This is one in a series of thoughts on some broken areas of ID that I’m posting for Mondays. The intention is to provide insight into many ways much of instructional design fails, and some pointers to avoid the problems. The point is not to say ‘bad designer’, but instead to point out how to do better design.
At some point (typically, after the introduction) we need to present the concept. The concept is the key to the learning, really. While we’ve derived our ultimate alignment from the performance objective, the concept provides the underlying framework to guide one’s performance. We use the framework to provide feedback to help the learner understand why their behavior was wrong, both in the learning experience and ideally past the learning experience the learner uses the model to continue to develop their performance. Except that, too often, we don’t provide the concept in a useful way.
What we too often see is a presentation of a rote procedure, without the underlying justification. In business, we’ll teach a process. In software, we’ll see feature/function presentations (literally going item by item through the menus!). We’ll see tutorials to achieve a particular goal without presenting an underlying model. And that’s broken.
We need models! The reason why is that people create mental models to explain the world. People aren’t very good at remembering rote things (our brains are really good at pattern matching, but not rote memorization). We can fake it, but it’s just crazy to have people memorize rote things unless it’s something we have to absolutely know cold (medical terminology is an example, as are emergency checklists for flights). By and large, very little of what we need to know needs to be memorized.
Instead, what people need are models. Models are powerful, because they have explanatory and predictive power. If you forget a step in a procedure, but know the model driving the performance, you can regenerate the missing step. With software, for instance, if you present the model, and several examples where the way to do something is derived from the model, and then you have the learner use inferences from the model to do a couple of tasks, you might be saved from having to present the whole system.
People will build models, so if you don’t give them one, it’s quite likely that the one they do build will be wrong. And bad models are very hard to extinguish, because we patch them rather than replace them. It requires more responsibility on the designer to get the model, as, for reasons mentioned before, our SMEs may not be able to help us, but get them we must. Realize that every procedure, software, or behavior has a model that drives the reason why it should be done in a particular way, and find it. Then we need to communicate it.
Multiple models help! To communicate a model most effectively, we should communicate it in several ways. Models are more memorable than rote material, but we need to facilitate internalization. Prose is certainly one tool we can and should use (carefully, it’s way too easy to overwrite), but we should look at other ways to communicate it as well.
Multiple representations help in several ways. First, they increase the likelihood that a learner will comprehend the model, and then have a path to comprehend the other representations. Second, the multiple representations increase the number of paths to activate a model in a relevant context. Finally, multiple representations increase the likelihood that one can map closely to the problem and facilitate a solution.
Multiple representations are, unfortunately, sometimes difficult to generate (more so than finding the original model). However, we should always be able to at least generate a diagram. This is because the model should have conceptual relationships, and these can be mapped to spatial relationships. There’s some creativity involved, but that’s the fun part anyways!
Yes, doing good instructional design does take more work, but anything worth doing is worth doing well. On a related, but important, note, unfortunately the difference between broken ID and good ID is subtle. You may have to explain it (I have literally had to), but if you know what you’re doing and why, you should be able to. And having developed a powerful representation increases the power, and success of the learning, and consequently the performance. Which is, of course, our goal. So, go forth and conceptualize!