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The magic number seven (plus or minus two)

At Coassemble, we believe that not all eLearning content is created equal. Some content is shiny, engaging, and effective. Other content is less so.

31 Aug 2016 by Ryan Macpherson

Why keeping eLearning simple is effective

At Coassemble, we believe that not all eLearning content is created equal. Some content is shiny, engaging, and effective. Other content is... less so. Cluttered eLearning alienates its audience. We’re here to help, and we’re armed with some of the best findings from cognitive psychology to explain exactly why keeping eLearning simple makes it shine. Let's get started.

The number seven

In 1955, Harvard professor George Miller wrote one of the most famous papers in the history of psychology: The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. It’s been cited over 23,000 times and formed the basis of our understanding of how people process and remember information—making it hugely important to the creation of valuable eLearning content. So what did Miller find?

The human brain is limited

This probably comes as no surprise—humans can only process, remember, and understand a certain amount of information at any one time. We’ve all experienced information overloads and realized there’s only so much we can handle...

What Miller wanted to find out was exactly how limited our brains really are.

In The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two, Miller ran several tests on working memory and attention to see how much information a person can process at any one time. Firstly, he gave his participants a set of digits and asked them to repeat them. Miller found that people could remember, on average, between five and nine digits at a time. When given seven numbers, most people could remember them and repeat them all. But when given too many numbers - say, twenty - people actually remembered less than seven numbers in the right order.

What does this mean, then? Well, it’s pretty common knowledge that people can’t take in too much information, but what a lot of people don’t know is that too much information actually harms learning.

What a lot of people don’t know is that too much information actually harms learning

Miller repeated his tests across multiple categories of learning and processing, from vision, to hearing, to memory recall, and the results were unanimous: people appear to be able to process and recall between five and nine pieces of information at any one time. Hence, the magic number seven, plus or minus two.

Using the magic number seven
Create eLearning content with the magic number seven in mind. Try to limit the information you provide on an individual page to a maximum of seven points - though less is better. We’ve all seen PowerPoints covered in fine print and know how ineffective they are.

Luckily for you, we’re aware of the number seven, which is why Coassemble Author comes preloaded with modern templates that present information simply and effectively.

Miller also found that information can be ‘chunked’, or tied together in a conceptual bundle. For example, people remember the number 100 as a single number, even though it’s actually three numbers tied together. If it’s absolutely necessary for you to provide a lot of detail on a certain point, make sure you summarise that point in keywords. That way, your learners will be able to chunk your longer explanations into single concepts based on the keywords you’ve provided.

Keeping eLearning simple
Start trying to keep the number seven in mind when authoring your content, from design elements, to interfaces, to concepts and information and you’ll soon find that keeping things simple makes learning better. Here are some general guidelines you can use within the Coassemble course builder:

Avoid using redundant text or images that aren’t related to your Course

  • Limit the number of concepts presented on each page
  • Chunk large blocks of text by summarising them in keywords
  • Ask yourself if each piece of information on a page is necessary to improve your learner’s understanding

Keep the magic number seven in mind and you’ll be well on your way to publishing good, engaging eLearning content!

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