What prevents people in the learning-and-performance field from utilizing proven instructional-design knowledge?

This is an update to an old newsletter post I wrote about in 2002. Most of it is still relevant, but I’ve learned a thing or two in the last few years.

Back in 2002, I spoke with several very experienced learning-and-performance consultants who have each—in their own way—asked the question above. In our discussions, we’ve considered several options, which I’ve flippantly labeled as follows:

  1. They don’t know it. (They don’t know what works to improve instruction.)
  2. They know it, but the market doesn’t care.
  3. They know it, but they’d rather play.
  4. They know it, but don’t have the resources to do it.
  5. They know it, but don’t think it’s important.

Argument 1.
They don’t know it. (They don’t know what works to improve instruction.)
Let me make this concrete. Do people in our field know that meaningful repetitions are probably our most powerful learning mechanism? Do they know that delayed feedback is usually better than immediate feedback? That spacing learning over time facilitates retention. That it’s important to increase learning and decrease forgetting? That interactivity can either be good or bad, depending on what we’re asking learners to retrieve from memory? One of my discussants suggested that "everyone knows this stuff and has known it since Gagne talked about it in the 1970’s."

Argument 2.
They know it, but the market doesn’t care.
The argument: Instructional designers, trainers, performance consultants and others know this stuff, but because the marketplace doesn’t demand it, they don’t implement what they know will really work. This argument has two variants: The learners don’t want it or the clients don’t want it.

Argument 3.
They know it, but they’d rather play.
The argument: Designers and developers know this stuff, but they’re so focused on utilizing the latest technology or creating the snazziest interface, that they forget to implement what they know.

Argument 4.
They know it, but don’t have the resources to use it.
The argument: Everybody knows this stuff, but they don’t have the resources to implement it correctly. Either their clients won’t pay for it or their organizations don’t provide enough resources to do it right.

Argument 5.
They know it, but don’t think it’s important.
The argument: Everybody knows this stuff, but instructional-design knowledge isn’t that important. Organizational, management, and cultural variables are much more important. We can instruct people all we want, but if managers don’t reward the learned behaviors, the instruction doesn’t matter.

My Thoughts In Brief

First, some data. On the Work-Learning Research website we provide a 15-item quiz that presents people with authentic instructional-design decisions. People in the field should be able to answer these questions with at least some level of proficiency. We might expect them to get at least 60 or 70% correct. Although web-based data-gathering is loaded with pitfalls (we don’t really know who is answering the questions, for example), here’s what we’ve found so far: On average, correct responses are running at about 30%. Random guessing would produce 20 to 25% correct. Yes, you’ve read that correctly—people are doing a little bit better than chance. The verdict: People don’t seem to know what works and what doesn’t in the way of instructional design.

Some additional data. Our research on learning and performance has revealed that learning can be improved through instruction by up to 220% by utilizing appropriate instructional-design methods. Many of the programs out there do not utilize these methods.

Should we now ignore the other arguments presented above? No, there is truth in them. Our learners and clients don’t always know what will work best for them. Developers will always push the envelope and gravitate to new and provocative technologies. Our organizations and our clients will always try to keep costs down. Instruction will never be the only answer. It will never work without organizational supports.

What should we do?

We need to continue our own development and bolster our knowledge of instructional-design. We need to gently educate our learners, clients, and organizations about the benefits of good instructional design and good organizational practices. We need to remind technology’s early adopters to remember our learning-and-performance goals. We need to understand instructional-design tradeoffs so that we can make them intelligently. We need to consider organizational realities in determining whether instruction is the most appropriate intervention. We need to develop instruction that will work where it is implemented. We need to build our profession so that we can have a greater impact. We need to keep an open mind and continue to learn from our learners, colleagues, and clients, and from the research on learning and performance.

New Thoughts in 2006

All the above suggestions are worthy, but I have two new answers as well. First, people like me need to do a much better job (me included) communicating research-based ideas. We need to figure out where the current state of knowledge stands and work the new information into that tapestry in a way that makes sense to our audiences. We also have to avoid heavy-handedness in sharing research-based insights, as we must realize that research is not the only means of moving us toward more effective learning interventions.

Secondly, I have come to believe that sharing research-based information like this is not enough. If the field doesn’t get better feedback loops into our instructional-design-and-development systems, then nothing much will improve over time, even with the best information presented in the most effective ways.

A new educational research organization is forming as a counterpart to AERA (the American Educational Research Association). I get the impression that the impetus for this is that too much of the current research on education has the flaw that it doesn’t really care about cause and effect.

Since cause-and-effect are critical—because it’s the only way to really find out what the critical factors are, I’m hoping for great things from this organization.

It’s name is: Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness

Well, it looks like one of my previous brainstorms was wrong. Check out this link from the American Psychological Association on cell-phone use while driving. Initial research on cell phones while driving seems to suggest that cell phones Do hurt driving. Still not sure if drivers can learn to use cell phones more effectively while driving.

Research has shown that a conversational writing style is generally more effective at producing learning results than more formal writing.

