Friday, October 29, 2010

6 Techniques that Stimulate Recall in eLearning

By Shelley A. Gable

If you’re familiar with Gagne’s nine events of instruction, you know that one of the early steps in the instructional design model involves stimulating recall of learners’ prior knowledge. Typically, this step is listed after gaining attention and stating the training’s objectives.

Why stimulate prior knowledge toward the beginning of an eLearning lesson?
  • It helps learners retain newly learned information by building on existing knowledge.
  • It can serve as a brief review of recently learned information that the subsequent content is intended to build upon.

So what can we do to stimulate recall of prior knowledge in an eLearning lesson?

--1-- Ask learners to describe a related personal experience.
For example, when starting training related to customer service skills, you might ask learners to recall their own experiences of receiving good and/or bad service and identify the characteristics of those experiences.

--2-- Prompt learners to brainstorm ideas related to the content.
For example, training related to coaching employees might start by presenting an employee issue and asking learners to list possible ways to respond to it.

--3-- Quiz learners on related knowledge they already have.
Pose a series of knowledge check questions that quiz learners on related knowledge that the lesson builds on.

--4-- Prompt learners to start solving a problem, applying existing knowledge.
For instance, you might present a basic scenario that a learner can partially resolve with existing knowledge. Then, elaborate on the scenario in a way that the learner can fully resolve with the help of the newly presented content.

--5-- Ask learners to anticipate elements of the upcoming content.
For example, product training might ask learners to list examples of questions customers might ask about the products or list features of similar products they’re familiar with.

--6-- Ask learners to identify what they already know and what they don’t know about a particular topic.
Admittedly, this technique may be challenging within an eLearning lesson, but it could be facilitated in the instructor-led portion of a blended training approach. This technique can also function to gain learners’ attention at the start of training and prompt them to set learning goals.

While these are all potentially effective methods for stimulating recall or prior knowledge (depending on your audience, the content, etc.), here are two cautions to keep in mind when designing this portion of the training:
  • Avoid spending too much time on a rote review of existing knowledge. While it may be worthwhile to spend time on an activity that inspires learners to view existing knowledge in a different light, learners will likely grow impatient with a review that feels basic and lacks new insight.
  • If the training content contradicts learners existing knowledge, then you may need to use this “recall” step to make a case for the need to change and gain buy-in. A solid change management strategy can help with this.

What additional advice would you offer on this topic? What other techniques have you used to stimulate recall of prior knowledge?

Monday, October 25, 2010

eLearning and an Aging Workforce

By Shelley A. Gable

It seems like every major news outlet runs the occasional story about how the United States workforce is aging. Between baby boomers approaching retirement and retirees reentering the workforce to supplement their income, statistics from a variety of sources indicate that a large proportion of our workforce is 50+.

So what does this mean for eLearning?

Interestingly, in the past two years, I’ve known two instructional designers, in two different organizations, who were a part of teams that were tasked with answering this question for their companies. In both instances, my colleagues found literature that described what eLearning should look like for older learners. However, they also found inconsistent research results on the topic.

In the end, each team concluded that it wasn’t necessary to design eLearning differently based on the age distribution of a particular population. Instead, they suggested that the proper application of sound instructional design principles would ensure that all age groups received appropriate training.

Let’s take a look at some of the considerations that emerged for both teams…

A common stereotype of older generations is that they struggle with technology. Clearly this is a broad generalization that isn’t true for many, but we have to admit that it is true for some. I have several friends who, like myself, regularly receive phone calls from our not-yet-retired parents seeking troubleshooting for something seemingly basic on the computer.

That said, well-designed eLearning should feel intuitive and guide learners on where to click if a particular screen is somehow different from the rest. If your organization regularly deploys eLearning, templates that offer a consistent look and feel across courses can also make eLearning easier to use. And of course, an instructions page at the start of each eLearning course (with an “instructions” or “help” button available throughout the course) can also help everyone start with confidence.

A common theme in the literature addressing generations and learning preferences is that older generations tend to prefer a linear learning structure while younger generations prefer a more exploratory structure. Maybe this is true, maybe it’s not. Regardless, this is an area where instructional design principles can guide us.

For designers who consider learning style differences (and I realize that there’s debate in the field around the significance of learning styles), the preferences expressed by older and younger learners are consistent with a common dichotomy found in several learning style and personality type models. Many of these models include four types, where a couple of these types tend toward linear thinking and a couple prefer random or non-sequential thinking. Therefore, those in the habit of designing in a way that caters to varying styles are likely already accommodating these generational differences as well.

To consider this from another angle, we know that we should sequence instruction to build from simple to complex content. We also know that adult learners enter training with experience and knowledge that we must acknowledge. If we linger too long in teaching familiar basics, we risk losing learners’ attention and the course’s credibility. But yet, those unfamiliar with the basics may struggle with more advanced content without ample time in the “simple” end of the continuum. So surely, even the more linear learners would appreciate bypassing familiar content in favor of focusing on what they need to know. Again, the key here is clear instructions for the learner and a logical, even intuitive, interface.

In the design phase of a training project, we should consider what types of flexibility might be designed into the course. For instance, I recently took an online compliance course that suggested a linear flow for working through the content, but also allowed learners to skip around. In the end, I had to correctly resolve five scenarios in the course in order to successfully complete it. I could either complete a series of lessons that led up to each scenario, or I could jump to the scenario and the feedback would tell me what lessons I should complete based on my incorrect answers. As one who likes to jump around and explore, I was satisfied with this design. And the linear path that was suggested at the beginning of the course would likely satisfy those with a sequential preference.

What do you think?

Using the insights my colleagues discussed with me, I’ve attempted to build a case here suggesting that we don’t need to design eLearning differently to accommodate our aging workforce, as long as we’re basing our design on sound instructional principles anyway. But I don’t doubt that there are compelling arguments to suggest otherwise that I might not have considered yet. So if some of those opposing arguments come to mind for you, please share!