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The Serial Position Effect and Its Use in Training/Course Design

Introducing the Serial Position Effect

Have you heard about the Serial Position Effect?
Of course you have. When you are positioned at the beginning of a list, you feel as chirpy as a bird, and when you are at the end, your nose scrubs the floor. When you are in the middle, you are just there – nothing feels great or lousy, and it’s just another day! So that’s the Serial Position Effect! The Cognitive Psychologists explain in greater detail and their explanations help us formulate some quick tips for making our content interesting. But let’s begin by putting on our experiential shoes.

Serial Position Effect – An Activity

Here’s a list. Read it and then hide it. (Scroll down, click alt-tab to bring up the Beyonce Knowles or George Clooney screensaver, or do whatever you usually do to hide the content on your screen.) Next, jot down on a piece of paper, all the words that you remember.

  1. Poodle
  2. Tree
  3. Dance
  4. House
  5. Airport
  6. Sugar
  7. Child
  8. Ground
  9. Watch
  10. Squirrel
  11. Truck
  12. Building
  13. Hospital
  14. Pencil
  15. Terrace
  16. Lamp

Which are the words that you remembered. According to the Serial Position effect, you must definitely have remembered the terms Poodle and Lamp (the first and the last terms.) The other terms that you remember too would have a greater chance to be found either in the first or the last few terms in the list.

The Serial Position effect (Ebbinghaus) combines two effects:

  • The Primacy Effect (We remember what is at the beginning of a list.)
  • The Recency Effect (We also remember what is at the end of a list.)

The Primacy Effect:

The primacy effect is the outcome of our conscious effort to retain the learning. Recall your experience. Did you repeat the first few terms, trying to “commit” them to memory? You were trying to shift your learning from Short Term Memory to Long Term Memory. This effect wasn’t possible if I had asked you to read the list in 10 seconds, instead of allowing you to stretch the time according to your convenience.

The Recency Effect:

The Recency Effect is the result of “recency.” Recall that I didn’t ask you to wait for an hour before jotting down the terms, instead, I asked you to do it (immediately) after reading the list. Chances are few that you waited before listing the terms you remembered. This effect, thus, is lost when there’s a time-gap between reading the list and recalling the terms. Note that Recency Effect doesn’t require you to shift your learning from the Long Term Memory to the Short Term Memory!

Some other examples that illustrate the Recency Effect are:

  • Forgetting the names of the family members of a person introduced to you in the last party you attended. (You remembered them for the duration of your conversation with the person in question.)
  • Forgetting single-use phone numbers immediately after use.

In both these cases, you didn’t think that the “learning” (names/phone numbers) was important enough to be sent to the Long Term Memory.

Using The Serial Position Effect in Course/Training Design:

Let us put a stop to the theoretical discussion on the Serial Position Effect and review its impact on course/training design.

  • When you want your audience to remember something, put it either at the beginning or the end of your session/lecture/series of activities.
    Sloth: Now you know why the beginnings and the ends are so much more fun than the body of the session. The trainer is trying to obtain a happy “reaction” from the audience. The trainer is also aiming at leaving the audience with happy memories!

    Don’t worry about Sloth. He’s got this uncanny ability to turn the concepts upside-down (not inside-out.)

  • If you can structure your content in form of expandable lists, do it – but make sure that its got a chiseled midriff – put all the groovy stuff either at the top or at the bottom. (You know that the metaphor is unintentional – it just happened:-) But even if you think otherwise, please yourself!)
  • Break your longer lists into two or more columns. The learner’s mind will then perceive each list as a separate one and the Primacy Effect will help him/her remember more.

Sloth: You should train yourself to begin your content with “What the learner would gain” and end with “What the learner has gained!” Then you’ll have a successful training program, without having to design and deliver anything else!

Froth: Sloth’s right. Having patented his technique of designing “Beginning-to-End in 60 seconds” training programs, he’ll shortly make his first million!

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How Instructional Design Helps Content Writers, Instructional Designers, Trainers, Academicians, and Technical Writers?

This past Sunday, I conducted a three-hour Free Instructional Design Orientation session for individuals who wish to map their competencies to Instructional Design. Wavelength organizes these sessions 3 to 4 times a year and they give me an opportunity to understand the nature of questions that baffles many who wish to change their career path or improve their growth prospects by acquiring the knowledge of ID. The most common of these questions is – “How the knowledge of instructional design helps?”

This question originates from the term “instructional design” appearing in the employment advertisements for the professions indicated in the following list.

