Making Your Learner Think, Part I: Be Subtle

Subtlety works... In advertising, in movies, in arguments, and in learning material.

There’s an infographic at teachthought.com about how social media is “hurting productivity in learning.” There are many creative and informative aspects to the infographic; here, we’re pointing to a couple of examples of subtlety. Scroll down to where it says “People spend 2X more time on Facebook than they do exercising.” Notice the group of icons above “exercising”? Instead of three bicycling icons, you have... two icons of a person at a computer.

The point becomes clear.

Then, scroll down to the big “Netflix” icon. “Every day” is in the white box to the left; “every year” is under the word Netflix — in a small font.

You very casually notice the word “year.” Then you ask: “Wait a minute, it’s one day versus one year?”

Imagine the effect if “Netflix” had been small, and “year” had been large. That’s the way we usually do things — and you can see the difference.

Now this technique — of being sublte so that people sit up and take notice — is similar to the technique of asking a question. I recall coaching material where each page had a little question at the end, in italics. Sometimes it would be elaborate:

Why do you think ____ did ____?

Sometimes it would be pithy:

How?

The next page would continue as though there had been no question. The question, though, made us sit up and think. Sometimes we’d bother to work out the answer, sometimes not. It didn’t matter.

What we’re talking about here is concealing information to make your learner think. In an e-learning course about how a car works, imagine a prompt that says:

Click Next to find out how a car engine works.

Now imagine the prompt saying:

Click Next to read about the most important part of a car.

It might sound silly in an interface prompt, but — why not? By the time your learner clicks, he's already learnt something!

Have you seen those computer games where you get clues about a key to a room? Gamers will play for hours trying to find the key — and they learn many other things about the game world in the process.

A lot is said about learner-centric environments. In such an environment, it's a great idea to make your learner think — by concealing information where appropriate. Subtlety works.