Teaching and Learning Techniques

Learning is not a one-way "push" model

 Learners are not "empty vessels" waiting to be filled with content pushed into it by an expert. Learning is something that happens between the learner's ears--it's a form of co-creation between the learner and the learning experience. We can't create new pathways in someone's head... our job is to create an environment where the chances of the learner "getting it" in the way that you intend are as high as possible.


Provide a meaningful benefit for each topic, in the form of "why you should care about this" scenario.

Learning is much more effective if the learner's brain knows why what you're about to talk about matters. The benefit and/or reason why you should learn something needs to come before the actual content. Otherwise, the learner's brain gets to the end of what you're telling them and says, "Oh, NOW you tell me. If you'd said that earlier, I would have paid more attention..." This process of not-paying-attention is not completely within the learner's conscious control so, like I said, even if the person is motivated to learn this thing, their brain can still tune out during specific parts that don't start with a compelling benefit.


To find a "meaningful benefit", play the "Why? Who Cares? So What?" game with someone else. Describe the thing you're trying to explain, to which the other person asks, "Why?" Provide an answer, to which the person then asks, "Who cares?". Provide an answer, to which the person asks, "So?" At this point, when you're nearly ready to kill them for not getting it, you probably have the thing you should have said instead of whatever you said first (and second). The most compelling and motivating reason/benefit is almost always the thing you say only after you've answered at least three "Yeah, but WHY do I care?" questions.


Use Visuals

 We are all visual creatures, and the brian can process visual information far more efficiently than words. These pictures can come in many forms:

  • Information graphic or diagram
  • Visual metaphor
  • Picture of the thing being described, with annotations
  • Picture of the end state
  • Picture designed to create attention and recall

Use redundancy to increase understanding and retention

Redundancy doesn't mean repetition--it means "say the same thing again, but differently." And "differently" can mean:

  • From a different perspective.
  • Using a different information channel - channels include things like:
    •  Graphics
    • Examples
    • Prose explanations
    • Step-by-step instruction/tutorial
    • Case studies
    • Exercises, summaries
    • Bullet points
    • Commentary
    • Devil's advocate
    • Q & A
    • Personal point of view, etc.

Also, the more senses you engage, the greater the potential for retention and recall. Even having a bowl of just-popped popcorn or the smell of freshly-baked cookies while learning, can make a difference. Bummer about web-delivered content, though...

Being terse is good for a reference document, but deadly in learning content. The best learning experience considers the way you'd learn that particular thing in real life -- but offers it in a safe, simulated, compressed form. Real-life learning is never terse; it's chaos and confusion punctuated with moments of insight ("Ah-ha!") and clarity. It's a wave, not a straight line. A learning blog, book, or classroom shouldn't try to straighten it out!


Use Conversational Language

The brain pays more attention when it thinks it's in a conversation and must "hold up its end." And there's evidence that suggests your brain behaves this way even if the "conversation" is between a human (you) and a book or computer screen (or lecture).

Use mistakes, failures, and counter-intuitive examples

  People usually learn much more from failures than from being shown everything working correctly or as expected.

The most memorable learning experiences are usually those where things are going along fine, making sense, etc. when you suddenly slam into something that goes terribly wrong. Describing the things that do NOT work is often more effective than showing how things DO work.

But showing is even better than describing. And even better than showing is letting the learner experience. Take the learner down a garden path where everything makes perfect sense until it explodes. They are far more likely to remember than if you simply say, "Oh, and be sure you do it such and such a way."

It's tempting to want to protect the learners from the bumps and scrapes experienced in the real world, but in many cases (with many topics) you aren't doing the learner any favors.


Use the principle of SHOW-don't-TELL

Rather than lecture about the details of how something works, let them experience how it works by walking them through a story or scenario, where they can feel the bumps along the way.

