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Efficiency in Learning.

Efficiency in Learning, by Ruth Colvin Clark, Frank Nguyen, and John Sweller, Book, 2005, Pfeiffer & Company, $50.

"Information overload" is a trend that needs no introduction or explanation. Since it is a familiar theme in all our lives, why is it so often disregarded when addressing the needs of learners? Perhaps because we are often asked to develop training that requires learners to acquire more knowledge in less time. However, faster learning often translates into inefficient and ineffective learning.

Fortunately, Ruth Clark, Frank Ngygen, and John Sweller have come to the rescue with a practical and effective solution in their book Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. Sound too good to be true? Not when you combine user friendly scientific research with realistic and sensible guidelines.

Cognitive load theory

Think of an "information overload" situation and you can instantly picture an inefficient learning environment. Maybe you've experienced a time when you have been so bombarded with information that you can't find a critical document on the top of your desk or remember where you have stored an important file. Similarly, learners must rely on either their active "working memory" or "long-term memory" to retrieve information.

Working memory houses the new information that they have just acquired. It has a limited capacity, just like the surface of your desk where you are frantically looking for that document. When learners process working memory into a grouped and organized knowledge structures, it is then stored into long-term memory. We can recall these knowledge clusters, technically known as "schemas," just like we can pull a file folder from storage.

This book provides a clear explanation of how these memory systems relate to the learning process. The cognitive load theory outlines how to assist learners with managing new information. Don't worry--this is not a dry theoretical treatise but rather an insightful guide to applying the research. The authors share instructional design secrets to minimize information overload and maximize learning success. Each design guideline is explained and then reinforced with an instructional design example, making it easy for the reader to put the principles into practice.

Reducing the load

Instructional designers understand the necessity of reducing information overload. We know how important it is to weed out the "nice to know" to help learners focus on the "need to know." However, we often fall into the trap of thinking that a media-rich design is the best way to address learning needs. The authors provide pertinent examples that show that the "less is more" axiom is also true for multimedia design. They demonstrate how to eliminate extraneous visuals, text, and audio.

I found each of the design guidelines not only relevant but inspiring. What was most significant to me was the explanation of how replacing some practice exercises with worked examples (step-by-step demonstration of how to perform the task or solve the problem) actually allows learners to learn more in less time and with less effort. The strategy allows the learners to build schemas and then successfully apply them to the practice examples.

I know from my own experience--good and bad learning situations--how this approach would make a positive impact on the learner. It is reassuring to now have the authority and expertise to make a stand for incorporating this guideline in any new training development request.

The book also includes a CD with sample Excel e-lessons that supplement each chapter discussion. The authors refer to the CD so that instructional strategies that employ audio narration, color, animation, and adaptive testing are available to the readers. The CD also includes a video discussion by Dr. John Sweller of the research and guidelines in the book for each chapter.

Authentic and authoritative

I was immediately impressed with the book because it is authentic and authoritative. Practical examples give the book authenticity. User-friendly research examples give it authority. It reflects the expertise and first-rate quality of the three authors.

Ruth Colvin Clark is a well-known corporate training professional and leader. You might already be familiar with her successful career in the industry as a founder of Clark Training seminars and author of other training design publications. Frank Nguyen, an e-learning technology manager at Intel Corporation, also provides organizational training expertise. John Sweller provides firsthand knowledge of the theoretical research. A psychologist and professor of education at the University of New South Wales in Australia, he has successfully explored his research interests in cognitive processes and instructional procedures. He and his international colleagues developed the cognitive load theory, which is the framework for the book's guidelines.

This is the also the first publication that I have read that blends the academic approach and real world application so well. Each chapter provides several examples of instructional design recommendations and scientific research that validates the strategy in an understandable way. I know that the book is a "keeper" on my professional bookshelf. I also wish that it had been available when I was investigating research topics during my graduate studies.


I recommend Efficiency in Learning to any training and development professional. The experienced professional will find it insightful and may even shake up your views on the standard approach to instructional design. New professionals will find that it gives them a tremendous advantage for starting their career in the right direction.

Review by Diane Sidwell Jones
Product Ratings

Efficiency in Learning

Holds user interest *** 1/2
Value of Content ****
Self-Study Value *** 1/2
Instructional Value ****
Value for the money *** 1/2
Overall rating *** 1/2
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Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Jones, Diane Sidwell
Publication:Training Media Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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