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Learning Development Series Part I: Our Brains are Like Plants – So Don’t Overwater Them!

Jun 30th, 2016 •

The human memory is like a plant. For a plant to grow, you need to provide it with water, sunshine, and rich soil.

They also need, which may be their most vital resource, time.

Plants won’t grow on command. They need time to allow each drop of water to seep into the roots and then permeate to the points of each petal. From the other end, it needs time for the sun beams to soak into the roots.

Each of these elements are vital for the healthy growth of the plant.

Yet each plant nutrient must be presented in a perfect balance. Too much of any element, especially too much at one moment, can overwhelm it—causing the plant to basically reject the nutrients.

No matter how rich the soil, clear the water, and strong the sunshine, the plant can only take in a specific amount of nutrients at one time.

Like a plant, the human memory has a consumption limit for information.

Once the human brain’s information processing limit is reached, the brain enters into “cognitive overload,” which means the brain can no longer take in new information. So new information will not “stick”, and the learner will not remember it even a day after it is learned.

Sticky Nutrients for Training

Therefore, training and learning experts must ensure that each training and learning experience, whether it is live or virtual, follow these key guidelines to ensure learners flourish, as opposed to “drown” from cognitive overload.

Each training should include:

  • Pre-work
  • Clear objectives—keeping the end in mind
  • Engagement
  • Checkpoints and feedback
  • Post work

For this the first part of this blog series, I will explore the purpose and importance of assigning pre-work to learners before a training experience.


Pre-work is when an instructor or trainer assigns an assignment to complete before the training experience starts.

While learners may feel completing “homework” is inconvenient, this assignment is very important to the success of the learning experience for a few specifics reasons. When pre-work is created and selected for meaning, it can also be quite enjoyable and motivating.

However, first and foremost, pre-work enhances the learning experience by setting up expectations for the upcoming training. Pre-work naturally outlines the framework for what is to come and this helps the learner feel more comfortable with the upcoming experience. They feel prepared. They feel ready

Therefore, pre-work gives learners a “taste” of what is to come, and it mentally primes the learner for the experience.

Furthermore, pre-work can help chunk information into more manageable segments, which will lighten the cognitive load of the learning experience for the learners. For example, if the training relies a lot on understanding jargon and specific vocabulary, the pre-work can help pre-teach some of the important terms for the course, allowing the learners to walk in already feeling familiar to some of the terminology used within the course.

Through the use of pre-work, which helps chunk information, the trainer can focus more on the content and encourage learners to start utilizing the jargon.

Try a few of these pre-work options to better prep your learners for your next training:

  • Discussion Questions (answer independently or interview an expert)
  • Content Quiz (multiple choice, matching and etc.)
  • Survey
  • Poll
  • Online game (great for practicing terms)
  • eLearning
  • Self-exploration of a list of resources (websites, blogs, or etc.)
  • Short reading with questions
  • Video

Whether you decide to assign a short reading or an interactive game for learners to explore before your training, remember that the purpose of pre-work is to get the learner mentally ready for your training, while also breaking up the information overload.

The activity should complement the activity; it is not extra or “busy” work.

Since we know that they brain can only hold so much new information at a time, assigning pre-work helps the learner spread out the learning experience in a more meaningful way.

Yet assigning pre-work is only step strategy for battling cognitive overload. Check back for my next blog, which will explore the purpose of objectives and how to craft them to enhance the learning experience and not “drown” the learner.