Category: instructional design

Time pilot

There was an aspect I omitted from my previous post, Space invaders, in which I covered the spacing effect as a means of maximising long-term retention.

Zsolt Olah picked it: interleaving and – ironically! – I judged it a bridge too far to include in the same post and so decided to split it out across a second one.

You’ll see why…

Aerobatic jets with coloured smoke trails.

Interleaving

Before defining interleaving, I feel it’s helpful to review the opposite: blocked presentation or blocking. This approach is equivalent to massed presentation whereby the content is consumed successively:

A pink block followed immediately by a blue block followed immediately by a green block.

An alternative approach is to split each block into leaves and vary their presentation. This approach is known as interleaved presentation or varied presentation or mixed presentation:

A pink leaf followed immediately by a blue leaf followed immediately by a green leaf, then another pink leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another green leaf, then another pink leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another green leaf.

The illustration above maintains the topical sequence, in contrast to random interleaved presentation whereby the sequence is shuffled:

A pink leaf followed immediately by a blue leaf followed immediately by a green leaf, then another blue leaf followed immediately by another green leaf followed immediately by another pink leaf, then another green leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another pink leaf.

Spaced interleaving

Just as the spacing effect can be employed to produce spaced block presentation:

A pink block flowing over time to a blue block flowing over time to a green block.

…so too can it be employed to produce spaced interleaved presentation (grouped):

A pink leaf followed immediately by a blue leaf followed immediately by a green leaf, flowing over time to another pink leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another green leaf, flowing over time to another pink leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another green leaf.

…or spaced random interleaved presentation (grouped):

A pink leaf followed immediately by a blue leaf followed immediately by a green leaf, flowing over time to another blue leaf followed immediately by another pink leaf followed immediately by another green leaf, flowing over time to another green leaf followed immediately by another blue leaf followed immediately by another pink leaf.

I use the qualifier “grouped” because, while that’s the traditional way of illustrating interleaving – I suspect due to the formal paradigm of education by which you fill up the periods assigned to you – I see no reason why each leaf couldn’t be separated over time; hence spaced interleaved presentation (separated):

A pink leaf flowing over time to a blue leaf flowing over time to a green leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another green leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another green leaf.

…and spaced random interleaved presentation (separated):

A pink leaf flowing over time to a blue leaf flowing over time to a green leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another green leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf flowing over time to another green leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf.

As you can see, it gets complicated real quick, and that’s before employing reinforcement or the testing effect!

Ron Burgundy from Anchorman contemplating with a beer.

Dynamic interleaving

When I look at the various permutations of spacing and interleaving, I wonder if an optimal timing or sequencing regime exists. Full disclosure: I’ve done zero research to find out; if you have, I’d love to play my lazy web card and ask you to share your findings via a comment below.

I also wonder about the efficacy of a bespoke regime that sequences the leaves according to a dynamic pattern – test latest > test previous > present new – leading to a final summative test:

A pink leaf flowing over time to a blue leaf flowing over time to a green leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another green leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf flowing over time to another green leaf flowing over time to another blue leaf flowing over time to another pink leaf.

I call this regime spaced dynamic interleaved retrieval (quite a mouthful!) or dynamic interleaving for short. Again, if you’re aware of anything out there that’s similar, please let me know.

A chart featuring Interleaving, within which is Spaced Interleaving, within which is Dynamic Interleaving.

Space invaders

Sometimes, out of the blue, one of my blog posts really hits the mark.

Such was the case recently with Great and small in which I had a go at redefining our pedagogical terminology.

While the post only attracted a few comments – cheers Neil, Dani and Rob – my friend Helen Blunden observes that barely anyone does that any more. To her point, I was contacted via other means by readers who wanted to thank me for sharing my semantics with them.

That was very rewarding, and it has encouraged me to do it again!

Aliens lined up in the style of the video game Space Invaders.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the spacing effect.

And when I say “thinking about”, I mean getting thoroughly confused. Over the years I’m sure we’ve all encountered phrases such as distributed learning, spaced repetition, retrieval practice and variations thereof; but it has become apparent to me that many of us conflate these terms.

So I’ve spent a typically disproportionate amount of time trying to untangle the meanings of these phrases, and it is these semantics I wish to share with you now.

The spacing effect

I consider the spacing effect an umbrella term describing the improved outcomes achieved by separating learning activity over time.

The foremost example is spaced presentation or distributed learning whereby the content to be learned is chunked and consumed periodically:

A pink block flowing over time to a blue block flowing over time to a green block.

This approach contrasts with massed presentation whereby the content is consumed all in one hit, as per a crammer the night before an exam:

A pink block followed immediately by a blue block followed immediately by a green block.

Science says while the crammer might do well on exam day, they’d retain more in the longer term if they were to split their study across the semester. And this makes sense to me, as the cognitive load is reduced in each session, and I presume the time intervals accommodate further cognitive processing that embeds the concepts deeper in memory.

