Lightening the load

We sat in on a great session called ‘Learning with the brain in mind’ at Learning Technologies 2011. As so eloquently and effectively demonstrated by the two speakers in this session, (Itiel Dror and Chris Atherton), the human brain can only do so much at once. So, when designing e-learning, we need to do whatever we can to lighten the load. Let’s look at how we can take a load off.

Less is – you’ve guessed it....

Too much information, poorly designed screens and unintuitive navigation all detract from the learning experience. In short, you can have all the fancy graphics and whizzy animations you like, but the most important considerations are what you say, and how you say it.

Itiel Dror suggested a few ways of lightening the load. He calls this taking a ‘brain-cognitive informed approach’ and making it more ‘brain effective’. In English, that really just means reducing the amount of information on screen, and packaging it more effectively.

Don’t put anything on a screen that doesn’t absolutely need to be there, and chunk your conent in ways that make sense to the learner. Engage the learner – let them participate in the learning rather than just receiving it (without letting them have so much fun that they aren’t learning - bah). Make sure the mental representation the leaner takes away is the best one for them. It needs to be easy to acquire, easy to remember and easy to put into practice. If steps happen in a particular order, explain them in that order. 

If it ain’t broke, you’re not learning

One thing we do a lot at Kineo is give learners the chance to make mistakes and learn from them. Itiel suggests taking this one step further. Letting people make mistakes, and then making them work out how to fix them does two things. Not only does it prepare them in case mistakes do happen (and they do, no matter how well we train them), but it is also proven to reduce the number of errors in the first place.

Dr. Chris Atherton approached the same subject, from a slightly different angle, involving sushi and Christmas trees....you kind of had to be there, but this illustrates the main point of her presentation quite well: by creating easily recognisable ‘schema’ on which you can hang learning, you make things easier to remember.

Four is plenty

Working memory has a limited capacity. We can remember about four new things at any one time, at least when those ‘things’ are out of context. But the amount of things we already know is huge (I’m guessing, but you seem smart enough). By eliciting a learner’s prior knowledge and relating it to new information, they’ll remember more new things for longer.

Chunk it up, keep it real

This boils down to a couple of simple things we can do: chunk things up, and put them into context. Grouping relevant facts together makes them easy to remember, as does placing them in a recognisable context. In her session, Chris created artificial schema to help her get across some quite complex psychological theory (hence the sushi). But the easiest and most effective schema we can use is real life. Everything is much easier to remember when explained in the context in which it’s ultimately going to be used. If it’s not going to be used, you might want to ask yourself, why you are bothering to explain it? I could explain how a parachute works now. But you’ll probably be a lot more interested when we’re 30,000 feet up and you kind of need one. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, let’s be sure to skip the learning objectives...