Procedural in practice

This entry is part 14 of 21 in the series Ten Steps to Complex Learning (the book).

This is a continuation of the previous post about Step 7, design procedural information.

When you design effective procedural information, it can take these forms:

  • Just-in-time (JIT) display of rules, procedures, and prerequisite knowledge.
  • Demonstrations
  • Examples

Van Merriënboer and Kirschner emphasize that demonstrations show rules and procedures being put into practice; examples (or “instances”) are concrete depictions of facts, concepts, or principles.

When to do “what to do?”

Not the best procedural informationThe Ten Steps model recommends that learners have procedural information available at the time they’re performing the relevant tasks.  In part, that’s to reduce the burden on working memory.

Which explains why job aids make so much sense–the performer doesn’t need to learn (which means “memorize”) the procedure in the job aid.  Instead, the performer only needs to learn to use the job aid when performing the task.

vM&K see three presentation strategies:

  • Unsolicited presentation is spontaneous presentation of information–for example by an instructor or a really, really smart computer system.
  • On-demand presentation is the procedural information that the learner or performer requests while going through the task.
  • Memorization in advance means that learners memorize the procedural information before they need it, and then recall it on the job.

In theory, the unsolicited strategy is ideal.  Implementing it on this planet is challenging: how can a human instructor/facilitator recognize when to provide as-needed procedural information without the learner’s request?  Skilled coaches aim to do this, but calling someone a coach doesn’t make him one, any more than wearing cowboy boots turns you into a ranch hand.

vM&K suggest presenting the procedural information with the first task in a class of learning tasks.  This makes sense, since procedural information is aimed at the entry-level learner.  For subsequent tasks, though, the problem remains of how to provide that unsolicited guidance without interfering with the performer.

On-demand presentation of procedural information “precisely when students need it, is the best way to facilitate knowledge compilation.”

Split screens may mean split attentionvM&K give three guidelines for presenting JIT information:

  • Use small, modular units
  • Write in an action-oriented style
  • Avoid split attention

The modular units of procedural information should stand on their own, because you can’t predict which unit the learner will choose at any point.  You may not be able to make them completely independent from one another, but the lowest-level learner should be able to make use of one unit without have to refer to others.

Action-oriented writing means that you’re inviting the learner to perform whatever the recurrent parts of the task are.  I thought this was obvious until I saw vM&K’s examples of ineffective versus effective approaches:

You can choose the REMOVE command.
The text has now been removed.
(Note: instead of the REMOVE command,
you could also use DELETE or BACKSPACE.)

Pretty fustian, huh?  But look at this alternative for a different task:

Quickly browsing a text

Press the key a few times to see what happens.

The key and  key work in almost the same way. Try them out.

That’s a mighty lean approach.  vM&K are strictly avoiding explanation.  The clear title, they seem to think, is enough to tell the learner “these are the steps for browsing text in this application.”  And the procedural information is always the same: down arrow moves you down; right and left arrows (I presume) move you along the lines of text.

I don’t know that I’d have chosen this sparing an approach, but I see several advantages.  One of them, less obvious to me at first, is that it encourages the learner to do stuff.  I can imagine some discomfort or complaint initially as training moved away from the small-dose spoon-fed approach.  Overall, though, I’m struck by this, and a little nonplussed that it surprised me as much as it did.

Minimal manuals: the least you can do

Ten Steps encourages the use of minimal procedural information (as advocated by John Carroll, for example).  What does that look like?

  • Goal-directed guidance: organize the procedures around goals that learners recognize, not functions or menu structure embedded in the system.

E.g., “how to send files” rather than “using the FTP client.”  “Sending email,” not “about the address book.”

  • Active learning and exploration: encourage the learner to work on whole tasks, to try different things with the current set of tasks.
  • Error recovery: include ways to help the learner recognize errors and recover from them.  “What to do if things go wrong…”

When memorization won’t help

A few things to keep in mind?Memorization ahead of time, as a way to deliver procedural information, generally doesn’t work, according to the Ten Steps. It’s a challenge to identify which information you’ll have people memorize. More important, by definition you’re separating the information from the task.

Let’s say you’re teaching how to deliver a PowerPoint presentation. vM&K argue  (and I agree) that it’s better to teach someone how to present and, in context, provide information on how to blank and unblank the screen, or how to easily go against the linear sequence of the slides.

This is opposed to having people memorize alt-B or type-slide-number-and-press-enter ahead of time. Without the task-specific context, learners can end up with fragments of knowledge. Apart from which, memorization is dull.

Corrective feedback

Back in the discussion of Step 4 (design supportive information), the Ten Steps presented cognitive feedback as a way to encourage the learner to reflect on the problem-solving process and on the solutions she’s found.  In contrast, corrective feedback relates to procedural tasks; the purpose is to help the learner detect and correct errors.

“Well-designed feedback should inform the learner that there was an error and why there was an error…without simply saying what the correct action is.”

The feedback might include a hint, such as an example or demonstration of the correct performance; this is critical to learning-by-doing. Telling the learner what to do means he’s not compiling the knowledge for himself.

…which is one of the definitions of  “learning,” isn’t it?

CC-licensed images:
Office procedure image by cybertoad.
Split-screen woman by Sarah606.
Google reader keyboard shortcuts by dltq.

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