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Efficiency in Learning


I recently wrote an article for titled “Everything You Think You Know about Learning Retention Rates is Wrong” which is perhaps a bit of a hyperbole but it’s based on the discovery that the traditional thinking about how people learn is wrong. It’s based on Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience which didn’t have research to support retention rates and was never intended to be used as it has been. In the article I made the assertion that there’s not been a great deal of research on learning rates differing between different modes of instruction – which I still believe. However, in the research for that article I stumbled across the book Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load – and I’m impressed. Ruth Clark, Frank Nguyen, and John Sweller did a great job of converting the research studies that are available into a set of guidelines for developing content that are both easy to understand and are on a solid research foundation.

I’ve read more than a few books on instructional design and they have had two problems. First, they didn’t provide clear direction on what the rules were for making design decisions and second they didn’t address situations where the guidelines were in conflict – Efficiency in Learning describes the rules (or guidelines) and what to do when they guidelines are in conflict. In short, the book takes the relatively fuzzy world of how we learn and breaks it down into chunks that can be understood and applied.

The foundation for the book is the theory of cognitive load – that is humans have a relatively small and fixed capacity to process information. We overcome this by building schemas to make complex topics operate as a single unit in our thoughts. We can thereby function in complex situations because we’ve simplified large groups into single things in our thinking. Learning is, in a sense, creating these schemas so that we can process more complex – and interesting – scenarios. Those who have studied Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives might see learning as a continuum from recognition through recall and up to the higher levels – however, most learning scenarios today aren’t focused on remembering simple facts, they’re based on being able to use the information – those things on higher levels in Bloom’s taxonomy. (I first talked about this on my blog in 2006 in a post on Recognition vs. Recall.) The way that we learn simple wrote facts is different than the way we learn how to think about our world differently.

Within in the context of the book cognitive load is broken into three distinct types:

  • Intrinsic – the mental work imposed by the instructional goals.
  • Germane – the mental work imposed by the instructional activities that benefit the goals
  • Extraneous – the mental work not related to the instructional goals or activities (in other words, noise)

The book shares a total of 29 guidelines designed to minimize extraneous cognitive load and creating some germane cognitive load to further the goals. I’ve reproduced the goals below to give you a sense of what you can expect. Each of the guidelines is supported by research. The ones that I find the most interesting is those which go against “folk wisdom” about how you should design a learning course. For instance, generally we believe that repetition is a good thing and therefore if we deliver the content multiple different times and ways will lead to better results – except the research seems to show that this isn’t true. (Thus why I mentioned Bloom’s above – we know that simple repetition helps with simple facts, however, it doesn’t appear to work for procedural content.)

I also found interesting the awareness that some of the strategies that help novice learners actually depress learning in experts. In other words, the way that experts need to learn is different than the way that novices need to learn. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) often deliver content in a way that assumes users know basic concepts and because of this the user can collapse those concepts so that they don’t need to be actively considered – however, often novice users can’t collapse these concepts and as a result end up overwhelmed because they are unable to process all of the variables –in the way that they’re delivered.

If you’re serious about creating good instructional materials, I recommend you give Efficiency in Learning a read.

The 29 Guidelines:

  • Use Diagrams to Optimize Performance on Tasks Requiring Spatial Manipulations
  • Use Diagrams to Promote Learning of Rules Involving Spatial Relationships
  • Use Diagrams to Help Learners Build Deeper Understanding
  • Explain Diagrams with Words Presented by Audio Narration
  • Use Cues and Signals to Focus Attention to Important Visual and Textual Content.
  • Integrate Explanatory Text Close to Related Visuals on Pages and Screens.
  • Integrate words and visuals used to teach computer applications into one delivery medium
  • Pare Content Down to Essentials
  • Eliminate Extraneous Visuals, Text, and Audio
  • Eliminate Redundancy in Content Delivery Modes
  • Provide Performance Aids as External Memory Supplements
  • Design Performance Aids by Applying Cognitive Load Management Techniques
  • Teach System Components Before Teaching the Full Process
  • Teach Supporting Knowledge Separate from Teaching Procedure Steps
  • Consider the Risks of Cognitive Overload Before Designing Whole Task Learning Environments
  • Give Learners Control Over Pacing and Manage Cognitive Load When Pacing Must Be Instructionally Controlled
  • Replace Some Practice Problems with Worked Examples
  • Use Completion Examples to Promote Learning Processing
  • Transition from Worked Examples to Problem Assignments with Backwards Fading
  • Display Worked Examples and Completion Problems in Ways That Minimize Extraneous Cognitive Load
  • Use Diverse Worked Examples to Foster Transfer of Learning
  • Help Learners Exploit Examples Through Self-Explanations
  • Help Learners Automate New Knowledge and Skills
  • Promote Mental Rehearsal of Complex Content After Mental Models Are Formed
  • Write High Coherent Texts for Low Knowledge Readers
  • Avoid Interrupting Reading of Low Skilled Readers
  • Eliminate Redundant Content for More Experienced Learners
  • Transition from Worked Examples to Problem Assignments as Learners Gain Expertise
  • Use Directive Rather Than Guided Discovery Learning Designs for Novice Learners