Step 4: supportive info (by design)

This entry is part 9 of 21 in the series Ten Steps to Complex Learning (the book).

Getting to Step 4, “design supportive information,” feels like a new stage in Ten Steps to Complex Learning.

As the diagram shows, the first three steps relate most closely to learning tasks; steps 4, 5, and 6 relate to the supportive information component of van Merriënboer and Kirschner’s blueprint.

[Supportive information] bridges the gap between what learners already know and what they should know to fruitfully work on the non-recurrent aspects of learning tasks…

Remember, “supportive information” always mean support for non-recurrent aspects of complex skills–the things you do differently when handling different problems.  (The things you do the same each time fall under “procedural information.”  It’ll be a few more posts before I get there.)

So what is supportive information?  First, it’s information about how to solve problems in a particular domain (including how the domain is organized).  It includes examples that illustrate such information.  And it includes cognitive feedback on the quality of the learner’s performance.

You could call it the theory for a field.  In fact, this is where well-meant complex training often goes bad.  “We don’t have much time, so we can’t do any hands-on.  Let’s concentrate on the theory.”

The main parts of the chapter:

  • Providing systematic approaches and domain models
  • Illustrating those approaches and models
  • Presentation strategies
  • Cognitive feedback
  • Supporting information in the training blueprint

Strategies and models: teaming up for learning

Strategy: you've got two.  Which will they eat?A systematic approach to problem-solving (SAP) is a cognitive strategy; it helps you perform tasks and solve problems in a given field–systematically.  vM&K will go further into SAPs in the next chapter.  For now, in terms of learning complex skills, a learner might study an SAP, or might work with a process worksheet that guides him through a task.

Mental models also provide support.  They explain the arrangement of the field–via conceptual models, structural models, and causal models.

The two work together: a cognitive strategy isn’t any good if you don’t have a good mental model of the field; and the mental model’s no good unless you have an effective way to solve problems in that field.

The goal of SAPs is to help the learner establish meaningful relationships among new pieces of information, and to establish meaningful relationships between those new elements and what she already knows.  Suggestions from The Ten Steps:

  • When discussing phases, the learning methods should stress sequence and consequence.  You do job aid analysis after task analysis, because you need to know details about the tasks; you do job aid analysis before designing learning material, because job aids eliminate memorization.
  • When discussing rules of thumb (a significant part of many cognitive strategies), the learning methods should stress cause-effect relationships–effect being the goal of the learner, and cause being what the learner needs to do to bring about the effect.

Those seem closely related to me.  My guess is that the first bullet (“temporal organization” in vM&K’s terms) has to do with broader processes, while the “change relationship”  deals more specifically with decisions and actions.  That at least aligns with the idea that you have both high-level or global SAPs and more detailed ones.

Keeping the model in mind

If SAPs are how experts do things, mental models are how they see things.

Conceptual models help answer the question, “What is this?”  A financial advisor needs to understand the difference between stocks, CDs, options, bonds, mutual funds, 401Ks, 403Bs, IRAs, SEPs, and other types of investment forms and structures.  Some instructional methods to facilitate this:

  • Analyze a particular idea into smaller ideas (what kinds of tax-deferred accounts are there?).
  • Describe main features or characteristics (an SEP is a tax-deferred retirement structure for self-employed people; a mutual fund is a form of indirect investment).
  • Present a more general idea or organizing framework (connect principles of web page design to overall user-interface design).
  • Compare and contrast similar ideas (an ordinary web site compared with a blog).

Simple mental model: affinity diagramSince we’re comparing and contrasting, structural models answer the question, “How is this organized?”  The typical focus is on the spatial or temporal relationship of parts.  What-happens-when models (which vM&K call scripts) might include things like life cycles (for organisms or for processes).  What’s-where models (templates) explain how things fit together. Among methods for aiding learning:

  • Explain the relative location of elements in time and space.  (What are the components of a memorandum of law?  Of a court brief?)
  • Rearrange elements and predict effects.  (What if you move elements within the style sheet?  Will digitized video of an actual performer aid or detract from learning?

Causal models focus on how elements affect each other.  These models help learners interpret processes and make predictions.  They answer the question, “How does this work?”  The simplest form is a principle (for example, the law of supply and demand).  An interrelated set of principles is a theory (for natural phenomena like evolution) or a functional model (for human-built systems).  Methods for presenting causal models stress relationships:

  • Make a prediction of future states.  (What will happen if we post federal earmarks, with locations, amounts, and sponsoring legislator?)
  • Explain a particular state of affairs.  (Why is customer satisfaction o much higher in District Five than in Districts Three and Four?)

Expertise: you can’t practice theory

The eight bullets above, suggesting ways to present cognitive strategies and mental models, are expository.  They don’t provide any practice.  The bulk of this chapter of the Ten Steps deals with how to illustrate strategies and models, and how to activate prior knowledge and elaboration.

In other words: the support needs to make things concrete, and needs to put learners to work.

In instructional materials, modeling examples and case studies are the external counterparts of internal memories, proving a bridge between the supportive information and the learning tasks.


For providing supportive information, modeling examples illustrate SAPs and case studies illustrate domain models, while these same two approaches may be seen as learning tasks with maximum task support.

One criticism of much advanced training is that it’s too theoretical.  vM&K would say, “Well, duh!”  (Perhaps they’d say something more diplomatic.)  Real cognitive strategies combine theory (strategies and models) with real-life practice; otherwise you’re dealing only with abstractions.

Modeling examples (you remember them as part of learning tasks) bring out the expert performer’s hidden mental processes.   One valuable form is seeing how the expert responds when things don’t work out.  How does she respond to the problem?  What does she see, what does she try?  Psychologists in training, for example, study videotaped sessions in which experienced therapists demonstrate specific techniques and strategies.

Case studies, according to the Ten Steps, embody the types of models mentioned earlier.  A programmer might examine a successful interface to develop models for concepts like user-friendliness, metaphors, dialog boxes, and so on.  A structural-model case study might have architects exploring a building and analyzing how well the materials used fit the original purpose.

I’m going to stop here.  Next time, I’ll look at how to match models and case studies with specific types of presentation.  I’ll also go into elaboration, a key requirement for supportive information, and into the way that supportive information in general fits into the Ten Steps blueprint.

CC-licensed sales-strategy image by bschmove.
CC-licensed affinity diagram by Rosenfeld Media.
CC-licensed bridge photo by tour of boring.

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