orders. The psychologist hypothesizes that when we engage in an activity, we keep in memory the data that will be indispensable to complete it. An interrupted task thus continues to mobilize our brain until it is completed!

She conducts a study with a group of children that confirms her hypothesis  when an activity is interrupted, they remember more of it the next day.

The children perform about 20 activities. Some are interrupted, and the next day, Bluma Zeigarnik interviews them. The ones that were not finished score higher in recall.

There are many uses for this discovery, known as the "Zeigarnik effect." For example, in a novel, suspense at the end of a chapter causes a sense of unfinished business and ensures that you will come back to read the rest. In another context, application progress indicators keep our attention on an unfinished activity.

What use in training

The Zeigarnik effect is important in training. Authors advise breaking the activity into small sequences, with reduced tasks, that do not seem daunting. It is easier to tackle a succession of small obstacles than a mountain.

  • A visible activity list, which allows you to see how far you've come and what's left to do.
  • A completion indicator in the form of a progress bar or a percentage
  • Ared thread or even a story, which allows one to follow different steps
  • A collection of badges, clues, or proof of results.
  • One can also use a trick used by TV shows. Each episode ends with two or three minutes of "trailer" that consists of dramatic excerpts from the upcoming episode. To end by announcing the sequel is to insist that it's not over...

Miller's magic number

George Armitage Miller was born in 1920. In 1956, he made the observation that the processing capacity of the human brain is limited around the number 7. We are able to process 5 to 9 groups of information, called "chunks". These groups are composed of coherent information. The more expert we are, the more links we build between these elements, and the richer these groups can be. Experiments conducted with expert chess players thus show that this grouping work is all the more effective as the interactions between the elements make sense and allow us to envisage actions.

And in distance learning...

The overly heavy content therefore comes up against the limits of our brains. G. Miller's discoveries give us a solution : build training around coherent blocks. Smaller sequences, linked together, that make sense, and that bring together elements that will allow learners to build links. This is important, whatever the modality, but in distance learning, we must also count with interruptions, connection conditions, the mental load related to family members also present at home...

Highlighting what is essential

Trina Rimmer advises us to be clear about our goals and stick to them as well as set priorities. Being clear about what you want to achieve is basically the surest way to avoid getting lost in digressions, anecdotes or asides. It is also a way to give participants the means to sort things out!

Among the software capable of formatting and structuring substantial content, the Opale model attached to the Scenari environment can be very useful. It is free and open source, and relies on a large community of users and experts. Opale allows to prioritize contents, but also to differentiate paragraphs according to their nature, from "reminder" to "fundamental" or "information" to "complement". The list is presented in the screenshot below. It is important not to overuse them, but these elements are effective markers. This app also offers assessments, and allows you to insert videos, audio, and links.

In the same vein, some content can be excluded from a "short version". They will not be exported, but will remain available in another version. Some content can also be excluded from the long version, so one can imagine extensions, extensions, different examples depending on the audience or objectives.

Is text necessary, and if so, how much text

Many e-learning blogs strongly encourage the use of alternatives to text. Video seems to be the solution for some, others imagine sound content. The irony of this kind of proclaimed advice for all audiences and disciplines is precisely that the blogs that are spreading it only feature text and decorative illustrations!

Is video THE answer? Data from moocs show that many people who watch videos are trying to get straight to the point. They fast-forward through the lectures and rarely wait until the end. The average time spent watching a video per learner is often much less than the length of the video, even though the most studious watch them several times. Texts are rarely read in full, videos are sometimes sped up, and podcasts are often interrupted before the end. Responding by reducing the volume of information or length of resources will not necessarily change this habit!

The fact remains, however, that long-form content will benefit from being paced and diversified across different media. And if the content is important, why not let the participants choose the form that suits them? Video for some, transcripts for others, an HTML document that incorporates media and self-assessments for still others, or a PDF document for those who want to print and get away from screens. Let's mention again Scenari Opale which for several years now has been offering an export in PDF, HTML 5 with interactions, or slideshow, in long or short version as we just saw. The same content, six possibilities!

(Again) a Copernican revolution

Maybe we need to turn the tables. The added value of a training course is not always in the content it transmits. It is less and less so, if we are to believe authors such as Michel Serres who drew our attention to the great availability of information...  It is, on the contrary, in the proposal of learning situations that give meaning to these contents, that contextualize them and allow people to appropriate them. 

It is a matter of no longer putting the content at the center, of getting out of a transmission logic. On the contrary, we must consider that the course is only a resource for engaging in activities, facing concrete situations, relating and confronting ideas or inventing new answers.

Illustrations : Frédéric Duriez


Growth Engineering - The Zeigarnik effect and online learning - published 2015, accessed October 11, 2020

Lauren Dukes - Medium - Psychology in Design: the Zeigarnik effect published 8 October 2020 - accessed 11 October 2020

Trina Rimmer E-learning heroes- What to do when your course has too much content - accessed on October 11, 2020

Fernand Gobert, Peter C.R. Lane - Researchgate - chunking mechanisms and learning

Mike Weiss - elearningindustry - Biggest online course creation pitfall to avoid

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