Use "chunking" to reduce cognitive overhead

  Remember, we have very little short-term memory (RAM) in our heads. The standard rule is that we can hold roughly 7 things before we must either commit some of it to long-term storage or toss it out to take in something new. And the things you hold in short-term memory vanish as soon as there is an interruption. You look up a phone number, and as long as you repeat it to yourself and nobody asks you a question, you can remember it--usually just long enough to dial the number. By the time you finish talking to the person on the other end of the line, the number is long gone.

Chunking takes fine-grained data/facts/knowledge and puts them into meaningful or at least memorable chunks to help reduce the number of things you have to hold in short-term memory, and increase the chance of retention and recall. For example, imagine you were asked to take 30 seconds to memorize the "code symbols" displayed to the left of this text for the numbers 1-10.

You'd be lucky to get 60% correct in a follow-up quiz given immediately after those 30 seconds. There are simply too many symbols to memorize in such a short time, and there's no instantly obvious way to relate them to one another.

But... with one simple change to the way in which the symbols are presented--and without changing the symbols:

 30 seconds gets most people to 100% accuracy in the follow-up quiz. In other words, by grouping the symbols into a meaningful, memorable pattern, we reduce the number of individual (and potentially arbitrary) things you have to memorize, and increase the chances.


Do everything possible to make the learner feel relaxed and confident

Since stress/anxiety can reduce focus and memory, do everything possible to make the learner feel relaxed and confident.

That does not mean dumbing-down the material, but rather letting the learner know that -- "This IS confusing -- so don't worry if it's still a little fuzzy at this point. It will start to come together once you've worked through the rest of the examples." In other words, let them know that they aren't stupid for not getting it at this point. For especially difficult and complex topics, let the learner know where they should be at each stage, and help them decide whether they need to go back and repeat something. Make sure they know that this repetition is part of the normal learning process, not something they must do because they failed.

If you're worried about being patronizing, then don't patronize. Just be honest about what it takes for people to learn that content. But you can't do that unless you know how hard it is for a beginner to learn it. As experts, we have a tough time remembering what it was like NOT TO KNOW, so if you're not sure, do the research. One of the best ways to find out what newcomers struggle with is to visit online discussion forums for beginners in your topic. This is also a great way to come up with a table-of-contents or topic list, because what you THINK should be a no-brainer might be the one thing everyone gets stuck on, and what you think would be confusing could turn out to be easy for most people.

The point is, YOU are not necessarily the best judge of how your audience will learn the topic. And empathy rarely helps -- you cannot truly put yourself in someone else's shoes unless their brain and background are a very close match for yours. You have to find out what your learners are struggling with, and suspend any judgment about "This should be a no-brainer."

Those who have taught a topic have a big advantage writing about it--they've fielded the questions and watched people struggle. They know how things should be "weighted" according to how difficult they are. But you can learn almost as much simply by lurking on beginner discussion forums (or attending user group sessions for newbies).


Use seduction, charm, mystery to build curiosity

  Use seduction, charm, mystery to build curiosity.

We're hard-wired to pay attention and pursue things we're attracted to. This isn't about selling them on an idea--it's about helping them stay engaged and learning. Knowing what--and when--to withhold is one of the most powerful tools you have. If you're writing reference material (like this tutorial), withholding will just piss people off. But in a learning experience, you want a page-turner. And don't even think about suggesting that "page-turner" doesn't apply to, say, technical material. If the purpose is learning, the learner has to stay engaged. It's up to you to craft an experience that keeps them hooked. This engagement might be within a single post, or you might offer little cliffhangers or teasers to keep them engaged across multiple posts, if that's what it takes to cover a topic.


Use a spiral model to keep users engaged

Game developers know the importance of "The Next Level", and learning experiences must do the same. Each iteration through the spiral should start with a meaningful, motivating goal, followed by the interaction/activity/reading that moves you toward that goal, followed by a meaningful payoff. Ideally, the "meaningful payoff" leads right into the next motivating goal.

For example, in a game the payoff for completing a level might be "You Get A New Weapon". But now that you have that new weapon, here's the cool new thing you can do that you couldn't do before. Learning doesn't need to be any different. "Imagine you want to do X in your course..." is the goal that starts the topic, but when the topic is complete, the learning content can say, "Now that you have THAT new [superpower capability], wouldn't it be cool if you could do Y?" And off they go into the next round of learning.


