Safety Nets and Psychology
Syrtis Instructional Designer
Steve Wirt, Syrtis Technologist,
Julie Batovsky and Linda Tatnall, Syrtis Instructional Designers
Collectively, what do the instructional designers who are experienced at
creating online courses know about the online learning experience?
More importantly, what do they know about the online courses that work -
where the learning is optimal and what is learned is readily retained and
transferred to actual performance? How can instructional designers
improve the online learning experience to make it "world class"?
Creating an online environment requires a very different approach to the
design of instruction. The absence of a face-to-face instructor and
classroom interaction makes the mouse click a primary way to interact, engage
The psychology behind the learning is patently different than a classroom
experience. Not only do mouse clicks take on added dimension of importance
and meaning, but the online learner becomes responsible to self assess and
advocate for his own learning needs by making choices and reaching out for
additional support on an “as needed” basis.
Clicks make it a lean-in technology
The best of the best online environments use a "lean-in" learning environment.
Lean-in refers to an environment that insists the student interact with the
course materials, usually by using the mouse to click on graphics, text,
and objects to more fully engage the learner. Learners click to make a choice,
answer a question, navigate through the course, select an item from groups
of items, manipulate or move an object, etc. The learner clicks the mouse
or touches the screen to indicate their intentions, their understanding of
the content, or to access new or supplemental materials to further their
learning. The learner has to physically lean-in to do this, making a static
computer screen a lean in technology. Learning is no longer passive, but
active. This is clearly a good thing for those of us who believe that people
learn by doing.
Active involvement is a better way to learn in any online environment. When
designing lean-in online courses, consider the following questions:
One "screen-to-click" ratio recommended by instructional designers would
have us embed learner interactions at fairly frequent intervals: one mouse
click for every three screens of learning. This standard for a high frequency
of learner interaction helps to move the online learning experience away
from the "electronic page-turner" experience, where the learner merely reads
text on a screen as they would from a textbook. The “one click/three screens”
rule allows you to design an online learning experience that draws the learner
into the course materials. Learners take part in the learning because they
are more fully engaged in discovering, finding, and uncovering the salient
- How often should we require the student to lean in?
- How do we intelligently and effectively include interaction to enhance
retention and transfer?
Consider the following methods for integrating higher click-to-screen ratios
in online courses:
Click to Navigate
- Click to navigate
- Click to react
- Click to solve and resolve
- Click to manipulate
- Click to integrate and synthesize
- Click to assess progress and mastery
Educationally speaking, one mouse click is not necessarily equivalent to
another mouse click. A learner can click to navigate from screen to screen,
to move forward or back, to access another section or function in the course,
or to move from one point to another point along the path. Ideally, navigation
should be intuitive; the learner should not feel lost at any time, regardless
of their chosen path. Learners should click and know what to expect as a
result of a click and should not be surprised or confused about where they
were or where they are at any point. In such a comfort zone, the learner
easily interacts with the navigation and with little explanation about how
to do it.
Commonly used navigation elements are buttons, arrows, symbols, icons, links,
diagrams, maps, and text. Good navigation is consistently placed throughout
a course. Clicking to navigate does not teach the learner anything new; it
merely moves him through the environment.
Click to React
Reactive mouse clicks allow the learner to view a scenario or illustration
and react to the stimulus. An example of this reaction opportunity is a simulated
interaction between a supervisor and an employee during a performance appraisal.
A reactive mouse click could measure complex reactions that result from the
supervisor's communications to the employee. The mouse clicks could also
offer insight into a new supervisor's judgement with regard to the standards
by which he assesses employees. Further, a new supervisor's mouse clicks
might reveal the logic used to decide on how to phrase and express performance
feedback messages. A simpler type of reactive mouse click can be used to
respond to a survey question on a satisfaction survey. Regardless of how
it is used, a reactive mouse click seeks to elicit a reaction from the learner.
Click to Solve and Resolve
Solve and resolve mouse clicks solve problems or resolve theoretical conflicts
and situations. The problem may be a mathematical problem or a word problem
with constraints and scenario components. It may be a puzzle, a quandary,
or a hypothetical ethical dilemma to wrestle with.
For example, the Seven People in a Lifeboat 1 question is a values clarification
activity commonly used in classrooms. The question asks students to wrestle
with the hypothetical profiles of seven unlucky characters adrift in an overcrowded
lifeboat with limited food. Students are asked to decide who stays and who
gets thrown over board. Their decisions are based on each character’s strengths,
weaknesses, and ultimate "value" to the survival of the group. Students then
discuss their choices and rationales.
Without defending the efficacy of the activity itself, this sort of dilemma
can be accommodated easily online using threaded discussions to post rationales.
