The Problem with TMI (Too Much Information)

Librarians have a love affair with information. Nothing wrong with that. But when it comes to helping students, how much is too much?

Too much information (TMI) causes cognitive overload. Sweller’s cognitive load theory looks at how we process and remember information, and how that impacts learning. As it turns out, our working memories are incredibly limited in capacity. We can only hold about 3-5 chunks of information in there at any one time. The amount we can hold, process and remember is further impacted by how the information is presented. Too much information shuts us down.

This has obvious implications for teaching and for designing tutorials. But, today I am going to focus on the implications that cognitive load has on designing pathfinders. When I say pathfinders, I am referring to any type of resource guide for helping students do research (e.g. LibGuides).

Pathfinders are supposed to reduce information overload, but often they do just the opposite. There are a number of design flaws that contribute to the problem:

  • Too many choices. I think it’s the natural inclination of all librarians to create pathfinders that include the full breadth of resources available. This can be too overwhelming for students – especially novice researchers. The solution? Pare it down. Find out what students actually need. Keep in mind that less experienced students are more susceptible to information overload.
  • Wacky fonts. BIG FONT. little font. Bold font. Colored fonts. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. When you over font-ify (is that a word?) your pathfinder, I guarantee you are subjecting students to cognitive overload. It can be very difficult to read – let alone process – information that comes in an array of fonts. For example, recently I was trying to find out the hours of a local library, and found myself overlooking the information I needed because it was presented in bold fonts. Too much bold is hard to read!
  • Lack of focus. On the surface, it may seem that every pathfinder has a purpose. But, from an instructional design standpoint an argument can be made that general purpose pathfinders are at risk of causing information overload. These are the pathfinders that are made to generally cover a subject or discipline, but at the same time try to cover all the possible assignments that fall under that subject area. Take ‘English’ as an example. ‘English’ is a subject area that covers a large array of courses. And to cover all the possible assignments that ‘English’ courses encompass means including a huge number of databases – certainly too many choices for the novice researcher to process. Instead, consider creating separate pathfinders for the different types of assignments (e.g. argumentative, literary criticism, exploratory essays). Better yet, target the pathfinders to actual [common] assignments and courses. When you do that, the pathfinders become more focused with fewer choices and can be utilized more effectively within the LMS.
  • Overuse (or underuse) of widgets. Database widgets can ease cognitive load by reducing the number of steps needed to access the database. However, too many database widgets on one page is akin to wacky fonts.  My rule of thumb? One widget per page, and preferably for a database that can serve as an excellent starting point (e.g. Credo Reference).

Probably the most important thing I have learned from my IDT studies is that to really understand information literacy, you need to understand information processing. Doing so can make you a better librarian, teacher and instructional designer.

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