Schema & Repetition: a helping hand for our working memories

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As a designer highly interested in graphic design for e-learning, I regularly question how well I can help guide the cognitive process in student end-users through visual design and structure and, if able to contribute to content, how to include activities which are consistent with tried-and-tested methods by which students learn and most importantly, realise effective data retention and strong knowledge transfer.

One thing that is very clear to me is that it's important to take a learner-centric approach - not technology-centric. Successful eLearning designs will not be led by the latest tech' capabilities, but by how designers can retro-fit tech' resources to the desired pedagogical outcome/s (sounds simple - but not always adhered to) - it's too easy to simply seek the latest developments in learning tech' first - because a provider wants to be seen to be ahead of the curve and to provide something new and refreshing - and then retro-fit the learning journey to the tech' ...

Another fascinating aspect of designing for eLearning is how including repetition and considering schema can really bring home data-retention and deep-learning.

Here's a great video (funny as well as interesting) from back in 2008 which gives some really useful tips on assisting working memory in learners' through schema and repetition.

Dr John J. Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at Washington State University, and Author of 'Brain Rules' (www.brainrules.net), makes important points for any eLearning designer/provider to take on board regarding schema. Schema is prior knowledge based upon people's life experiences such as their favourite things, their lifestyle, behaviour, culture and learning style (how they process information) etc. In short, using prior knowledge to construct long-term memory. Schema helps to determine whether information being perceived is also being learnt. Schema offers a mental framework that gives order to thoughts on aspects of everyday life and the world. A successful blend between schema and working memory will ensure that learning is more permanent.

Which leads me on to the second area of interest when designing eLearning courses: repetition. There are limits to how much the working memory can hold and a designer of e-Learning should work hard to prevent cognitive overload. As well as segmentation of data assisting with working memory (learn in bite-size chunks - break key data up), it is clear that repetition is key to data retention. It is interesting to note that humans can hold up to 7 items in the working memory for up to 30 seconds, if repeated within this 30 seconds then the learner will hold on to the data for a further 2 hours and needs to be repeated for a 2nd time within this time period. The data will disappear permanently if not repeated within the 2 hours.

Singing facts to aid data retention is another simple tool that could be employed using simple rhythms. We are all familiar with this technique - any one of us (at least in the UK) can recall the colours of the rainbow through the repetitive verse taught to us at infant school 'The Colours of the Rainbow'. 

So, it could be said perhaps that the most impactful e-learning program designs will be those which first assess schema by constructing questions which assess individual prior knowledge before a student embarks upon a learning program. The leaning program could then slightly adapt its order or structure of contents in order to better align with the user's schema. In addition, the program could include considered repetition schemes and so further assist the learning journey and better enable data-retention.

It's a graphic designer's job to be able to support learning providers to realise such a program by providing a clean and simple interface which facilitates schema assessment and repetition through strong, effective layout principles which don't confuse or clutter the experience of the learner. 


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