Sunday, August 1, 2010

Instructional Design is about Adapting Instruction to Brain’s Ways

The Learning Circuits Blog from the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) asks “The Big Question” on a topic related to eLearning each month and invites replies from learning professionals.
The Big Question for July is:

Does the discussion of "how the brain learns" impact your elearning design?
My answer to that is an unequivocal yes. The eLearning design choices I make are definitely informed by my knowledge and experience of how the human brain learns. And I am sure this holds true for every eLearning designer.

Take the example of multimedia. eLearning is almost always designed with multimedia. This is obviously not done just for aesthetic or recreative reasons, but to support and improve learning. Research has shown that people learn better from words and pictures together than from either words or pictures alone. Multimedia enhances learning by stimulating multiple senses simultaneously. The Cue Summation Theory also states that learning increases as the number and types of cues increase.

Further, learning is enhanced when the instructional material provides or simulates real-life experience. This also is realized by making use of multimedia. Multimedia (such as 3D animations, video, graphics, etc.) removes the layers of abstraction and brings the instructional material closer to reality, thereby aiding the learning process.

Another learning theory that is relevant for eLearning design is the Cognitive Load Theory (John Sweller). The theory states that the capacity of our working memory to process information is limited. According to George Miller the working memory can hold only “seven plus or minus two chunks” of information. If the learner's working memory is bombarded with too much information, cognitive overload occurs, which hampers encoding of information and learning.
Once the learner is overloaded, frustration and demoralization inevitably set in. And people can’t learn when they’re frustrated and demoralized. One key to teaching, then, is to avoid overloading the learner’s working memory.

- Ruth C Clark and D. Taylor, The causes and cures of learner overload, Training, 1994
What implication does the Cognitive Load Theory have for eLearning design? We always design eLearning objects with small chunks of content in order to prevent cognitive overload. We also often use the “progressive disclosure” or “layered” design technique to present the content, so that the learner does not have to process a lot of information at a time.

Further, we know from experience that it is difficult to learn if one has to read text and listen to audio at the same time, as it causes cognitive overload. Therefore we design eLearning instruction keeping in mind such propensities of the human brain.

I can provide more examples, but I think the point is made. That instructional design is about adapting the instruction to brain’s ways. Ruth Clark is spot on in suggesting that Instructional Technology practitioners must incorporate an understanding of how cognitive and memory systems work during the learning process.