Let us see how this “set of skills” help:

  • Content Writers and Instructional Designers
  • Trainers
  • Teachers and Other Academicians
  • Technical Writers

Let me begin by establishing a contextually relevant definition of instructional design.

“Instructional Design is a set of cognitive skills that enable you to impart learning effectively.”

Content Writers and Instructional Designers:

Content Writers and Instructional Designers often engage in creating learning content for their audience. They use instructional design to ensure that the learning happens fast and stays anchored. Instructional design helps you achieve this effectiveness and efficiency, whether you write content for eLearning or for classroom delivery.

Trainers:

Trainers often create their own training plans and design their training programs in terms of activities, examples, and assessments. Instructional design could equip you with the cognitive psychology principles, and assist you in designing, developing, and implementing more effective training programs.

Teachers and Other Academicians:

Teachers of all disciplines, and at all levels, can apply the instructional design principles to ensure that their audience’s attention doesn’t stray and that the knowledge-transfer happens effectively and efficiently. ID enables you to create a balance between your passion for the subject and the learning needs of your learners.

Technical Writers:

This group of professionals, engage in creating the “How-To” literature for any product (hardware, software, or any device that operates in a specific manner.) Though as a technical writer you write crisp directions for your users, you can make your content even more relevant, efficient, and easy to understand/apply, if you can apply instructional design.

So, this is how instructional design finds application in the professions outlined above.

Another related question is – “What are the skills that you need to have, if you want to gain the most from the knowledge of instructional design?”
My next post will answer this question. You might want to return in a few days.

 

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Learning, Learning Mediums, and eLearning!

Let us continue our exploration of the phenomenon of learning. Remember learning is “acquisition” of knowledge, skills, and attitude. When we speak of acquiring something, we also speak of “someplace” from where it shall be acquired, thus, we refer to an “environment”.

So we can say that Learning results from an interaction between the learner and the environment. This interaction could be learner-driven or environment-driven, and it takes place through a “medium of communication.”

Let us understand it by analyzing the behavior of an old acquaintance, Ms. Froth. Froth wants to learn “how to blog.” Here’s how we can explain her behavior in the terminology that we’ve now “acquired.”

Froth (the learner) wishes to learn (the learning process is thus, learner-driven) “How to blog” (a skill to be acquired; if she already knows how to blog, but now wishes to learn how to blog more effectively, she’d be “modifying” a skill, which is another aspect of learning.) For this learning, she will have to interact with the environment (comprising her friends, colleagues, trainers, books, and of course – the Web,) through an appropriate communication medium (speech, text, training material, online content.)

You got it…right?
Now you are ready to lift the shroud of mystery that surrounds the learning mediums.

Simply put, a learning medium is a communication medium which is used for the purpose of learning.

Thus, you have:

  • Classroom trainings (where the communication medium is primarily non-tech (apart from some non-interactive, soporific PowerPoint presentation.)
  • ELearning (where the medium of communication is electronic – usually computers.)

I am not going to spend a lot of your precious time on expanding upon classroom trainings. That you are reading this post goes to prove that you’ve had enough of that experience. So let us try to figure out this exotic bird called eLearning.


Photo by kodomut

ELearning is the name given to all such learning, which uses technology as a medium to communicate. Thus, online courses and trainings as well as standalone computer-based training programs, and even blogs such as the one you are reading now, comprise elearning.

Actually, eLearning isn’t an exotic bird at all. It is the same learning that we know so well – with the medium of communication being the only tangible difference. There’s no difference as far as the learner’s psychology and the instructional design principles are concerned.

However, there’s a lot of difference between the way both kinds of learning programs are designed, developed, and implemented. As you might’ve guessed, most of the difference results from the technological angle, which unfortunately bugs many of the traditionalists.

So when Froth searches the web, or buys a CD that tells her “How to Blog”, she learns through eLearning. From the learner’s angle eLearning isn’t very different from classroom training. Froth still uses her senses (seeing/hearing) to absorb the new learning, and then processes it cognitively; the way she’d do in a classroom-training program. But yes, there’s a lot of difference between the way a classroom trainer would prepare the content and an eLearning instructional designer would.

In my next post, we’ll ponder over some of these differences. We also haven’t spoken of the blended learning solutions (where you blend elearning with traditional classroom learning) – but I believe that if we understand the two ingredients of blended learning correctly, blended learning would explain itself.

