A shot of theory – elaboration theory

When teaching someone a new fact or task, it’s best to start simple and then drill down into the more complicated content. Sounds pretty simple, right? Perhaps even intuitive.

But far too often trainers dive right in at the deep end, overwhelming learners from the get-go with nitty-gritty details and complicated rules.

So how can you combat that tendency? How can you structure content so that learners can access and make sense of it from the start?

Well, there’s a theory about it, which Charles Reigeluth appropriately named the ' the elaboration theory'. Reigeluth is a professor in the School of Education at Indiana University, Bloomington.

Let us elaborate…

The elaboration theory, simplified

Elaboration theory essentially says that to create effective instructional designs, we should sequence content from simple to more complex.

Let’s say you’re teaching a complicated workflow made up of 100 steps. Don’t start with the complete 100-step workflow – that level of detail and complexity might blow your learners’ minds.

Instead, start with a simple organising structure. Group the overall process into four buckets. Create a high-level flowchart to provide a simple, overarching view of the entire process. This structure provides a clear organising structure that the learner can 'hang their hat on' as they go deeper into the content. It presents a solid, early foundation upon which the rest of the content can be built.

Subsequent points in the lesson then drill down into each of these four buckets, providing specific and more complicated details and processes that need to be completed at each stage.

Why elaborate?

When you sequence content from simple to more complex, you create a more effective instructional experience. Why? The learner can approach the content as building blocks – each stage of the content is a stepping stone to the next level of complexity. Some people think of this as building a spiral – as you move to each step you review the previous one, moving upward in widening circles.

Think about courses you have taken or designed. Do you start simple and then build on that? Care to elaborate?

References and further reading

EduTech Wiki (2006, September). Elaboration theory retrieved January 20, 2010 from http://edutechwiki.unige.ch/en/Elaboration_theory

Learning Theories Knowledgebase (2010, January). Elaboration Theory (Reigeluth) retrieved January 20, 2010 from http://www.learning-theories.com

Reigeluth, C.M. (1999). The elaboration theory: Guidance for scope and sequence decisions. In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory. (Volume II). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.