Don't rob the learner of the opportunity to think

Rather than simply spelling everything out step by step, ask questions, pose multiple and potentially conflicting viewpoints, show the topic from different perspectives, and set up scenarios (and possibly exercises) that allow the learner to use deeper brain processing. Things that encourage deeper thinking are those that cause the learner to categorize, organize, apply, infer, evaluate, etc. Don't be afraid to pose questions that you don't answer right away.

Think back to those teachers you had who would ask a question then immediately answer it, as opposed to those who would answer a question then just sit there... waiting...

 Use the 80/20 principle to reduce cognitive overload

 It's far more important that they nail the key things than be exposed to everything. Be brutal, be brave, be relentless in what you leave out. Knowing what NOT to include is more important in learning design than knowing what TO include.


Context Matters

Try to place facts, concepts, procedures, examples in a bigger context. Even if you've already discussed the context, don't be afraid to repeat that context again. For example, instead of always showing isolated calculations, show the individual calculations within the larger context of where it usually appears. Highlight the calculation you're focused on by bolding it, putting it in a box, etc., so that the learner is not overwhelmed by the number of steps to a solution, and can focus on just the part you're talking about, but still be able to see how that new calculation relates to the rest of the problem.

Never underestimate the power of FUN to keep people engaged

The act of having fun is also an emotion, so anything associated with fun has a greater chance of being remembered.


Use Stories

Humans have been learning from stories for, well, a really really really long time. Millenia longer than we've been learning from lectures on just the data and information. When we say "stories", we don't necessarily mean actual fictional "Margaret had an offer from a German pharmaceutical company...", although those do work. But a "story" can simply mean that you're asking the learner to imagine herself wanting to do a particular thing, and then offering an experience of what that would be like if she were actually trying to accomplish it, with all the ups, downs, false leads, etc. (but again, with less of the actual pain she might experience in real life). A flight simulator, for example, is a kind of story.You aren't just up there learning the controls; you're actually flying in a particular storyline.

If you're a math instructor, another way to think about story-driven learning is to map formulas to real-life situations. Base your learning content around uses in the corporate environment, and put the learner in the center of the scenarios. One easy trick for designing story-driven learning is to start each topic with something like, "Imagine you want to do..." and then walk though that experience. It makes the learning organic and real, and helps make sure you get rid of the stuff that doesn't need to be there. If it doesn't show up in a story, are you so sure you should be teaching it?


Use pacing and vary the parts of the brain you're exercising

Learning--and especially memorization--doesn't happen at an even pace. Brains--or especially parts of brains--get tired and lose focus. By varying the pace--and type--of learning content, you give a user's brain the chance to let one part rest while the other part takes over. For example, follow a heavy left-brain technical procedure with a big-picture example/story that covers the same topic. This helps the learner's memory in two different ways--the redundancy means two different chances to save the information, and the fact that you gave one part of the brain a break while shifting to a different part keeps their brain working longer without fatigue.

Think about it--if you hopped up and down on your right foot repeatedly, that right leg would give up after fewer repetitions than if you kept switching from right to left. Pacing--by frequently switching which parts of your body (or in this case, brain) you're using--lets you stay fresher for a longer period.

Also, recording something to long-term memory is rarely instant (although the stronger the associated emotion, the faster (and more likely) your brain is to record it). Memory is a physical/chemical process that happens after you've been exposed to something, and if anything interrupts the process, the memory is not stored. That's why people with serious head injuries often cannot remember what took place just prior to the injury--the process of recording those things to long-term memory was stopped.

If you want someone to remember something, you must give them a chance to process that memory. Relentlessly presenting new, tough information (like tons of calculations and complex concepts) without also including chances to reflect, process, think, apply, review, etc. virtually guarantees that much of the learning will be forgotten.

A number of the techniques defined on this page were derived from the Passionate:Creating passionate users blog and eLearning Guru website.