Inspiration for Students of Instructional Design and Technology

Two Web Sites That Apply Cognitive Information Processing Theories to Instructional Design

My brain has been overloaded this week thinking about itself: neurons sparking across synapses, working versus long-term memory, schematas and retrieval strategies, and so on. With all this self-reflection, my brain has been feeling rather superior in design and function to other members of the anatomical community.

“Yes, but how does all of this knowledge about you help me become a good instructional designer?” I asked. My brain only took a split-second to say, “Google!” And sure enough, per our assignment this week, I found two Web sites that relate brain theory to the practice of instructional design. Here they are:

The eLearning Coach

I was thrilled to find The eLearning Coach, a Web site that explains cognition theories as they apply to instructional design. Connie Malamed is the author of both this site and a book titled Visual Language for Designers. The main menu bar has a link for Cognition, under which you will find numerous articles that explain many of the theories we learned about this week. Here are a few that I found interesting:

20 Facts You Must Know About Working Memory

This article provides an excellent review of the principles of working memory (WM) described in our course text, plus it explains how cognitive load and individual differences are important considerations for the instructional designer.

What Is Cognitive Load?

Malamud compares our WM to a computer’s online storage (RAM) and long-term memory (LTM) to a computer’s disk storage. She explains the differences between the three types of cognitive load—germane, intrinsic, and extraneous—and how an instructional designer can help learners construct and automate schemas to prevent overload.

The Novice Brain

When developing instructions for novices, developers must realize that beginners have not yet developed effective schemas and mental models for applying their knowledge to real-world requirements. Furthermore, because their knowledge is not well-organized, retrieval cues often fail to locate that knowledge in LTM. In her follow-up article, How to Design for Novices, Malamud recommends focusing on essential skills so as not to overwhelm novices, motivating them by explaining how the training will benefit them, and relating the content to things they already know.

The Expert’s Brain?

Using the metaphor of a hard-boiled egg, Malamud describes how experts possess solidified knowledge built on complex networks of information and experiences. She compares the difference between the memories of a novice and an expert to the difference between having file folders randomly strewn around a room or having them neatly organized in a filing cabinet. Obviously, it is easier to retrieve information from the filing cabinet than from beneath yesterday’s half-eaten donut. In a follow-up article, Designing for Experts, Malamud provides tips for creating learning experiences that respect the prior knowledge and higher comprehension of experts. For example, she says most experts do not like cute, simplistic interactive games.

Value: Although many of the Web sites about brain theory target professionals in the psychology field, The eLearning Coach applies those theories to the field of instructional design. Furthermore, aside from the Cognition topic, there are other categories that will be of interest as our class progresses. For this reason, I believe The eLearning Coach is a useful resource for our class and earns a bookmark in my browser.

Learning Solutions Magazine

Once again, my Internet browser and Google led me down the path to enlightenment. Learning Solutions Magazine is a publication of the eLearning Guild, which supports professionals and encourages best practices in the eLearning industry. Their Web site included an article related to this week’s study of learning and the brain. Following is my review.

Nuts and Bolts: Brain Bandwidth – Cognitive Load Theory and Instructional Design

by Jane Bozarth

I loved the article’s tagline:

“Memory is a crazy old woman who hoards colored rags and throws away food.” – Austin O’Malley, American writer

Memory, as Bozarth contends, is a “funny, seemingly capricious thing,” which explains why we might remember a dress worn by our first-grade teacher and not remember what we ate for lunch just a few days ago. The article reiterates what we learned this week about the limited and fleeting nature of working memory (WM) and how knowledge is transferred to the more durable long-term memory (LTM). The challenge for instructional designers is how to facilitate that process and avoid cognitive overload, which occurs when students are given more information than they can process at one time. The author makes the following suggestions:

  • Chunk the content.
    Break the content into small, meaningful units that will help students build schemas and  improve retention.
  • Use modules.
    For eLearning, modules are short sessions that are less taxing for the student.
  • Consider novice and expert.
    Novices and experts have different needs, but often only one course is provided for economic reasons. The designer can overcome this limitation by including branching modules that lead experts to more complex material.
  • Remove extraneous material.
    Bozarth recommends “losing the template.” If they don’t contribute to understanding the subject being taught, all the fancy graphics, fly-outs, and audio tracks will compete for space in WM.

In conclusion, Bozarth offers this sage advice: The question shouldn’t be, “How can I teach this?” but “How can they learn it?”

Value: This particular article was useful because it related our current discussion of the brain to effective instructional design. However, the Web site offers numerous other articles and resources related to our ongoing studies. I would recommend that my classmates bookmark and revisit this site often.


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