Learning From Mistakes

by ajc

It seems to me that education’s ultimate goal is transfer. Ironically, efficient instruction, a primary aim of instructional design, could prevent one from reaching this goal. Instructional designs represent the way in which its creator/designer views, perceives, and/or understands the content of study. Efficient instruction prescribes a narrow (single) path from what the learner knows to what the learner should know. Varying instructional techniques or utilizing complex (dynamic) methods of task selection, while increasing efficiency, is not likely to improve transfer. The path from which the (dynamically-selected) task originates is still narrow and pre-defined by the design.

Tangentially related information, and recollection of experiences (even mistakes), are useful when recalling information. Misperceptions, once corrected, can serve as points of activation (as episodic or autobiographical memories). These experiences and “ways of organizing” are likely beneficial in transfer situations, but they’re idiosyncratic. The teacher or designer’s idiosyncrasies, integrated into an instructional design, are not as likely to be assimilated into a learners schemata because the learner is not their “owner”. How do we construct experiences that facilitate the generation of these idiosyncrasies?

Research on feedback suggests that learners pay great attention when their misconceptions are challenged, and even greater attention when they find their internal “calibration”, or their ability to assess their expertise within a domain, to be inaccurate. These situations are more likely to occur when learners are not led stepwise from point A to point B. That is to say that instructional experiences that result in, but then alleviate cognitive dissonance (see Piaget’s disequilibrium) might be more likely to produce diverse and wide-ranging schema.

Much of the work on instructional efficiency has been completed within the field of research related to cognitive load. Cognitive load theory (CLT) prescribes the presentation of learning tasks matching complexity to learner expertise, so as to ensure that working memory capacity is not overloaded during instruction. More advanced studies vary task complexity based on (a.) performance, (b.) mental effort, or (c.) mental efficiency (calculated using the first two values). Randomly presenting problem states, assuming immediate feedback (corrective or explanatory in nature) is provided, may facilitate the construction more complex schema, consequently increasing performance in transfer situations.