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

16 July 2014

Models for learning

Clark @ 8:10 AM

In a previous post, I suggested that we should not do the ‘click to learn more’, as it was just about presenting content.  But we do need to present content, so what content makes sense?  Obviously, examples are one thing, but let me make the case that the ‘how to’, the concept, should be in the form of a model.

There’s a problem in that Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) don’t have access to the what they do,but they have access to what they know, so it’s real easy to get a knowledge dump. And it’s hard work to make sense of it, sometimes, and it’s easier to just recite it. For example, expertise in many areas requires careful distinctions (e.g. such as in instructional design between the elements of learning).  However, it’s hard for learners to acquire all those careful distinctions without the underlying rationale of how they differ.

Similarly, most procedures to do something are guided not by arbitrary reasons, but instead are sequenced because of inherent constraints.  These constraints guide the proper procedures.  There’s a reason you do X before Y, and then a causal relationship that explains what you look for before deciding to do W instead of Z.

Too often, I see someone presenting learners with an arbitrary list of different things, when there are conceptual reasons why they differ. Similarly, I’ll see steps presented without a rationale for why. And in both cases, learners will remember better, and perform more robustly (particularly in environments with changes), if they have the model that explains what to do as well as the information.  While this might seem like more information, it’s really not, as the model minimizes the amount of arbitrary information you present. And it leads to better outcomes, so it would be worth it anyways.

Models give us a couple of useful things; they help us explain what has happened, and predict what will happen (e.g. if we do A, we’ll see B).  Which makes us more flexible in our actions, a useful trait.  As an aside, models also can draw upon metaphors to facilitate developing a useful understanding. Whether it’s flows, transformations, whatever, finding a concrete equivalent in the world can help recollection and application.

The problem, of course, is getting the model. It’s not always there, nor even easily inferable.  Which doesn’t mean you can ignore it.  The designer must be willing to work until they can understand it.  But it’s doable, and valuable.

So, please, model your learning design on the model of good learning with models. (Ok, I went too far there :)


  1. I find case studies, games, and/or simulations really help. My training is in experiential learning so I always begin with a shared experience, whether it is online or face to face. This allows an instructor to identify what the learner already knows and build on it. Starting with a shared experience followed by some key reflective questions helps students/trainees identify key questions for themselves, making learning more relevant. The next step is generalization which an instructor could either help learners develop their own model (for their own circumstances/environment) or present them with a model. As you note, this allows for processes and a representation of the concepts within different situations. I then end with an authentic assessment (in workplace, have them do a task which requires they apply their learning).

    Currently I ‘m teaching an online course in group communication which begins with readings and a case which incorporates all elements of the reading. I’m surprised at how effective the case is as I’ve never attempted to use a case in an online course. what I have found is that the case gives a shared experience in which different people identify different factors dependent upon their background, experience, and level of knowledge. I have also used games with the same outcomes.

    Comment by Virginia Yonkers — 16 July 2014 @ 9:03 AM

  2. Virginia, thanks for the share. I agree that sims, cases, and games are great ways to apply the knowledge, and it can be useful to have them collaboratively create the model (er, with guidance), but I will suggest there are times when it makes more sense to provide models and have them work on applying them. Now, to think about when each makes sense :).

    Comment by Clark — 16 July 2014 @ 11:23 AM

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