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Upskilling your tech team without increasing cognitive load

June 02, 2023

Have you ever felt like your brain was melting when you learned something new?

There’s a name for that: cognitive load.

Cognitive load impacts someone’s ability to learn and retain new skills. Because of this, it’s important to design upskilling programs that reduce unnecessary cognitive load as much as possible. 

Lauren Ammons, Pluralsight Learning Solutions Architect, shares instructional design strategies to help you reduce the cognitive load of upskilling and kickstart learning and development initiatives.

Understanding how cognitive load affects learning

So, what is cognitive load? Lauren thinks of it as the brain’s temporary storage space. “Cognitive load refers to the amount of mental effort required to process and comprehend information,” she says. 

“When we learn something new, our working memory has limited capacity. If we exceed that capacity, cognitive overload occurs, hindering our ability to learn effectively.”

When cognitive load is heavy, learning is exponentially harder. But when cognitive load is light, it’s easier to learn new skills.

Cognitive load for adults

Cognitive load plays an important role in learning and development, especially for adults. Adults lean on existing knowledge and experiences while learning. Lauren explains, “This prior knowledge can be advantageous. But it can also create a cognitive load if new information doesn’t connect with existing mental frameworks.”

Because of this, Lauren suggests tailoring learning to build on existing knowledge. “Find ways to make new information meaningful and relevant,” she says.

The effects of cognitive overload

Cognitive overload occurs when someone’s brain receives more information than it can process. Multitasking, working on complex tasks, and receiving too much information from multiple sources can all tax someone’s cognitive capacity.

Cognitive overload impacts your tech team’s ability to learn. But it can also impact their regular work performance. Some common effects of cognitive overload include:

  • Fatigue

  • Forgetfulness

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Decreased productivity

  • Stress

  • Burnout

Flow state: The goal of instructional design for your tech teams

Flow state occurs when someone is fully immersed in and focused on a certain activity. It’s also known as being “in the zone.” When learners experience flow state, they’re more likely to absorb and retain new knowledge and skills.

Implementing strategies to reduce cognitive load can help your tech team experience flow state while learning.

Instructional design for tech teams: How to design an upskilling program that reduces cognitive load

If you know how cognitive load affects learning, how can you implement upskilling programs and training for your tech teams?

Whether your organization implements live tech training, online learning platforms, or a hybrid learning environment, Lauren shares these tips to minimize the cognitive load of your upskilling program and facilitate flow state.

Avoid unnecessary jargon

DevOps, repos, Agile, IPaaS, C# . . . tech is full of jargon, acronyms, and terminology. Technologists understand these basic examples, but if they’re learning a new skill, language, or program, you can’t expect them to know the right term for everything.

If technologists are constantly bombarded with words and phrases they don’t understand, their cognitive load will increase. Technologists will want to know the right terminology eventually, but using plain language instead of jargon can reduce unnecessary mental work while they learn.

Provide clear instructions to speed up learning

30% of technologists don’t know where to focus their skill development, and 25% aren’t sure which resources to use. That lack of direction can carry over into the learning experience itself. The bottom line: Clear instructions clear up confusion and reduce cognitive load.

“Clear instructions act like a mental shortcut,” explains Lauren. “This allows learners to focus their cognitive resources on understanding and applying new tech concepts. When they provide straightforward and easily understandable directions, trainers optimize learning speed and minimize cognitive overload.”

Leverage visual aids

Visual aids make it easier to understand abstract tech concepts and process complex ideas, which can reduce cognitive load. “Our brains process visual information more efficiently than text alone,” says Lauren. “A picture is worth a thousand lines of code!”

Common visual aids include diagrams, charts, and videos, but they aren’t the only options. Lauren also suggests using gestures and physical demonstrations in your upskilling programs. “These activate multiple senses and boost memory retention,” she shares.

Use chunking and microlearning

Chunking refers to breaking information into manageable, meaningful chunks. “Our working memory can hold only a small number of items at a time,” Lauren explains. “By chunking information into meaningful groups, we maximize the efficiency of our working memory and reduce cognitive load.”

Chunks of information are easier to digest and retain. “Instead of overwhelming learners with a flood of disconnected information, we break it down into logical chunks,” says Lauren.

If technologists need to learn a new programming language, for example, she suggests starting with specific concepts or syntax patterns. Once your tech team grasps these concepts, they can build on the foundations and continue to expand their knowledge.

Create interactive learning experiences

Our 2023 State of Upskilling report found that 59% of technologists prefer hands-on labs and sandboxes to help them apply new learning on the job. Online learning and video content are helpful resources, but interactive learning provides more engaging opportunities.

Brainstorming sessions, coding challenges, group projects, and hands-on labs can make learning fun and improve a learner's cognitive capacity. “Learners construct knowledge by connecting new information with their existing mental frameworks,” says Lauren. “By activating learners' prior knowledge, these activities reduce cognitive load and foster deep understanding.”

Prioritize learning by creating time for it

Your technologists won’t benefit from these tips if they don’t have time to learn. Work with technical leaders as often as possible to build learning time into their team’s schedule. 

If you face pushback, explain how learning will benefit the technical leader and their team. For example, someone might worry that learning will impact their team’s velocity. Acknowledge that technologists’ short-term productivity will decrease, but the skills they learn will help them reduce delays and risks in upcoming projects, ultimately accelerating speed to market. 

>>> Check out these nine tips to help your tech team make time for on-the-job learning.

Tech leaders and learners benefit from well-crafted tech upskilling programs

When you make it easy to learn new skills, you improve the learning experience and increase engagement. The result? Tech team buy-in, new skills that stick, and accelerated business outcomes.