Consistently consistent design of digital resources: the science of same old, same old – by Adam Matthews (External Relations)

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By ensuring that all of your digital learning resources have a consistency of structure and approach, you can help learners to easily find content, but more importantly, be able to understand and get to grips with key with key concepts and ideas of your discipline. ‘Same old, same old’ and ‘samey’ are not words that you associate with a positive experience but taking work by Sweller and Chandler (1994) and the field of UX (User Experience), I want to turn these words into positives.

Cognitive load theory at its simplest says that lots of information is harder to learn than less, and long term memory is vastly larger in capacity than an extremely limited working memory. Sweller and Chandler in ‘Why Some Material Is Difficult to Learn, Cognition and Instruction’ propose that cognitive load can be split into intrinsic and extraneous. Intrinsic cognitive load is the work and resources that a learner puts into understanding and learning the many concepts, theories, knowledge and skills associated with their programme of study. Extraneous cognitive load is the load which is placed upon learners by the nature of the materials being used, this could be anything from PowerPoint slides, use of language, structure of content in documents or web pages and much more. Here is how Sweller and Chandler define that extra cognitive load that we can potentially reduce in our digital materials:

“An extraneous cognitive load is one that is imposed purely because of the design and organization of the learning materials rather than the intrinsic nature of the task. Learners must engage in irrelevant cognitive activities involving the simultaneous manipulation of elements solely because of the manner in which the task is organized.”

So, then if we are able to turn down that extraneous cognitive load and free up those precious resources that are limited in our working memory, how can we do this? One way is to try and present materials in a consistent manner. If when using digital learning resources there is an intuitive familiarity which almost becomes second nature and automated, we can allow learners to get to grips with the interesting content – the light bulb and aha moments that make those theories and concepts click into place.

There are many fields interested in using these ideas to make better products for users, these can often be termed human centred design or UX (User Experience). One of the pioneers of this approach to psychology was Donald Broadbent who looked at redesigning cockpit dashboards during World War 2 to make it easier for pilots to easily find controls. We can see the results of this work in the ease in which you can complete online purchases with Amazon. Take a look at the various sections of the BBC websites – News, Sport, Weather, they all look different but have very similar navigation. Next time you’re flicking through Netflix for a film how structured and consistent is the user interface?

Return to learning and teaching, how can we implement many of these ideas? A starting point for the way learning materials are presented on Canvas is the new HEFi Canvas Guide. The guide has five sections with simple, easy to implement pointers which can give consistency to programmes and modules. There is also a HEFi microCPD.

Is it possible to extend this approach across other teaching and learning approaches?

What are the implications for student experience?

Is it possible to get consistency across all modules of a programme?

Are there opportunities to look for consistency?

The Birmingham Digital Education team are on hand to offer design, development, support and advice on all aspects of learning and teaching materials that support programme and curriculum design as well as on-going maintenance.

Sweller, J. & Chandler, P. A. (1994). Why some material is difficult to learn. Cognition and Instruction, 12 (3), 185-233.


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