The posted rationales could be used to measure the learner's insight and
judgement. There is no right answer; the resolution may fall into a gray
area. Yet such problems provide learners with an opportunity to examine their
value system, their biases and the way they make decisions. Learners profit
from interaction with other learners in order to compare, contrast, and discuss
the logic behind their stances. In fact, a learner may chose to "resolve"
the scenario based on feedback from the instructional piece or as a result
of feedback and discussion with other learners.
Click to Manipulate
Manipulative mouse clicks allow the learner to move, examine, and change
the position of dimensional objects. The instructional contention reasons
that the learner clicks to physically manipulate objects on-screen, ultimately
affecting what he is mentally attending to. If the learner processes relevant
domain information in the correct way, such clicking will enhance concept
formation, collaborative dialogue, and planning. The extent to which a particular
manipulation encourages learners to process relevant concepts can be used
to assess the instructional effectiveness of the activity (Larkin 2).
One example of click to manipulate techniques can be found in an online physics
course, where students manipulate the different components of a complex physics
problem involving acceleration, velocity, force, energy and momentum in order
to deeply understand the relationships. Learning is made more efficient by
manipulating each component in the problem to generate multiple outcomes
and ultimately lead the learner to a deeper understanding of the nature of
the relationships between the concepts involved to solve the problem.
The learning is dependent on the depth to which information is processed.
Simply presenting the right information is insufficient, as the key concepts
and interrelationships must be made salient. Online manipulation of problem
components during problem solving can add increased effectiveness to what
is learned, retained and applied, especially if the virtual environment closely
approximates the actual environment (Van Lehn 6).
Click to Integrate and Synthesize
Learners click to integrate and synthesize to reflect key evidence of learning
that occurs when new ideas blend with other concepts previously understood
into a new, unified conceptual framework. Integrating a new idea may change
the way the learner constructs cognitive structures and understands other
related concepts. Such clicking may have the learner author original text,
produce graphics or some other evidence that reflects the new, expanded understanding
of the concepts.
Synthesis alters the learner's understanding of all concepts and often leads
to a wholly original and sometimes unanticipated discovery. The discovery
that results from synthesis might have sprung directly off the back of the
newly learned concepts. For example, cutting edge research published
online may further and change the way others think about a field of study.
If integration can be thought of as a sort of melting of ideas, then synthesis
is the act of taking integrated ideas and creating wholly new ideas as a
result of making these new cognitive connections.
Integration and synthesis require intense effort on the part of the learner.
During integration and synthesis, learners go far beyond the presented information
to create new cognitive structures, which allow them to think in different
and unique ways about the information they have learned as well as the information
they already know about the field.
Click to Assess Progress and Mastery
In click to assess progress and mastery situations, learners click to respond
to online assessment questions that may be in a multitude of formats. Each
response is designed to measure growth and learning of stated objectives.
Such situations include many of the same traditional assessment methods as
offline and paper-based testing. Some of these methods include multiple choice,
fill-in the blank, and matching questions.
Click to assess progress and mastery techniques can also be used to set up
branching courses, which lead the learner down specific paths, depending
on their progress or mastery. The course may branch back to previous materials
or to new and supportive content, customized to address the learner's confusion.
Branching courses must take into account all of the possible learner errors
and responses. For example, a flight simulator may record what a new pilot
chooses to do in a dangerous weather situation and the time it takes to react
to various weather scenarios. Mouse clicks can be tracked to reveal and indicate
a pilot's problem solving and troubleshooting skills.
Psych 'em out and draw 'em in
How can we integrate the research and theories we know from the field of
educational psychology with the design of lean-in online courses?
Educational psychology theory shows us that learners process and integrates
new information with what they already know. Learners retain the information
in short- and long-term memory, retrieve the information, and demonstrate
mastery by transferring it to previously un-encountered examples or scenarios.
Educational psychology theory expounds on two additional concepts important
to lean-in courses:
It has been determined that learners retain different percentages of what
is processed depending on the instructional strategy and mode used during
the presentation. The following list of familiar teaching modes and retention
rates is commonly referred to in instructional design and educational psychology
- Remediation when additional instruction is required beyond the initial
- Metacognition, personal monitoring, and evaluation by the learner during
the learning process.
This list would argue strongly for frequent mouse clicks in an online course
and specific kinds of interactions aimed at achieving more complex learning
outcomes. It is not enough to provide frequent interactions. Course designers
must also provide online activities that ensure retention, retrieval and
transfer of learning to real and relevant situations—situations that improve
performance. Of what is known about types of learning, we learn approximately:
- Lecture - 5%
- Reading - 10%
- Audio Visual - 20%
- Demonstration - 30%
- Discussion group - 50%
- Practice by doing - 75%
- Teaching others - 90%
- Immediate application of learning in a real situation - 90%
This list reflects the limited way senses are used in learning because we
know that taste, touch and smell have a powerful impact on memory. This is
certainly an area where course designers could be much more creative. In
the online environment, some senses provide a real technological challenge,
some of which will change as technology evolves. Currently, sight, hearing,
and touch can be integrated into the learning experience. At some point taste
and smell will become an option. Of what we learn, we retain approximately
- 1% through taste
- 2% through touch
- 4% through smell
- 10% through hearing
- 83% through sight
These generally accepted percentages would argue for using learning activities
that involve more than one sense to enhance retention and to use them at
the application level.
