Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

11 February 2013

Performance support-ing learning

Clark @ 5:11 AM

In a post last week, I mentioned how Gloria Gery’s original vision of performance support not only was supposed to help you in the moment, it was also – at least in principle – of developing you over time. And yet I have yet to see it. So what am I talking about?

Let’s use an example. I think of the typical GPS as one of the purest models of performance support: it knows where you’re trying to go (since you tell it), and it helps you every step of the way. It can even adapt if you make a mistake. It will get you there.

However, the GPS will tell you nothing about the rationale it’s using to choose your route, which can seem different than one you might have chosen on your own. Even if it offers you alternatives, or you specify preferences like ‘no toll roads’, the underlying reasoning isn’t clear. Yet this might be an opportunity for navigational learning (e.g. “this route has more lights, so we prefer the slightly longer one with fewer opportunities for stopping”).

Nor does it help you learn anything along the way: geography, political boundaries, even geology, although it could do any of these with only a thin veneer of extra work: “as we cross the river, we are also crossing the boundary between X county and Y; in 1643 the pressure between the two cities of X1 and Y1 jockeying for power led to this settlement that shared the water resource.”

It could go further, using this as an example of a greater phenomena: “geographic features often serve as political boundaries, including mountains and rivers as well as oceans”. This latter would, in a sensible approach, only be used a few times (as the message,nonce known, could become annoying. And, ideally, you could choose what you wanted to learn about.

This isn’t limited to GPS, this could be used in any instance of guided performance. Sometimes you might not care (e.g. I suspect most users of Turbo Tax don’t want to know about the nuances of the tax, they just want it done!), but if you want people to understand the reasoning as a boost to more expert performance, e.g. so they can then start using that model to infer how to deal with things that fall outside of the range of performance support, this is a missed opportunity.

The point is to have even our programs to be ‘thinking out loud‘, both to help us learn, and to serve as a check on validity. Sure, it should be able to be shut off or customized, but the processing going on provides an opportunity for learning to happen in new and meaningful ways. The more we can couple the concept to the context, the more we can create learning that will really stick. And that is, or should be, the real goal.


  1. Good post, Clark, thanks for this. Is it equally important that this approach not only connects people to the work rationally (“understand the reasoning”), but emotionally? That by taking the opportunity to provide this additional information, you offer an emotional engagement within the context of the work and that is what can further drive retention? If so, do you have tips on how to approach this content in terms of tone?

    Comment by Chad Lowry — 11 February 2013 @ 7:50 AM

  2. Excellent advice…consistent with educator’s use of “scaffolding” as per Bruner and Vygotsky.

    Comment by Fran T — 12 February 2013 @ 8:44 AM

  3. Chad, good point. I think by having it contextualized, you do get more emotional connection. Could we add additional? We could, I think, if we connected the dots between the current activity and the role it plays. Worse, we could also gamify it (not that I’m recommending it) as an additionally layer. Instead, I’d minimize tone, I reckon, looking for the most simple and realistic connections to the larger context. E.g. if we had a checklist for hospital procedures (ala Gawande), we could expose the development process and connect the design to the larger goal of survivability.

    Comment by Clark — 12 February 2013 @ 8:55 AM

  4. Clark, your example of GPS is a good one and can extend to other information we have where we take action based on assumption – which can be dangerous. Offering a different route without explaining why might not be useful. But it’s quite possible to make suggestions backed by explanations on the go – where the driver, the learner, taps into contextual knowledge that sticks.

    Comment by Ara Ohanian — 13 February 2013 @ 7:58 AM

  5. Well put, Clark. We need to focus on both performance support AND (informal) learning, if we wish to assist people in the moment AND support their development over time. The two foci could be woven into each other via guided performance, as you say, or the learning resources might even just sit side-by-side the performance support resources (along with some contextual info).

    Comment by Ryan Tracey — 19 February 2013 @ 4:57 PM

  6. Good post. I added it as a “top 5 elearning post” on our blog. Your GPS analogy is good food for thought and I agree that contextualizing the GPS would help the driver better understand the landscape they were traversing. On the other hand, the simplicity of the GPS makes it an excellent performance support system when you want to get from A to B.

    Which raises the central issue when designing performance support systems. Is the purpose of the system to provide a tool to help the user get from A to B or to educate them on the landscape they must traverse to get from A to B?

    Comment by Jeff Walter — 19 February 2013 @ 7:00 PM

  7. We’re using your book, Desinging mLearning in my Florida State University mLearning course. I’m trying to design a learnlet to be used by women motorcycle riders on the importance of wearing appropriate riding gear (I’m a passionate motorcyclist). I want to use story-based scenarios (5 minute scenarios) with decision trees that will show the user the consequences of their choices. For example, Suzy chooses to ride her motorbike on an errand to the grocery story, 10 minutes away. The learner is given the option to choose various types of protective riding gear, or regular street clothes to make the trip to the store. After choosing the gear they would wear (or not wear), the learner is shown the results of injuries and financial losses when Suzy goes down in a curve, after hitting a patch of gravel.

    I’d also like to provide context relevant links to the the levels of protection that each type of motorcycle riding gear provides (or doesn’t provide, that could be used when they’re making purchase decisions (either in a brick and mortar shop or online shopping). In other words, links that are ‘performance support’ oriented to aid in decision making about gear purchases.

    I’d like your opinion as to whether this is mobile learning, or simply e-learning delivered on a smaller platform (like a smartphone or tablet)? Any suggestions to make this better?

    Thanks so much! I’m learning a lot from your book!

    Comment by Sheri — 5 March 2013 @ 6:27 PM

  8. Thanks for the feedback all.

    Jeff, sometimes you don’t need the education, but that other times in the long term it’s a chance to develop capability to expertise by going beyond performance to explain information on top.

    Sheri, I think what you’re talking about is more mobile elearning than mlearning. Which isn’t to say they couldn’t be blended. But my quick take is that the problem isn’t the awareness of what’s right, it’s just the reality of going through the effort isn’t worth the small risk. How did you get them to answer in the way that they really would act, not how they know they should act? I might also consider just streaming some dramatic examples (I’d use graphic novel format, or video) of someone who didn’t make the right choice. WIth the message “no one *expects* accidents, what’s why they call them accidents”. Or some such. Thrilled that my book is in the course!

    Comment by Clark — 6 March 2013 @ 8:02 AM

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