The Roads Not Taken

Various adult learning theorists advocate self-direction. Adults want to chart their own paths and learn better if they do so. To me, the model seems very much like surfing the Internet: click here, click there, whatever interests you.

If you’ve done any online courses recently, you probably haven’t seen much that is designed this way. Online courses tend to be particularly linear—mostly devoid of learner choice. Why is that?

One answer is lack of trust. Designers have a goal and subject-matter experts think they know how to get there. They’ve never experience the road-not-taken. They devalue any learning experience that deviates from their preconceived notion. The problem is motivation. If I, as a learner, follow your path and not mine, I’m probably not very motivated. There are multiple paths to learning and we need to facilitate that as course designers.

Another answer is an assumption of efficiency. Designers are often under pressure to deliver the absolute minimal learning in the shortest amount of time. No digressions are possible. No failures, even if thoughtful reflection on a failure leads to superior learning in the end. This way of operating leads to learning that keeps students as dumb as possible for as long as possible. We want the gold, but we have no patience with processing the ore.


A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

Today I just want to tell you a story, so sit back and relax. Once upon a time . . .

How many times have you attended a class that began like that? Not too many times, I’m guessing. And I’m guessing that storytelling becomes rarer and rarer the more advanced the topic. Am I right?

But people’s brains are built to give attention to stories, so they tell us. So why don’t we use the technique more often?

In financial education, stories tend to appear in examples that are set aside from the text. Examples could be the real teachers in these courses, but they tend to be afterthoughts. What’s worse, savvy students might often feel they can skip over the examples. And they can, if the story is poor and the learning point is merely repetitive of the preceding text.

In my career, I’ve had a few opportunities to turn it around. The first one was a course called Introduction to Trusts. The original was a dry course that listed one estate planning concept after another. Examples were few and short. In revising the course, I decided to drop the dry recitations of property law and build the course entirely out of a half-dozen case studies. The property law was “discovered” in the process of solving a client’s problem.

The course was much more engaging. The student could see property law principles at work. My team soon was building more reality-based courses. Many years later, I learned that instructional design research supported many of the techniques we used.

It often seems impossible to get these topics on their feet. But any useful knowledge has a use! That is the key.

In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun
you find the fun and snap!

All of the Above

Interacting With the Material

Interacting doesn’t just mean clicking a button. But most online courses have little interaction besides clicking the Next button. You can certainly learn something that way. That’s essentially the way you surf the web. You see a link and you click on it. Next. You read the next piece. Next. You read the one after that. Next.

I can’t deny that I learn things that way, but it’s kinda random. If I’m designing a course, I want the learning to be something more than random. I want you to learn points that I consider important, not just something that caught you out of the corner of your eye. Sometimes I’m presenting semi-disconnected points, but often, my courses are designed to teach you an organized system of ideas. If you get just an isolated point, you don’t get it at all.

The research says that the best kinds of interactions are short answers. I don’t know if I agree with that. The best kinds of interactions would be you independently using the information. I might be able to get you to do that if I am your cubicle-mate and I’m trying to give you some on-the-job training. But I’m designing online education, so I have to make do with clicks and drags-and-drops.

Basically, we’re talking multiple-choice questions (in some form). But multiple-choice questions are how we test people.

In what way are instructional multiple-choice questions any different from an assessment question?

A. The biggest difference is that exam questions don’t have feedback after you’ve responded.
B. An instructional question can actually precede the instructional content.
C. They can be used to help people grapple with the interrelationships between the different parts of the instructional content.
D. All of the above.

Using a Lecture to Teach Dancing

Are you a visual learner or an auditory learner? Or could you be a kinesthetic learner?

Until recently, education theorists were telling us that, if we want to connect with a visual learner, we need to use visual instruction. Auditory instruction, we were told, would fail miserably. Of course, theorists were more subtle than this, but that was the main point. Until the research began to debunk the theory.

My question always was: are words visual (the written word) or auditory (the spoken word)? And then there’s the question of whether a method of instruction is even possible. Can you learn to ride a bike or play a musical instrument simply listening to a lecture or even viewing someone do these activities? The answer is clearly no.

Financial education doesn’t involve balance (except in a metaphorical sense) or manual dexterity. It is largely a verbal domain: spoken and written. Even the math part can be considered to be a verbal skill.

So, do those of us who write instruction for financial services have anything to learn from the debate over learning styles?

The more sophisticated understanding of the learning-styles debate advocates two principles. First, the mode of instruction should be compatible with what is being learned (don’t try to teach dancing with a lecture). Second, use more than one mode of instruction. Show and tell is more effective than show alone or tell alone. No one is exclusively visual or exclusively auditory. One mode reinforces the other.

Let’s all get up and dance to a rule
That was a hit before Dodd-Frank was born
It was a rule a long long time ago
It’s something you know
It’s something you know . . .