Thursday, November 15, 2007


An important sentence from an article I recently read regarding evaluation was, “There is a need to help evaluators consider the way in which usability and learning interact.” That was the whole point of the article, so it was nice to see it directly stated in the introduction. To back up this claim, they present two well known evaluation checklists that fail to address the learning component to software, focusing more on usability of the software.

The Jigsaw Model, meant to address this need, follows a multi-level approach that addresses various tasks involved in both learning concepts and using the software. After addressing them independently, it looks at the relationships among the various concepts. While I’m not particularly interested in evaluation, it does (or should) permeate all steps of the design process, and I do like the focus on the integrated view, showing how everything fits together. Often courses will teach specific concepts or skills without relating them to the general field and without any help in figuring out how it all might be used in the real world.

I am interested in Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory. Much of the software side of the Jigsaw Model fits in with the need to reduce extraneous cognitive load. That is, as students spend time learning to use a specific piece of software or trying to integrate it with their computer’s speakers or printer, extraneous cognitive load is present. That is, students are spending time trying to figure out something other than what they are supposed to be learning. Unless the class is about troubleshooting printers or HCI, when there are problems, the students stop learning to take care of these other issues. Students shouldn’t have to deal with poorly written software when trying to learn.

Germane Cognitive Load (the good kind) is the processing and storing information that is being learned. By manipulating and working with the materials being learned, students will learn to understand it better. The anti-test-cramming argument would come into play here, with little likely germane load experienced when students just try to memorize a bunch of words right before the test. Without constructing schema to help figure out how everything being learned fits together, there is no context, and everything will be forgotten after the test. It is unfortunate that our education system seems so intent on tests. Performance on tests is rewarded, even though the process in preparing for tests often gets in the way of students being able to really focus on digging deep into the material for the class.

Squires & Preece point out that successful learning will involve students relating concepts and skills being taught to concepts and skills previously learned and used in that field of study. Usability issues need to not only keep from getting in the way of facilitating learning, but will ideally be designed to promote it. That integration of learning tasks and usability tasks is key in minimizing extraneous cognitive load and encouraging germane cognitive load.

Squires, D., & Preece, J. (1996). Usability and learning: Evaluating the potential of educational software. Computers & Education, 27(1), 15-22.

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