See a blog blurb by Kathy Sierra to learn more. She did a nice job of writing a review of a 2000 study by Moreno and Mayer from the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Also, check out all the comments after her blog post to see the research findings put into perspective. Some people loved the comments. Others went crazy with angst.


Some Minor Caveats (it might be best to read this after you read Kathy’s post)

In the Moreno and Mayer study, the researchers found the following improvements due to a more personalized style.

  • Transfer Improvements: Experiment 1: 36%, Exp. 2: 116%, Exp. 3: 46%, Exp. 4: 20%, Exp. 5: 27%
  • Retention Improvements: Experiment 1: 3%, Exp. 2: 6%, Exp. 3: 22%, Exp. 4: 10%, Exp. 5: 12%

Transfer in this case meant the ability to answer questions regarding the topic that were not directly discussed in the text. So for example, one transfer question used was, "What could be done to decrease the intensity of a lightning storm?"

Retention was measured with the question, "Please write down an explanation of how lightning works."

You’ll notice from the above numbers that transfer improved learning results more than retention did. In fact, 2 of the 5 experiments did NOT show statistical improvements in retention. While transfer measures are generally considered more difficult to obtain and thus more important, the actual tests of transfer and retention in the 5 experiments cited are roughly equal in difficulty. Certainly if we wanted learners to be able to explain how lightning works, the experiments do NOT show definitively that a more personalized writing style would guarantee such a result. On the other hand, personalization did not hurt the learning either.

Note further that in the two experiments where retention was not statistically improved (Experiments 1 and 2), the learners were observers and did not have to interact with the learning material. This is relevant to the other caveat I want to discuss.

The other caveat is that while conversational style is highlighted in Kathy’s blog, the researchers are very careful to focus on the personalization of the writing, and drawing the readers (or listeners) into the dialogue. So for example, it may be helpful to do the following in our instructional designs (these insights are not necessarily empirically tested, but they are consistent with the research results):

  1. When writing or speaking you should use the word "you," instead of a third-person more-formal style.
  2. When writing or speaking, it may also be useful to use the word "I," as such a use may encourage your audience members to respond on a personal level.
  3. It may be best to address learners as participants not as observers.
  4. It may be best to relate the content to the learners’ real world experiences.

Note that more research is needed in this area. There are not enough studies to predict this same effect with all learners, all learning materials, and all learning and performance situations.

Research Article Cited by Kathy: 

Moreno, R.,  & Mayer, R. E. (2000). Engaging students in active learning: The case for personalized multimedia messages.   Journal of Educational Psychology, 92, 724-733.

There have been several published studies (and even more newspaper articles) that show cell-phone use while driving is correlated with accidents. The suggestion from these studies is that cell phones CAUSE accidents. The implication is that we should ban cell phones while driving.

This may be true. I was scared to death last week while my taxi driver was looking at his cell phone to dial numbers. He clearly did not have his eyes on the road. If anything unusual occurred (like the van in the next lane entering our lane right in front of us—watch out please watch out!), his reaction time would have been considerably slowed and we would have been much more likely to have an accident.

On the other hand, I wonder how much of the current problems are caused by a learning deficit. After all, for most of us cell phones are rather new. More importantly, driving while using a cell phone is also new. This kind of multitasking can be learned. There are research studies that show that experience doing multitasking can increase performance on the tasks being done. With enough practice, less working-memory capacity is needed, freeing up capacity to engage in the various tasks.

One hypothesis suggested by this is that cell-phone-related accidents will decrease with time as drivers get more practice using their cell phones while driving. Judging from the number of people I see driving and phoning, not many people are heeding the warnings, so lots of people are gaining more experience. Cell-phone accident rates will also decline as new technologies are utilized, namely voice-dialing and hands-free cell-phones.

On the other hand, a second hypothesis is that anything that prompts drivers to take their eyes off the road will produce similar deficits to cell-phone driving. Here’s a short list:

  1. People who read maps while driving.
  2. People who look at the radio to tune to a particular station.
  3. People who glance at the person sitting next to them while in conversation.
  4. People who look at their food before stuffing it in their mouths.
  5. People who admire the scenery.
  6. People who rubberneck at accident scenes.

People who look at their cell phones to dial a number are just asking for trouble. It probably helps to have two hands on the wheel, as well.

I’d be willing to bet that for most people fewer accidents will occur when using a hands-free, voice-dialing cell phone than when talking with someone sitting beside them in the front seat, assuming equal levels of experience doing both. The natural human tendency to want to look someone in the eyes while talking to them will prompt most of us to try and steal a glance at our conversational partners, increasing slightly the danger from unforeseen events.

Like most things in life, learning plays a central role in our cell-phone-while-driving performance. Like most things for us humans, our cognitive machinery sets the boundaries for this performance.

New Information from the Research (An Update on My Thinking)

Although I still wonder about our ability to learn how to utilize cell phones while driving, recent research suggests that right now, we are not too good at it. Check out my updated post on this.