Let me start by asking you some questions:
- Do you take notes while listening to a lecture?
- Do you multi-task thinking that you can get more things done with less time?
- Do you try to address as many learning styles as possible in the learning material you’re developing?
- Do ask your students to practice again and again, thinking that more practice will ensure greater learning?
- Do you use various media when designing learning materials in order to meet the needs of visual learners, auditory learners, and students with disabilities?
- Do you use the teaching cycle of giving students an example and the asking them to solve a similar problem by themselves? Do you repeat such a cycle as a way to build on students’ skills?
- Do you think helping faculty master Blackboard would prepare them to learn another course management system?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, read on to get a glimpse of the cognitive load theory and Ruth Clark’s book Efficiency in Learning. If you are as open and “persuadable” as I am, you may join me in identifying some more myths.
To me, cognitive load theory is like an analogy of the computer vs. the human brain: the hard drive is your long-term memory while the RAM is your working memory. The RAM of your brain or the working memory is a determinant in how quickly you can learn. As your brain gets “booted up” for a learning process, there are three kinds of workloads it has to take:
- the necessary load or the “intrinsic cognitive load,”
- the unnecessary load or the “extraneous cognitive load,” (This includes distractions or confusion caused by bad instruction.)
- and the load that helps connect learning with your own experiences or the “germane cognitive load.” The goal of instructional design is to manage the intrinsic load, minimize the extraneous, and promote the germane load.
I believe that instructional design is a science of “common sense”—the most direct channel to make people “get it.” However, there are a few practices that seem to be based on common sense, but are merely myths when you plug in the cognitive load theory. Here are seven of them I’d like to share with you:
Myth 1: Taking notes helps reinforce learning.
Research cited in Ruth Clark’s book indicated that the effort of capturing what the lecturer is saying and recording it in a written format will only add more extraneous cognitive load to your brain. This leaves less room for your brain to process the content of the lecture. So, as a learner, it would be more beneficial to replace note-taking with jotting the key points during or after the lecture. As an instructor, you should prepare lecture notes for your students and tell them that instead of writing down what you’re saying, they should think about it and reflect upon it.
Myth 2: Multi-tasking makes the learner accomplish more.
Multi-tasking will work effectively if all or the majority of the tasks have become automatic behaviors. In other words, the tasks should be something that you have been doing repeatedly, making them embedded into your long-term memory so that they require minimal working memory to process. However, if you really are to learn something, you better free up your working memory as much as possible. So, tell your students that they can listen to the radio while driving, but stop text-messaging while doing their homework.
Myth 3: In designing learning materials, we should address as many learning styles as possible.
Now let me share with you the only note I’ve taken from Ruth Clark’s workshop: “… cognitive commonality overrules individuality.” I jotted it down because it is such a brave statement. As Ruth Clark said, “I am expecting rotten tomatoes thrown at me for saying this.” Not from me, Ruth. Actually, I am in concert with her in disclosing this myth. When you design a learning object or training tutorial, the attempt to ensure “no child is left behind” may actually leave everybody behind. Instead of accommodating every student’s learning preference, designers should focus their energy on addressing the cognitive commonality that has been scientifically approved, such as letting users control the pace of the learning. process. As for individuality, leave the options that can be controlled by the learner. For example, allow the learner to turn on the audio to hear narration instead of leaving it on by default.
Myth 4: Practice makes perfect.
Does this rule apply to things beyond playing musical instrument? Well, research conducted by learning scientists indicates that more errors are introduced when practice goes beyond certain timeframe. I think this is the way that your mind tells you “O-kay, I got it. Stop exhausting me!” So, think about the amount of practice you want to assign to the students. By the way, I wish I could send this information to my elementary, middle, and high-school teachers in China. If I had a dollar for every hour I spent writing each Chinese character 100 times, I’d be a millionaire!
Myth 5: Multimedia improves learning by addressing multiple learning styles.
Insert the images for visual learners, add the audio narration for the auditory ones, and don’t forget the text for people who like to read. (And be sure to make the text big and bold for the visually impaired). Oh, and what about some background music for today’s multi-sensory learners? Thanks to today’s technology, all these requests can be easily accomplished through multimedia. The question is: will this piece of multimedia help people to learn better? The answer is likely to be no because media redundancy distracts learners. It adds unnecessary workload (extraneous cognitive load) to the brain, leaving less room for it to process the information. So, instructional designers who are constantly tempted by various fancy tech tools ought to remember that making things simple and direct remains the rule of thumb.
Myth 6: Giving examples followed by practice, followed by another example, followed by more practice (“example + practice + example + practice + example + practice”) is an effective way to teach.
Although the effectiveness of this method is questionable, this was a method often used by my teachers. Today, I still rely on this method from time to time when I teach. When compared with this formula [(example + practice) x N], research found that another formula which provides various examples before asking students to practice (example + example + example +example…+ practice) proved to be a more efficient way to learn. However, providing students with examples on which to model their own work can be problematic in its own right. I often debate whether or not I should give students a completed sample of an assignment. On the one hand, it may help clarify my expectations. Yet, on the other hand, it may also lock students to a pattern and constrain their creativity. If you share the same concern, let’s try giving students a diverse variety of examples so that they don’t follow one pattern and can practice better and learn more.
Myth 7: Being an expert of one course management system makes it easier to learn another.
Research shared by Ruth Clark shows that when expert and novice chess players were given a random chessboard, the novice group actually remembered it better than the experts. Why? Because the experts are confused by the meaningless layout of the board and are subconsciously going through a process of differentiating the “new look” with the one that they are familiar with. Those who are familiar with the layout and navigation scheme of Blackboard face the same frustration when they have to learn another system that is structured differently. This finding brings an alert to decision makers to think more carefully in selecting or changing technology solutions for users, especially those who are already comfortable using one particular application. (This is true even if they also complain about it.) The finding also echoes Gerry McGovern’s call to end web redesign in his article “Web Redesign is a Bad Strategy.” McGovern advocates that designers put more energy into improving content and simplifying the existing structure instead of building a new one.
Feel free to share any teaching myths or miracles by leaving a comment.