- 10% of what we Read once
- 20% of what we Hear
- 30% of what we See once
- 50% of what we Hear And See
- 70% of what we Say
- 90% of what we Say As We Do
People learn by applying what they learn in a similar setting. It has been
reported that the more similar the setting, the better the transfer of newly
acquired skills. For example, if a learner masters the new skill of making
change at a cash register, and the actual equipment is in a similar setting,
the learner will have a better likelihood of success in making change because
the setting and equipment is equivalent. If the cash register machine is
different or if the money is arranged in a different way, performance will
likely be affected as the learner is forced to adjust in transferring the
new skill. In short, people remember what they learn by doing, and they learn
best when the training most closely approximates the real-world setting.
The online environment has advantages and disadvantages when it comes to
duplicating the environment and equipment for the learner. We know that retention
greatly increases when we have plenty of practice, when we teach others and
when we apply what we learn in a similar and relevant scenario using multiple
senses. In an online course, the lessons and practice need to make strategic
use of examples and non-examples, with meaningful feedback factored into
the experience. Practice and feedback allow online learners to assess their
progress, facilitating a process known as metacognition.
Metacognition is the process of thinking about thinking. In general, metacognitive
theory focuses on the following:
J. H. Flavell defines this focus as “one's knowledge concerning one's own
cognitive processes or anything related to them, e.g., the learning-relevant
properties of information or data” (232). Flavell goes on to clarify his
definition with the following example: “I am engaging in metacognition if
I notice that I am having more trouble learning A than B; if it strikes me
that I should double check C before accepting it as fact" (232).
- The role of awareness and executive management of one's thinking
- Individual differences in self-appraisal and management of cognitive
development and learning
- Knowledge and executive abilities that develop through experience
- Constructive and strategic thinking (Paris 20).
Therefore, the promise of metacognitive theory (as it applies to lean-in
online learning) is that it focuses precisely on those characteristics of
thinking that can contribute to a student’s awareness and understanding of
being self-regulatory--of being agents of their own thinking. Metacognition
allows learners to become aware of themselves in such a way that they consciously
and deliberately achieve specific goals (Kluwe 210).
Instructional designers creating lean-in online course must be able to recognize
learners who are aware of their own metacognitive processes. These students
will more than likely possess "self determination or autonomy in learning
and problem solving. They will be able to refer to the what, how, when, where
and why of learning when carrying out complex cognitive activities” (Gordon
49). Such learners will conduct cognitive activities by planning and deciding
on the following issues to achieve their goals:
Metacognition considerations should be addressed throughout the lean-in online
course. William Huitt recommends that course designers include methods that
allow learners to ask the following questions about their progress:
- Strategies to achieve their goals
- Further knowledge or resources
- Monitoring progress along the way (Am I going in the right direction?)
- Evaluating success upon completion
- Ending learning when the goals have been met (Biggs 307)
The internal self-assessment questioning that goes on during the process
of metacognition may be more difficult for a learner to answer in an online
environment, depending on how the course is designed (Huitt). Ample opportunity
to self-assess should be present at regular and critical intervals and in
ways that are most meaningful to the online learner. A designer's challenge
is to create a clickable, rich environment that insists that the learner
click to interact in meaningful ways. As designers, we need to stretch the
technology, let go of what we know and venture into instructional design
in ways that are free, unbiased, and bold.
- What do I know about this subject, topic, and issue?
- Do I know what do I need to know?
- Do I know where I can go to get some information, knowledge?
- How much time will I need to learn this?
- What are some strategies and tactics that I can use to learn this?
- Did I understand what I just heard, read or saw?
- How will I know if I am learning at an appropriate rate?
- How can I spot an error if I make one?
- How should I revise my plan if it is not working to my expectations/satisfaction?
Allow for the road less traveled, but provide a safety net
The online environment can take advantage of pathways that off-line learning
could never travel. And the online environment can provide multiple pathways
that the learner can select based on interest, entry-level skills or time
available to learn. As we discussed in clicking situations, in an online
environment, the learner can choose to navigate through the material in various
ways if the course is designed with freedoms and opportunities to do so.
If material can be visited in multiple ways and in varied sequences in an
online environment, why not let learners choose their own custom paths?
Instructional designers need to let go of the linear approach to design.
