Information Overload and Memory Retrieval

Information Overload (IO) is typically associated with processing input from external sources, such as Email and Search Engine results. However, Information Overload can also occur when retrieving information from our memory.

The “cue” used for information retrieval may be associated with multiple items in our long-term memory.

Specificity of encoding information to be stored will reduce this risk.

Matthew Guyan suggests 5 ways to improve the distinctiveness of encoding cues for effective recall:


1) Present some information via the visual channel and some via the verbal channel

  • If all of the content is processed visually i.e. via text, pictures or animations, the visual channel can become overloaded. Using narration transfers some of the content to the verbal channel thereby spreading the load between the channels and improving processing capacity.

2) Break content into smaller segments and allow the learner to control the pace

  • If the content is complex and the pace is too fast, the learner may not have enough time to effectively process the information. Breaking complex content into smaller chunks and allowing the learner to control the speed of the learning lets them to process the information more effectively.

3) Remove non-essential content

  • Background music and decorative graphics may appear to make the eLearning more interesting. However, these elements require incidental processing and increase extraneous load. If the content doesn’t support the instructional goal, it should be removed.

4) Words should be placed close as possible to the corresponding graphics

  • When text is located away from the corresponding graphic, learners are forced to scan the screen in order to align the text to the graphic which requires additional cognitive processing. Placing the text close to the corresponding graphic improves the transfer of information.

5) Don’t narrate on-screen text word-for-word

  • When on-screen text is narrated, the same information is presented to learners via both channels. Rather than spreading the load, learners are forced to process the same information twice which means that there is a great deal of redundancy. If using narration, the on-screen text should be a summary.

Further, McDermitt & Roediger III (Washington U.) describe the 3 stages of memory processing–a foundation for understanding the role of cues for information retrieval.

1) Encoding

  • Encoding is defined as the initial learning of information.

2) Storage

  • Storage refers to maintaining information over time.

3) Retrieval

  • Retrieval is the ability to access information when you need it.


Consider how mnemonics, acronyms, and acrostics can facilitate encoding information for targeted, not diffuse recall.


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