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Jun 2016

The art of building mental maps

Blog posts

Dilpazier Aslam

Dilpazier Aslam

Senior Learning Designer

Why is it when someone reads your mobile number back to you, it sounds so unfamiliar? 

The answer lies in understanding how our memories store information. We remember things using mental maps, it's our brain's way of making sense of lots of information. Put another way, you remember your number in a pattern and not just as a long list of numbers.

How do you remember your telephone number? 

Maybe you recall your number like this: 


But the stranger repeats it like this:


The two patterns just ‘feel’ so different that they don’t sound like the same number, even though they are. 

So what's all this got to do with elearning? 

When designing a course it's easy to start to structure your course using the parameters of time, screen numbers and topics: "It's a 30 minute course, so I have 24 screens. There are three topics, so I have eight screens per topic …" 

At the end of this you might have one very happy SME, and a happier project manager, but what about the poor learner who can't remember much of the course? 

Helping the learning process 

I've been re-reading Clark and Mayer's E-learning and the Science of Instruction, to see what still holds. Their research around memory struck a chord, and I thought I'd share it. 

We don't absorb information in an empty vacuum, even when that information is presented over a series of highly engaging screens. Instead: 

  1. We take that information 
  2. And try to form mental maps in our mind's-eye to help us make sense of what we're hearing and seeing 
  3. We then take that pattern and 'see' how it fits into what we already know.

Think about the last time you met a new person. Did you spend hours getting to know them before making a judgement or did you make sense of them in patterns? – Are they friendly, well dressed, well spoken? 

Once we've created a mental representation of that new information, in this case a new person, we integrate it into our prior experience. So you might say they're very friendly like another person you know, or nervous like a client you once met. 

What you can do differently 

  • Think in terms of mental maps, or knowledge patterns. If it's a data protection course, present the information in a building so the learner recalls data security ideas associated with the related areas of a building; the entrance, the printer room, the desk
  • Or if it's a course about sales techniques, present each principle as a story so the learner recalls the incident and thereafter the principle 
  • Maybe design an image to present a conceptual map of the information 
  • And always give examples of what you mean. Illustrating the principle brings things to life and the learner can link it to a previous experience, and then they're likely to remember the example before the principle. 

So there it is, when we are presented with new information we create mental maps to make sense of it, and then integrate it into what we already know. You can support this learning process by presenting information as mental maps in the first place.

Dilpazier Aslam

Dilpazier Aslam

Senior Learning Designer

Dilpazier is a highly skilled Senior Learning Designer, with a decade of experience in instructional design and marketing. He has a reputation for creating courses with the learner always at the centre, and nourishing his work with a creativity based on sound pedagogic research.