Can you read the minds of your learners?

During a recent presentation, an audience member commented that he teaches older adults how to use software programs. When these adult students don’t understand a concept, they are more likely to “get it” if  the concept is explained by a peer.

Someone wondered if this was because peers are more likely to have similar knowledge structures compared to the knowledge structures of the instructor. I think this is a logical explanation.

The implication here is that we could design more effective learning experiences if we approached a subject as though we were the peers of the target audience. To do this, we’d need to understand the knowledge structures of these learners.

Knowledge Structures

Mental knowledge structures, known as schemas in cognitive psychology, are the constructs we use to organize and store knowledge in long-term memory. They incorporate multiple elements of information into a single framework with a specific function, such as forming a collection of generic properties to create a category. Schemas are a mental shortcut to help us quickly understand, interpret and react to the world.

A simple example of a schema for the category “sports car” might include these attributes: fast, expensive, small and shiny. Although your schemas change as you learn and gain experience, when someone mentions “sports car,” you have a general idea of what they mean.

Simple schema

The Curse of Knowledge

When people are learning a new skill or acquiring new information, their knowledge structures are more limited, less organized and have fewer connections than the knowledge structures of an expert. The schemas of an expert, according to theory, are richer, more complex and well-connected. This is why experts are generally competent problem solvers.

The downside? It’s often hard for an expert to remember what it’s like to be a novice—a deadly condition known as The Curse of Knowledge. When you know a lot about something, when your skills are advanced, it becomes hard to imagine not knowing it. That’s why experts are not always the best teachers.

You can overcome this predicament by understanding the schemas of your learners. It’s a critical skill for those who design learning experiences because learners can only understand something based on what they already know. Learning is analogical. That’s why a basic rule is to help learners recall prior knowledge.

Understanding Prior Knowledge

In the fascinating book, The Art of Changing the Brain, author James E. Zull develops several ideas about prior knowledge (though he discusses this in terms of neuronal networks):

  • Prior knowledge is based on each person’s life experiences.
  • Prior knowledge is persistent and is not easily swept away simply because an expert or instructor says something else is true. In this situation, an existing schema can hinder learning new information.
  • Prior knowledge is always the beginning of new knowledge; new knowledge builds on existing knowledge.
  • In order to communicate with someone, you need to find a common language based on prior knowledge.

How to Peer Into Brains

In a classroom or online chat environment, you can find out what learners already know and how they perceive the world by asking them and discussing their answers. Because this isn’t possible in a self-paced eLearning course, we must find ways to do it outside of the course.

If you can discover what is in the brains of your learners during analysis and design, you’re less likely to need to go back and revise. Still, discussions that occur after learning can also provide insight for future courses.

What are some ways to “read the minds” of a target population? As it relates to what is being taught:

  1. Observe them performing related tasks at work
  2. Chat with them informally
  3. Interview them
  4. Give them a relevant survey with open-ended questions
  5. Provide opportunities for virtual chats after they’ve taken the course
  6. Try the flipped learning approach so that all contact is interactive (Read about flipped learning in Technology Trends to Watch in 2012)

James Zull, the author referred to above, notes that in small classes, he asks students to explain their previous experience and also asks them specific questions that show their ideas of a concept. As a science professor, these questions might be something like, “Write what your idea of a gene is.” or “Draw your idea.” In this way, he peers into the brains of his students and designs learning experiences starting where their knowledge exists. Certainly we can learn from and incorporate this approach in the workplace.

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  1. Matthew Huggins says

    How much time I have with the student helps me determine how to approach the course.

    I teach clinical software to newly hired employees at a major health system. The other part of my job is creating eLearning modules that either zero in on software simulation or offer education to the entire health system population.

    Regardless of what I teach or what I produce, I start by defining what I want the user to take away from the learning. With that information I break it down into the simplest form possible and start piecing it back together.

    Being able to provide a story along the way helps the learner to retain the information.

    I like to build in checkpoints in each situation to check learning progress and allow the learners to test their knowledge.

  2. rfc says

    I love when you know an approach is correct, even before you learned about the brain science behind it. Re, “Learning is analogical…” Many years ago, the program director where I taught the Windows OS and apps to adult learners said I was the “Queen of Analogies.” An example: to teach about switching among applications, I would place a deck of cards (Solitaire), a little notepad (Notepad or Wordpad), a small hand calculator (Calc) and a paintbox (Paint) on the real desktop. I would switch among these, bringing them into the “foreground” as the Learners clicked on buttons on the taskbar, or used Alt+tab to switch among applications on their virtual desktops.

  3. stephanie says

    A strong audience analysis informs designers about learners’ motivation, learning preferences and challenges as well as their background knowledge in the subject area. This analysis will help the designer tailor instruction to novices versus expert learners, high school graduates versus college graduates, and new employees versus long-term employees. Instruction is not a one-size-fits all construct; therefore, a thorough audience analysis ensures that training meets the needs of all learners!


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