Reinforcement

Note that my example of the spacing effect above didn’t involve the repetition of content; but it may well have.

Spaced presentation of the same chunks is known as spaced practice or spaced rehearsal or spaced repetition or distributed practice:

A pink block flowing over time to another pink block flowing over time to another pink block.

This approach contrasts with massed practice or massed rehearsal whereby the content is repeated in one hit, again as per a crammer the night before an exam:

A pink block followed immediately by another pink block followed immediately by another pink block.

When the duration of the time intervals between repetitions increases, it is known as expanding practice or expanding rehearsal:

A pink block flowing over time to another pink block flowing over a longer time to another pink block.

The testing effect

If the repeated content is presented in the form of active recall, the approach is known as spaced retrieval practice or simply spaced retrieval and it’s covered by the sub-umbrella term the testing effect:

A pink block flowing over time to a pink block with a question mark flowing over time to another pink block with a question mark.

This approach contrasts with massed retrieval practice whereby the content is repeatedly recalled in one hit, as per rote learning:

A pink block followed immediately by a pink block with a question mark followed immediately by another pink block with a question mark.

When the duration of the time intervals between active recalls increases, it is known as expanding retrieval practice:

A pink block flowing over time to a pink block with a question mark flowing over a longer time to another pink block with a question mark.

While the recall device might be a quiz, it might also be a case, debate, game, simulation, on-the-job assignment… whatever demands the retrieval of the concepts from memory.

It’s worth noting the rather unhelpfully labelled spaced learning is a specific approach to spaced retrieval whereby the first presentation is followed by a 10-minute interval during which the learner undertakes a distractor activity (e.g. shooting hoops), then an active recall session such as a quiz, then another 10-minute distractor activity, then the final session in which the learner applies the knowledge in the form of a task.

A pink block flowing over 10-minutes' time with a basketball icon to a pink block with a question mark flowing over another 10-minutes' time with a basketball icon to another pink block with a question mark.

In today’s hybrid and hyperbusy working environment, I feel the timing has never been better to leverage the spacing effect in our instructional design.

Instead of a 3-hour long class or a 45-minute long e-learning course, why not chunk the content and deliver it over time?

This approach enables our target audience to weave it into their work day… and make it stick.

A chart featuring The Spacing Effect, within which is Reinforcement, within which is The Testing Effect.

Great and small

English is a funny language.

Coloured by countless other languages over centuries of war, politics, colonialism, migration and globalisation, many words have been lost, appropriated or invented, while others have changed their meaning.

In Australian English for example, fair dinkum means “true” or “genuine”. Linguaphiles speculate the phrase originated in 19th Century Lincolnshire, where “dinkum” referred to a fair amount of work, probably in relation to a stint down the mines. Add a tautology and 10,000 miles, and you have yourself a new lingo.

Thousands of other English words have their origins in ancient Greek. One pertinent example for L&D practitioners is pedagogy (formerly paedagogie) which derives from the Hellenic words paidos for “child” and agogos for “leader”. This etymology underscores our use of the word when we mean the teaching of children.

And yet our language is nuanced. We may alternately use pedagogy to mean the general approach to teaching and learning. Not necessarily teaching, not necessarily children. In this broader sense it’s an umbrella term that may also cover andragogy – the teaching of adults – and heutagogy – self-determined learning.

For example, when Tim Fawns, the Deputy Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education at the University of Edinburgh, blogged his thoughts about pedagogy and technology from a postdigital perspective, he defined pedagogy in the university setting as “the thoughtful combination of methods, technologies, social and physical designs and on-the-fly interactions to produce learning environments, student experiences, activities, outcomes or whatever your preferred way is of thinking about what we do in education”.

When Trevor Norris and Tara Silver examined positive aging as consumer pedagogy, they were interested in how informal learning in a commercial space influences the mindset of its adult patrons.

And when I use the word pedagogy in my capacity as an L&D professional in the corporate sector, I’m referring to the full gamut of training, coaching, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, on-the-job experiences and performance support for my colleagues across 70:20:10.

A standing businessman facilitating a training session with a group of colleagues seated in a semi circle.

So while I assume (rightly or wrongly) that the broader form of the term “pedagogy” is implicitly understood by my peers when it’s used in that context, I spot an opportunity for the narrower form to be clarified.

Evidently, modern usage of the word refers not only to the teaching of children but also to the teaching of adults. Whether they’re students, customers or colleagues, the attribute they have in common with kids is that they’re new to the subject matter. Hence I support the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of pedagogy as the practice of teaching, regardless of the age of the target audience.

