During a presentation I gave several years ago, 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 comprehend it if the concept is explained by a peer,” he said.
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. Not only does this mean we would need an empathetic perspective, but that we would actually try to understand the knowledge structures of these learners.
Schemas are Knowledge Structures
Theoretical knowledge structures, known as schematas or schemas in cognitive psychology, refer to the way we organize and store knowledge in long-term memory. A schema is thought to be a network of information that represents concepts, situations, events, and actions in memory. Schemas incorporate all of this into a single framework, acting as a mental shortcut to help us quickly understand, interpret and react to the world.
Cognitive psychologists theorize that we rely on schemas to reconstruct memories of events. When a concept is presented, schemas get activated and in turn, activate associated schemas. Because the schemas are not perfect replications, our reconstructed memories are not perfect either.
A simple example of a schema for the category “typography” might include these concepts: designing with letters, font styles, readability, legibility. Although your schemas change as you learn and gain experience, when someone mentions typography, you have a general idea of what they mean and perhaps a positive or negative memory of trying to design slide titles.
The Curse of Knowledge
When people are acquiring information or a new skill, their knowledge structures are more limited, less organized and have fewer connections than those 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? Experts find it difficult to remember what it’s like to be a novice—a deadly condition we all know of 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
As a network of knowledge, schemas influence the way new information is integrated. Therefore, when new information is not connected to a schema, it is difficult to recall. And information that is inconsistent with a person’s schemas is also difficult to recall. Imagine it just floating around somewhere in the mind. That’s why it’s important to have a sense of a learner’s current knowledge network, so that you can design for it.
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. People don’t change their schemas simply because an expert or instructor says something else is true. 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.
In human-centered design approaches, such as Design Thinking and Game Thinking, designers are encouraged to use empathetic techniques to better understand audience members and users. Through conversations, interviews and observations, we can attempt to discover how people think and organize certain concepts. The goal is to find out what learners already know and how they perceive the world by asking them and discussing their answers. If you can discover what is in the brains of your learners during analysis and design, you may be less likely to go back and revise because training wasn’t effective. 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?
- Observe them performing related tasks at work
- Chat with them informally
- Interview them
- Give them a relevant survey with open-ended questions
- Provide opportunities for virtual chats before and after they’ve taken a course
- Encourage user-generated content
- Try the flipped learning approach where learners view content ahead of time. Then synchronous events consist of conversation and dialog.
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.