Cognitive Task Analysis of the Mind

All the instructional design textbooks start the process with analysis. The most famous development model is the ADDIE model: Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. In the heat of real-world course development, there is a tendency to want to jump right to the design stage or even the develop stage—because analysis is seen as expensive or because we “know” what the analysis is going to show.

Now we can’t always go through a process like a full cognitive task analysis. CTA is used to capture detailed information about jobs, such as what cognitive activities separate high performers from beginners, how experts make decisions, what knowledge subject-matter experts will tell you versus tacit knowledge that they can’t even begin to articulate, and so on. This is a very detailed process and may actually yield too much “useful information.” After all, going from beginner to expert can take a long time. Sometime the education has to go in steps.

So, if you can’t do a full CTA, do you just give up? Some do.

But in my experience, it never pays to start a project without having some kind of picture of two things: (1) a picture of the learner and (2) a picture of what you want the learner to be able to do as a result of your course. We’re not just spewing information. We want to achieve a result.

Now, it may seem silly, but I learned these two points in a play writing class. We playwrights use different terminology. We don’t talk about learners, we talk about audiences. We don’t talk about learning objectives, we talk about the major dramatic question (MDQ). To write an effective play, you have to transport your audience from here to there.

Believe it or not, playwrights often do research before writing a play. But in the field of dramatic writing, it is also proper to talk about the playwright’s imagination.

We don’t talk about imagination as much in the field of instruction. But why not? Our purpose, like the playwright’s is to capture people’s minds and change them.

So, if you can’t do a CTA—for whatever reason—you do what you can do. Hard data is still important. But you need imagination as well. Imagination isn’t day dreaming. It is hard work. Don’t skip that step. (It’s even important if you can do a CTA.)

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