If pedagogy includes adults, then logic dictates we also review the exclusivity of the term andragogy. Sometimes children are experienced with the subject matter; in such cases, an andragogical approach that draws upon their existing knowledge, ideas and motivations would be applicable. Hence I dare to depart from the OED’s definition of andragogy as the practice of teaching adults, in favour of the facilitation of learning. Again, regardless of the age of the target audience.

With regard to heutagogy, I accept Hase & Kenyon’s coinage of the term as the study of self-directed learning; however in the context of our roles as practitioners, I suggest we think of it as the facilitation of self-directed learning. That makes heutagogy a subset of andragogy, but whereas the latter will have us lead the learners by pitching problems to them, hosting Socratic discussions with them and perhaps curating content for them, the former is more about providing them with the tools and capabilities that enable them to lead their own learning journeys.

A tree structure flowing from Pedagogy down to Pedagogy, Andragogy and Heutagogy; with Instructivism, Constructivism, Connectivism and Novices, Intermediates, Experts aligned respectively.

This reshaping of our pedagogical terminology complements another tri-categorisation of teaching and learning: instructivism, constructivism and connectivism.

As the most direct of the three, instructivism is arguably more appropriate for engaging novices. Thus it aligns to the teaching nature of pedagogy.

When the learner moves beyond noviceship, constructivism is arguably more appropriate for helping them “fill in the gaps” so to speak. Thus it aligns to the learning nature of andragogy.

And when the learner attains a certain level of expertise, a connectivist approach is arguably more appropriate for empowering them to source new knowledge for themselves. Thus it aligns to the self-directed nature of heutagogy.

Hence the principle remains the same: the approach to teaching and learning reflects prior knowledge. Just like instructivism, constructivism and connectivism – depending on the circumstances – pedagogy, andragogy and heutagogy apply to all learners, great and small.

Transformers

It seems like everyone’s spruiking the “new normal” of work.

The COVID-19 pandemic is keeping millions of previously office-bound employees at home, forcing L&D professionals to turn on a dime.

Under pressure to maintain business continuity, our profession has been widely congratulated for its herculean effort in adapting to change.

I’m not so generous.

Our typical response to the changing circumstances appears to have been to lift and shift our classroom sessions over to webinars.

In The next normal, which I published relatively early during lockdown, several of my peers and I recognised the knee-jerk nature of this response.

And that’s not really something that ought to be congratulated.

Who led the digital transformation of your company? The CEO (incorrect), The CTO (incorrect), COVID-19 (correct)

For starters, the virus exposed a shocking lack of risk management on our part. Digital technology is hardly novel, and our neglect in embracing it left us unprepared for when we suddenly needed it.

Look no further than the Higher Education sector for a prime example. They’re suffering a free-fall in income from international students, despite the consensus that people can access the Internet from other countries.

Beyond our misgivings with technology, moreover, the virus has also shone a light on our pedagogy. The broadcast approach that we deliver virtually today is largely a continuation of our practice pre-pandemic. It wasn’t quite right then, and it isn’t quite right now. In fact, isolation, digital distractions and Zoom fatigue probably make it worse.

I feel this is important to point out because the genie is out of the bottle. Employee surveys reveal that the majority of us either don’t want to return to the office, or we’ll want to split our working week at home. That means while in-person classes can resume, remote learning will remain the staple.

So now is our moment of opportunity. In the midst of the crisis, we have the moral authority to mature our service offering. To innovate our way out of the underwhelming “new normal” and usher in the modern “next normal”.

In some cases that will mean pivoting away from training in favour of more progressive methodologies. While I advocate these, I also maintain that direct instruction is warranted under some circumstances. So instead of joining the rallying cry against training per se, I propose transforming it so that it becomes more efficient, engaging and effective in our brave new world.

Transformer-style toy robot

Good things come in small packages

To begin, I suggest we go micro.

So-called “bite sized” pieces of content have the dual benefit of not only being easier to process from a cognitive load perspective, but also more responsive to the busy working week.

For example, if we were charged with upskilling our colleagues across the business in Design Thinking, we might kick off by sharing Chris Nodder’s 1.5-minute video clip in which he breaks the news that “you are not your users”.

This short but sweet piece of content piques the curiosity of the learner, while introducing the concept of Empathize in the d.school’s 5-stage model.

We’re all in this together

Next, I suggest we go social.

Posting the video clip to the enterprise social network seeds a discussion, by which anyone and everyone can share their experiences and insights, and thus learn from one another.

It’s important to note that facilitating the discussion demands a new skillset from the trainer, as they shift their role from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”.

It’s also important to note that the learning process shifts from synchronous to asynchronous – or perhaps more accurately, semi-synchronous – empowering the learner to consume the content at a time that is most convenient for them (rather than for the L&D department).

There is no try

Next, I suggest we go practical.

If the raison d’être of learning & development is to improve performance, then our newly acquired knowledge needs to be converted into action.