Until Friday then:-)

 

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Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Application in Training & Content Development (3 of 3)

Following are the two posts that precede this post.

  1. Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Why People play down the Achievements of Others?
  2. Attribution Theory & Self-Serving Bias – Stability & Controllability

This is the third and final post in this series. Through this post, let us discuss some applications of the Attribution Theory.

Recall how Sloth and Froth applied different causes to their own and other’s successes and failures. What we saw was something that we’ve all experienced intuitively – the primal human tendency to improve ones appearance. An interesting application of Attribution theory, which popped into my head just now, can be seen in the behavior of a young woman viewing a picture of another woman (someone that her spouse or sweetheart may have found attractive.) The reasons that this woman would attribute to the “success” (read: attractiveness) of the woman in picture would probably read as:

“A play of lights. Those photographers can make anyone look beautiful! And I wonder why you don’t see those spots on her face that I saw when the camera did a close-up in…what was that show – Oh…Koffee with Karan, I suppose. And that figure?! Hasn’t anyone heard of Photoshop! She’s got curves?! Hah!”

And upon viewing her own photograph…
“The photographer didn’t know his work! Look at the way he messed up the lighting! I don’t have those three rumbling chins – no way! And my skin is actually many shades lighter. What’s that spot on my cheek? Must be a speck on the camera lens!”

Funny…but true! And we all know that it is true:-)

What’s Lacey’s Viewpoint?

The question is how can we use this reality to make learning more effective?

Here are a few tips.

1. Empathize. Feel what your Audience Feels!
2. Appreciate the Cultural Angle of Attribution
3. Ascribe Failure to Unstable and Controllable Causes
4. Ascribe Success to Internal and Controllable Causes

Empathize. Feel what your Audience Feels!

Remember that the audience attempts to view his/her success or failure in the best possible light. This of course means that for everything that happens during a learning experience, the audience’s mind is busy determining causes. By the time, you get around to explaining something, the audience has already booked a cause for it. So, Never tell the audience that his or her failure was due to an internal factor. (In all probability, the audience has already pinned the blame of failure on to something else, such as you, or the study material, the methodology, or even a visiting aunt.) If you differ, your explanation will be met with a cognitive dissonance.

Appreciate the Cultural Angle of Attribution

Always review a learning issue within the context of the culture. For instance, as Indians, we make external attributions for a person’s undesirable actions more often than the westerners. This is so because as a society we are driven by external obligations, humility, and the demands of our social/familial roles.

Thus, if a person is caught taking bribe, a westerner would probably be more disposed towards attributing the action to that person’s trait of dishonesty, while we would most probably blame it on the system.

Here’s another example.
My personal experience of dealing with the topic of plagiarism in a training program taught me that this topic has to be handled very carefully, else it would hit a wall of resistance. Discussing plagiarism as a malady to be remedied results in more productive discussions that discussing it as an act of dishonesty (which results in drawn swords.)

Ascribe Failure to Unstable and Controllable Causes

This is an old one, and I am sure that you are already a master at doing this. Ascribe failures to unstable and controllable caused (for example, if a learner fails to perform according to expectations, ascribe it to “lack of directed effort” (something that can be controlled, and which isn’t stable – are you wondering whether all that is internal and unstable can be controlled? Reflect.) Don’t ascribe it to “lack of aptitude for science.”)

If you think that a learner has developed the tendency to ascribe failures to external, stable, uncontrollable factors, gear up to steer this learner away from this defeatist attitude.

Ascribe Success to Internal and Controllable Causes

In societies such as ours, we grow up ascribing our successes to the hand of fate. When I was growing up, before and after my exams (until the results were declared,) I’d pray and hope that somehow my prayers would improve my results. Thankfully, my prayers were never answered and I learned to ascribe success to “internal and controllable” causes. I shudder to think what kind of person I would’ve become had I turned “lucky.”

We should attempt to help the learner view his/her successes as a result of her internal, stable, and controllable factors (such as the output of concentrated effort,) instead of external, unstable, and uncontrollable factors, such as luck.

I believe that such positive attributions can go a long way in bolstering the confidence of our children who would find themselves in control of their destiny instead of being controlled by it.


Photo by mikebaird

Of course, Attribution Theory has many other applications, and I don’t think that I can cover all of them, but I do feel that a conscious effort to keep the three parameters of Attribution Theory in mind could help all kinds of learning professionals – the trainers, the teachers, and the instructional designers. It could help us reach out to our audience, empathize with them, and become a positive influence in their lives.

 

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