Avoiding Content Overload: Less Can Be More

Stack of books with laptop cover leaning on the books

We are extremely lucky to live in The Information Age. Not only is information more ubiquitous than ever, it is also generated at a faster rate than at any other point in history. The downside is that our information-processing abilities are not yet optimized to deal with the deluge.

The modern ailment of “information overload” is especially relevant to instruction. It is said that the value of an instructor lies not in the amount of information possessed, but in the ability to curate the most valuable learning resources to help students attain specific learning outcomes. Beyond curating, instructors must also arrange these resources in a sequence that best helps learners achieve proficiency within a given timeframe. In this article, we will limit our discussion of this topic as it applies to online instruction.

Content overload in an online course can quickly overwhelm students and, in turn, make them doubt their own ability to successfully complete all requirements while also managing other life responsibilities. Education expert Torria Davis explains that if you limit folder depth ratio, you can prevent these unfortunate consequences. This term refers to the quantity and organization of instructional materials within a given learning module. A higher folder depth ratio occurs when numerous resources are contained within nested folders, resulting in a higher number of mouse clicks to access a given piece of information. Next, let’s look at Davis’ strategies to manage content, which she lists using the acronym M.E.S.S.

Strategies to Avoid Content Overload (M.E.S.S.)

  • Minimize the Use of New Technologies. This one is especially important for students who might be new to online learning. The purpose of using technology tools in an online course should always be to enhance learning; the tools should not themselves become learning objectives. Consider the fact that for each tool you require, you will need to provide instructions on how to use it, and in some cases, account for a learning curve. Introducing too many tools at once can easily cause frustration in students. Be sure to use tools purposefully and to simplify whenever appropriate.
  • Eliminate Nice-to-Know Content Items. Even though faculty naturally want to provide their students with all the great resources they know of for students’ exploration of a subject matter, the learning module might not be the best place to do this. The resources within a learning module should contribute to the attainment of the module’s learning objectives. Nice-to-know items, if included in the module, should be clearly distinguished from the required resources (e.g., with a heading “For Further Reading”).
  • Streamline Related Content Items. When building a learning module, think about the order in which you are presenting learning resources and how those resources relate to each other. Whenever possible, group related resources together a) to emphasize their relationship and b) for easier navigation and lower folder-depth ratio. For example, if you have a discussion that centers around a video, include the video in the discussion forum itself, where students will be completing the assignment, as opposed to just listing it in the learning module.
  • Separate Important but Unrelated Content Items. During the first week of class, students are usually asked to absorb a lot of important information that they need to be successful in a course. This might include a welcome video where the professor highlights important points on the syllabus, goes over course objectives, and provides tips on how to do well in the class. However, as with nice-to-know items, this information is not usually related to the module’s learning objectives. Instead of overloading the first learning module with this information, consider placing these items in a separate “Getting Started” or “Week Zero” module. This will reduce the folder-depth ratio and keep each module’s purpose focused.


  • Davis, Torria. Visual Design for Online Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2015.

Liliana is an Instructional Designer at FIU Online. She has over 5 years of experience in higher education. Previously, she was the Training Manager for the department's recruitment team. Her interests include working with instructors to create quality online courses.

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