This post continues my series for educators/designers on turning content/experiences into learning resources. The initial post identified three cognitive tasks that must be applied to content/resources for effective learning. These three tasks were described as – knowledge activation, thinking, evaluation and regulation. This post will consider various ways these cognitive tasks might be activated.
I understand that some of the ideas I am presented may be abstract. I believe I can describe ideas like thinking or regulation clearly, but this may not mean that readers can convert such descriptions into specific tasks or activities. I will eventually get to an attempt to identify the multiple activities that can be layered on online content to modify such content into learning resources, but perhaps one such example would be helpful at this point.
Questions are a very versatile tactic for encouraging knowledge activation, thinking, and regulation. As a learner, I can ask questions of myself. As a designer, I can attempt to manipulate/encourage the cognitive activities of learners by asking questions. I can ask a question before access to new content that requests learners to remember something I believe represents relevant background knowledge. I can ask a question during the consideration of information or experiences that encourages specific thinking activities – application of a newly acquired content. I can ask a question to reveal the success of understanding and encourage rereading or further thinking should the learner be unable to answer the question. There is a great literature on the use of questions, when to ask questions, and what types of questions are suited to specific goals. This is not the location to review this research, but suffice it to say that questions have proven value, but the use of questions by many teachers is less than ideal. I use questions here as an example because I believe most of us can see questions as a means to encourage different types of cognitive behaviors in learners.
Now, back to the goal for this post. I am working toward a model that proposes teachers/designers can add various activities to online content (e.g., questions) to create from this content an instructional resource. However, before doing so I think it is important to understand that to create such modifications may not always be necessary and may be damaging under some circumstances. I know this may seem to make the life of a teacher more complicated, but I think this is reality and careful analysis should reveal this to be the case to most with classroom experience. Simply put, what works in an optimal manner will depend on the learner and the content to be learned.
Here is my way of thinking about this reality. When considering learners attempting to master content, I think it possible to imagine learners functioning in one of the following ways. To make this more concrete, imagine a specific form of content (reading/studying a web page) and perhaps a specific strategy for encouraging the key cognitive activities (questions). I imagine learners functioning in one of four situations:
- Internally prompted
- Externally prompted
The unprompted/automatic situation describes the behavior of the most advanced or sophisticated learner and suggests that mature learners apply and adjust cognitive behaviors directly. These cognitive behaviors do not require the use of an artificial tactic such as questions to activate productive cognitive behaviors. Requiring that these learners respond to questions would be unnecessary (busy work) and may hinder the existing cognitive capabilities by requiring the learner attend to unnecessary tasks.
The internally prompted situation involves learner capable of applying an artificial tactic without external guidance. These learners use such tactics to encourage productive cognitive behaviors and benefit from the addition of these tactics. So, for example, such learners might use self-generated questions as a strategy to rehearse and check for understanding.
The externally prompted situation involves the learner responding to content that has been augmented by tactics added by a teacher/designer in an effort to encourage productive cognitive behaviors. Using my example, the teacher/designer might ask learners to answer questions before, during or after exploring content.
The unprompted/passive situations involve learners lacking productive cognitive behaviors attempting to process content without the addition of external tactics.
So, back to the question, what makes content/experiences a learning resource? The answer depends on the learner and the content. With some learners and some content, the content is already a learning resource. With others learners and content, learner applied or teacher/designer encouraged strategies can transform content into a learning resource.
I am guessing you will see that this system makes sense, but question the practical value of thinking in this way. What is a teacher working with 25 students to do with the argument that students are all over the place when it comes to how they might best learn the same content? I cannot say I have a perfect reply to this challenge, but I think an accurate representation of reality is a good way to begin and then to work from there to see what options are available and what compromises are acceptable.