People with little knowledge or experience in a domain will have knowledge gaps, difficulty solving problems and become easily overwhelmed. Compared to an expert, a novice will have a limited network of mental structures or schemas related to the subject, a reduced ability to make relevant perceptual discriminations, fewer paths for recalling information and inaccurate or fuzzy mental models resulting in less competent problem solving. How can you design for novice learners?
When designing for novices, we need to accommodate their mental structures in order to bring them to a level of competency as gracefully as possible. Here are five strategies that you may find helpful when designing for novice learners.
1. Focus Only on the Most Important Skills
Key to the design is to avoid overwhelming beginning learners. Consider how can you whittle down the information, yet still address its complexity. Focus on the essential skills they require in the workplace and the knowledge that supports these skills. Remove anything that does not support the skills you want to teach. For starters, learn more about Action Mapping for your content analysis.
2. Motivate Novice Learners
Some people dread learning something new—they may find it overwhelming, they may be biased against the subject or perhaps they’re not thrilled with online learning. We all know that motivation improves learning, so make your next course relatable.
Let learners know from the start how the training will benefit them. Maybe it will make work easier or faster or maybe it will make them safer. Perhaps they’ll be able to leap over a building in a single jump. Whatever it is, make the course beneficial to their lives. And when possible, try to keep things engaging, interactive and on the lighter side.
3. Use Well-organized Content
The key to efficient encoding in long-term memory and fast retrieval of information is a well-organized network of knowledge. Beginners don’t have an orderly and organized framework in which to fit their new knowledge and skills. You can help this situation by providing visuals that show how the course’s information fits together. Most important, provide novice learners with content that’s logically organized and aligned to how they will use the information. See the different ways you can organize instructional content. Also, help learners organize information on their own, by creating concepts maps, tables and diagrams.
4. Relate Content to Something Known
If you’re writing a course for novices, they may have very little familiarity with the content. When a person has no frame of reference, it’s difficult to learn something new. To ease the transition into a new universe, relate the new content to something learners already know. There are many ways to connect previous knowledge with new knowledge through elaboration.
You can do this explicitly by directly referencing the known, as in, “You already know how to enter time into a time sheet by hand, this new automated system is based on the same concept.” Or use an analogy to assist understanding. For example, “You know the frustration of opening a file drawer to find that some folders are missing and you don’t know where they are. Patients in the early stage of dementia experience something similar with their own memory loss.”
5. Provide Feedback
A key to helping a novice learner gain proficiency is to provide valuable feedback. In eLearning design, there are ways to go beyond the superficial type of correct and incorrect feedback. If a course is self-paced, then provide supplemental opportunities to support training at work. One learning intervention is not sufficient for getting competent in a domain.
6. Use A Spiral Approach
Throughout the course, try to spiral around and touch on previously taught content, particularly when learners are practicing. If you can unobtrusively refer to information in earlier topics or include lower-level skills when practicing higher-level problem solving, you increase the opportunities for learners to build a strong network of knowledge. See What is a spiral curriculum? for more on this approach.