While this may be unsettling to traditional designers, the online environment
offers an opportunity to allow learners to decide how and when to access
information and materials. Some designers may question, “What if the learner
is floundering or feels confused?” One suggestion is to intersperse assessments
throughout the course in order to provide the learner with an opportunity
to self-diagnose or branch back to content. In so doing, the designer creates
an online safety net. Safety nets should include the following elements:
This interconnected network is one of the key strengths the online environment
has to offer the online learner. There is a gold mine of resources available
to the online student that is simply not as readily available to the offline
- Frequent and interspersed assessment questions
- Job aids and support materials
- Course menus and outlines
- Rich visuals and meaningful links to other sources
Safety net elements are accessed according to the learner needs, which is
a direct result of the process of metacognition. The learner is self-assessing
and finding a real and immediate need for support information to facilitate
understanding or clarification of the objectives, and so seeks out the support
information. This process makes the information more meaningful because it
is timely and self-directed by the learner.
Online learning and course design challenges all of our previously held beliefs
about the way people process, retain, and transfer new concepts and skills
as a result of learning. The online environment is an educational frontier
that begs for innovative approaches and applications of educational psychology
and learning theory. Instructional designers must break out of the traditional
linear box as they forge a new hierarchical environment. The shape of online
learning is active, multi-sensory, multi-modal, and stretches the technology
to go beyond our two dimensional expectations of online learning. Lean-in
online learning should be immediate, brief and reinforced, driven by the
learner’s self-assessed needs, rich and relevant to the learner's performance,
and drawing on the whole of the Internet's resources. The information highway
will ultimately take us to places we have yet to visit. This is the challenge
and the promise of instructional designers committed to creating world-class
1. The Lifeboat Values Clarification activity is generally agreed to have
come from the case of U.S. v. Holmes, 26 Fed. Cas. No. 360, a case in which
a member of the crew of the ship William Brown was tried for murder in the
deaths of a number of passengers whom he forced out of a lifeboat that was
badly overcrowded and foundering in heavy seas. See William A. Rutter, Criminal
Law (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976) 213-218.
2. Percentage Retention Rate Source: NTL Institute from retention rates from
Different Rates of Learning.
3. Statistics compiled from research conducted by the United States Department
Flavell, J. H. “Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental
inquiry.” American Psychologist 34 (1979): 906-911.
Flavell, J. H. “Cognitive monitoring.” Children's Oral Communication Skills.
Ed. W. P. Dickson. New York: Academic, 1981.
Gordon, J. “Tracks for learning: Metacognition and learning technologies.”
Australian Journal of Educational Technology 12.1 (1996): 46-55. 14
September 2002 <http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/gen/aset/ajet/ajet12/wi96p46.html>.
Harper, B., Hedberg, J. G., Wright, R., and Corderoy, R. “Interactive Multimedia
Development and Cognitive Tools.” Proceeding of the International Conference
on the Learning Sciences; 1996. Chicago, Illinois; 1996.
Hedberg, J. G., Harper, B., Brown, C., and Corderoy, R. “Exploring User Interfaces
to Improve Learning Outcomes.” Proceeding of the International Federation
for Information Processing: Working Group 3.2 Computers at University Level;
1994. University of Melbourne; July 1994.
Huitt, William G. “Educational Psychology Interactive course document Metacognition.”
Valdosta State University (1997). 9 September 2002 <http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/cogsys/metacogn.html>.
Kluwe, R. H. “Cognitive knowledge and executive control: Metacognition.”
Animal Mind—Human Mind. Ed. D. R.
Griffin. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1982.
NTL Institute. “Retention Rates from Different Ways of Learning” (2000).
16 September 2002 <http://www.cofc.edu/bellsandwhistles/research/retentionmodel.html>.
Larkin, J. H. and Simon, H. A. “Why a Diagram is (Sometimes) Worth Ten Thousand
Words.” Cognitive Science 11 (1987): 65-99.
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Additional References on Metacognition:
Biggs, J. B. and Moore, P. J. The Process of Learning. New York: Prentice
Brown, C. A., Hedberg, J. G., and Harper, B. M. “Metacognition as a Basis
for Learning Support Software.” Performance Improvement Quarterly 7.2
Flavell, J. H. The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget. New York:
D. Van Nostrand, 1963.
Flavell, J. H. “Metacognition Aspects of Problem Solving.” The Nature
of Intelligence. Ed. L. B. Resnick. Hilldale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1976.
Paris, S. G., and Winograd, P. “How metacognition can promote academic learning
and instruction.” Dimensions of Thinking and Cognitive Instruction.
Eds. B. F. Jones and L. Idol. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1990.
ITFORUM PAPER #67 - Lean-In
Technology, Safety Nets and Psychology
by Maureen Wakefield Contributors: Steve Wirt, Julie Batovsky and Linda Tatnall.
Posted on ITFORUM on February 7, 2003. The author retains all copyrights
of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author. Visit the ITFORUM
WWW Home Page at http://itforum.coe.uga.edu/