Follow-up posts on the social network shift from the “what” to the “how”, while a synchronous session in the virtual classroom enables the learner to practise the latter in a safe environment.

Returning to our Design Thinking example, we might post content such as sample questions to ask prospective users, active listening techniques, or an observation checklist. The point of the synchronous session then is to use these resources – to stumble and bumble, receive feedback, tweak and repeat; to push through the uncomfortable process we call “learning” towards mastery.

It’s important to recognise the class has been flipped. While time off the floor will indeed be required to attend it, it has become a shorter yet value-added activity focusing on the application of the knowledge rather than its transmission.

Again, it’s also important to note that facilitating the flipped class demands a new skillset from the trainer.

A journey of a thousand miles

Next, I suggest we go experiential.

Learning is redundant if it fails to transfer into the real world, so my suggestion is to set tasks or challenges for the learner to do back on the job.

Returning to our Design Thinking example, we might charge the learner with empathising with a certain number of end users in their current project, and report back their reflections via the social network.

In this way our return on investment begins immediately, prior to moving on to the next stage in the model.

Pics or it didn’t happen

Finally, I suggest we go evidential.

I have long argued in favour of informalising learning and formalising its assessment. Bums on seats misses the point of training which, let’s remind ourselves again, is to improve performance.

How you learned something is way less interesting to me than if you learned it – and the way to measure that is via assessment.

Returning to our Design Thinking example, we need a way to demonstrate the learner’s mastery of the methodology in a real-world context, and I maintain the past tense of open badges fits the bill.

In addition to the other benefits that badges offer corporates, the crux of the matter is that a badge must be earned.

Informalise learning. Formalise its assessment.

I am cognisant of the fact that my proposal may be considered heretical in certain quarters.

The consumption of content on the social network, for example, may be difficult to track and report. But my reply is “so what” – we don’t really need to record activity so why hide it behind the walls of an LMS?

If the openness of the training means that our colleagues outside of the cohort learn something too, great! Besides, they’ll have their own stories to tell and insights to share, thereby enriching the learning experience for everyone.

Instead it is the outcome we need to focus on, and that’s formalised by the assessment. Measure what matters, and record that in the LMS.

In other words, the disruptive force of the COVID-19 pandemic is an impetus for us to reflect on our habits. The way it has always been done is no substitute for the way it can be done better.

Our moment has arrived to transform our way out of mode lock.

The 70:20:10 lens

In 70:20:10 for trainers I advocated the use of the 70:20:10 model by L&D professionals as a lens through which to view their instructional design.

The excellent comments on my post, and insightful blog posts by others – notably Mark Britz, Clark Quinn and Arun Pradhan – have prompted me to think deeper about my premise.

Hand holding a lens pointing to a landscape

I continue to reject the notion that 70:20:10 is a formula or a goal, because it is not a model of what “should be”. For example, we needn’t assign 70% of our time, effort and money on OTJ interventions, 20% on social learning, and 10% on formal training. Similarly, we shouldn’t mandate that our target audience aligns its learning activity according to these proportions. Both of these approaches miss the point.

The point is that 70:20:10 is a model of what “is”. Our target audience does undertake 70% of its learning on the job, 20% via interacting with others, and 10% off the job (or thereabouts). Mark Britz calls it a principle. It’s not right and it’s not wrong. It just is.

Our role then as L&D professionals is to support and facilitate this learning as best we can. One of the ways I propose we do this is by using 70:20:10 as a lens. By this I mean using it as a framework to structure our thinking and prompt us on what to consider. Less a recipe citing specific ingredients and amounts, more a shopping basket containing various ingredients that we can use in different combinations depending on the meal.

For this purpose I have created the following diagram. To avoid the formula trap, I decided against labelling each segment 70, 20 and 10, and instead chose their 3E equivalents of Experience, Exposure and Education. For the same reason, I sized each segment evenly rather than to scale.

The 3 E's: Education, Exposure, Experience

Using the framework at face value is straight-forward. Given a learning objective, we consider whether a course or a resource may be suitable; whether a social forum might be of use; if matching mentees with mentors would be worthwhile. Perhaps it would be helpful to develop some reference content, or provide a job aid. When looking through the lens, we see alternatives and complements beyond the usual event-based intervention.

Yet we can see more. Consider not only the elements in the framework, but also the interactions between them. For example, in our course we could assign an on-the-job task to the learners, and ask them to share their experiences with it on the ESN. In the language of the framework, we are connecting education to experience, which in turn we connect to exposure. Conversely we can ask workshop attendees to share their experiences in class (connecting experience to education) or encourage them to call out for project opportunities (connecting exposure to experience). The possibilities for integrating the elements are endless.

Those who see L&D as the arbiter of all learning in the workplace may find all this overwhelming. But I see L&D as a support function. To me, 70:20:10 is not about engineering the perfect solution. It’s about adding value to what already happens in our absence.