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Online Learning

Cognitive Overload: Preventing Study Burnout

4 min read
By Frank Alaniz
Jun 8, 2021

There’s so much to learn when it comes to business intelligence and data analysis.

What is an eager and motivated student to do?

Dive head first and work hard of course!

While this may be the eager student's initial course of action, they may find themselves in over their head, drowning, and calling it quits long before reaching the summit.

What is Cognitive Overload?

Have you ever forced your way through a course, moving from lecture to lecture and exercise to exercise, only to look back and realize that you're unable to recall and retain the content you're trying to learn?

Chances are your brute force approach caused you to experience cognitive overload. Too much information made your mental cup overfill, prevented integration of new learning, and worked against your best efforts to have an impactful study session.

Symptoms

Unfortunately, the negative side effects of cognitive overload will spill over into nearly every area of your life. Some of these inconvenient side effects include:

  • Heightened levels of stress
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of motivation
  • Performance issues
  • Mental fatigue

It goes without saying that each one of these issues will severely hinder you from learning and making progress.

Two Types of Memory

Understanding how we process and store information is important if we want to maximize our learning potential and avoid cognitive overload.

SHORT TERM MEMORY – This type of memory holds a limited amount of information and can easily be overwhelmed. Think of this like cache that needs to make its way up the processing line before becoming hard encoded into long term memory.

An interesting aspect of this memory is that it works through your senses, and each sense has an independent cache bucket.

For example, when you’re viewing a lecture you’re using one type of cache and when you’re listening to an audio lecture you’re using a separate type of cache.

This has interesting implications; if you are viewing multiple visualizations at once to understand a single concept, your visual cache will have a hard time holding this information in short term memory making it less likely to move into your long term memory.

However, if you have a single visualization before you with text or audio narration you benefit from a larger total pool of cache to understand a single concept.

LONG TERM MEMORY – What’s the benefit of learning anything if we can’t retrieve it in the future and put it to good use?

This is where long term memory comes to play. But if we want it to function correctly, an overflowing short term memory cache will prevent integration of new knowledge into long term storage.

Prevention

Now that we’re aware of the negative side effects of cognitive overload, its symptoms, and how our learning activities can overwhelm our short and long term memory, we can begin to put together a plan to prevent it altogether by proactively approaching our studies with the best interest of our cognitive abilities.

While the list below is not exhaustive, in my own experience these particular issues have caused me the most cognitive overload and have lead to lost gains.

Avoid poorly designed courses. If you’ve ever had to assemble furniture you know exactly what I mean. Poorly illustrated examples followed by equally frustrating supporting text. This results in what is known as the split attention effect.

An example of this is following along with a course only to realize the video training component does not reflect the hands-on workbook of the course. Instead of viewing the workbook as an extension of the course, now you’re forced to split your attention between possible errors in the workbook and the video lecture.

Your short term cache becomes over-loaded with troubleshooting data points leaving little to no room to process new information.

Limit interruptions. Not only does task switching between the interruption and your study material remove you from your study flow, but it also decreases your ability to process information and impedes on your short-term memory cache.

Don’t skip the fundamentals. While Neo was able to plug into the Matrix and "download" kung fu to learn martial arts in a matter of seconds, unfortunately we have to do things the old-fashioned way.

If you skip ahead of the basics without a firm footing, you’ll constantly find your self jumping from the course materials to external sources as you struggle to build a mental schema with which to understand the topics in your course. This results in, you guessed it, an overloaded short term memory cache.

Pace yourself. As the old adage goes: Rome was not built in a day. Neither are analysts.

Even if you enroll in a high-quality course, cut out all interruptions, and take all the prerequisites, you can still fall victim to cognitive overload. While the mind is machine-like in its ability to make use of, process, store, and integrate vast amounts of information, it still needs maintenance and rest.

Ignore this and you run the risk of overloading short term memory, hindering proper information processing, and wasting precious study time.

Moving Forward

As unintuitive as it may seem, taking a moment from your studies to think about how to study and how to prevent burnout may be one of the best study habits you develop.

If anything, being analytical about how you study is very fitting as our ultimate goal is to become the best possible analyst we can be.

Happy learning!

Author

Frank Alaniz

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