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Identifying an effective mechanism for presenting new information

In How People Learn, a synthesis of cognitive science and educational psychology research about the process of learning, John Bransford and colleagues identify four key elements of effective learning environments, identifying them as

  • Knowledge-centered
  • Assessment-centered
  • Learner-centered
  • Community-centered.

Making online courses or modules appropriately knowledge-centered requires identifying an effective mechanism for presenting new information. These mechanisms can range from providing an appropriate reading assignment to creating a screen-captured lesson with embedded video to embedding a “learning object” (a self-contained lesson that focuses on one learning objective and includes assessment).

Although there is no one mechanism for presenting content that is most effective for all situations, there are some general rules to keep in mind when preparing content for online delivery:

  • Provide an obvious path through the material, and make sure guideposts are clear to the student. Burks Oakley at the University of Illinois as Springfield talks about the importance of online instructors’ organizational skills.
  • Organize the content in logical units, or modules, in which each module is organized around a major topic and contains relevant objectives, material, and associated activities. In the introduction to the module, include information about how long the student should expect to spend working on the module. The course demo from Boston University here illustrates this modular organization.
  • Within each module, present content in chunks that are easily digestible.
    • When presenting text, format the content for the Web by breaking it into short paragraphs and using headings, bullets, graphics and other formatting devices that make webpages easier to read and comprehend. The “7+/-2”instructional design rule of thumb, based on the work of psychologist George Miller, suggests inclusion of  5 to 9 pieces of information in a segment. This self-paced asynchronous course from UC-Irvine demonstrates several of these principles.
    • When presenting audio or video, include a brief description and information about the length. Keep the segments short, from 2-15 minutes, to help maximize listeners’ retention.
    • Help your students digest the chunks of material by providing short recall or application questions after each one.