Monday, July 6, 2009

TMI! Information Overload and Learning

“Too much information—TMI!”

More than just a retort when conversations turn personal, TMI also describes a common student experience. When one period of steady information flow follows another, the rising data tide does not lift all boats. It overwhelms them.

We can maintain a quick and steady pace when we enter information into a database or spreadsheet, simply pushing “return” or “tab” to move to the next entry, but the brain is not a computer. It has limits. Data funneled endlessly through the senses prevents the processing required for learning.

What do students’ brains need to do to construct new learning? Let’s listen in as the neural “Data Manager” oversees the processing…

Okay, we got incoming data here. Everyone look alive!

Get that bit there and put it with the other that’s like it. Those two bits there,
move them to the right. Move those others across the room to that grouping there.

Is that it? Do we have all the data? Okay, let me get up to the observation platform to see what we’ve got here. Hmm, okay. Put this label on that grouping there. And give that group to the right this label. That last group needs this label.

Okay, let’s see what’s really going on here. Seeing some patterns! Get the librarians searching for past records with these patterns.

Got something? Great. Let’s overlay it with this new data.

A-ha! The new data is like this past experience in some ways. Get the insights to the consciousness office and tell them to hit the “Give a lift” button! We’re constructing understanding right now!

Obviously no such director exists for cognitive activity, but the processing illustrated by the imagined “Data Manager’s” actions do reflect the brain’s approach to constructing new learning. Incoming data gets sorted and labeled as the brain engages in comprehension. The sorted and labeled data reveals emerging patterns that trigger recall of similar past experiences as the brain engages in elaboration. These cognitive processes empower learning.

But TMI floods the brain with data, preventing comprehension and elaboration, and thus, preventing learning. Jonah Lehrer suggests the danger of too much information is “it can actually interfere with understanding.” Why? Because the brain has a do-it-yourself attitude toward learning.

As teachers, we think through material when we plan its delivery. But students’ brains need to engage in that same process to learn for themselves. In short, we process the new material to teach it. Students must process the information similarly to learn it. As Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don't Students Like School?, explains, “Good teachers design lessons in which students unavoidably think about the meaning or central point” [emphasis added]. Thinking cannot overcome TMI, but TMI quickly overwhelms thinking. In short, TMI prevents learning while unavoidable thinking promotes it.

When you stop informing and engage students in thinking, you empower learning. In other words, you truly teach.

1 comment:

Todd I. Stark said...

I think a big part of information overload is better thought of as inadequate organization. The same raw information presented in subtly different ways can encourage radically different cognitive processes. Think of how easy it is to mislead, either deliberately or unintentionally, with subtle variations of charts and graphs because we change the way we guide cognition with the presentation. Order, temporal sequence, spatial position, color, orientation, size, pitch, density, it all matters. Rather than giving less information, the information needs to be presented in a way that encourages good thinking about it. My favorite examples are in Ed Tufte's wonderful books.