Motivation: To review selected microinstructional methods that instructional designers can use to improve learning and develop knowledge structures.
Microinstructional methods: Andre starts the chapter by admitting that learning does not happen in small, isolated sessions. Instead learning happens every day, across different domains, and through many methods. For this chapter, though, he focuses on instructional episodes, which are defined as dynamic interactions between a learner and the environment (including teachers, peers, instructional materials, and culture). Instructional episodes have three components: activation phase, instruction phase, and feedback phase. These components align with Merrill’s (2002) phases except that Merrill adds the integration phase. Andre recommends microinstructional methods for each of these components within the cognitive information-processing model (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968) and constructivism theory of learning.
Instructional methods for activating prior knowledge:
Advance Organizers: Starting with Ausubel (1960), advanced organizers have been a popular tool for activating schema and helping students organize new information. As Andre points out, this method became so popular that many people started calling many things advanced organizers that really weren’t. An advanced organizer is instructional materials that provides learners with a preview of the structure of new information before that new information is presented (i.e., a table of contents rather than an executive summary). Despite seemingly conflicting research results, research on true advanced organizers find them to be consistently effective.
Objective and Pre-questions: Many of us use learning objectives at a course level if not in our lesson plans, but we might not realize why. The value of objectives and pre-questions, i.e., questions that the learner will be able to answer by the end of instruction, is that they signal to the learner what information is important and provides a reference point for self-regulatory behavior.
Instructional methods for presenting information:
Student response: To keep students engaged and active in the learning process, instructions should elicit student responses. Responding to questions or prompts requires the student to process information well enough to produce an answer, and the directions given in questions or prompts can provide cues about information importance and structure.
Elaboration: To encourage students to construct knowledge, they should be asked to elaborate on concepts that they are learning. Elaboration requires students to integrate new information with prior knowledge through processes of reasoning, resulting in deep learning that connects to existing knowledge structures.
Mnemonic Devices: Mnemonic devices come in a variety of forms that associate new information with prior knowledge to facilitate learning. For example, the phrase, “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally,” is used to teach order of operations, which has the same acronym, “parentheses exponents multiplication division addition subtraction.” Many mnemonic devices promote deeper processing of information. Andre discusses the keyword method, giving the example of learning pato – the Spanish word for duck. He says pato is similar to pot, so a learner could imagine a duck swimming in a pot to remember pato.
Semantic or Concept Mapping: Mapping is a version of elaboration to learn associative relationships. The learner must take multiple concepts or ideas that were learned individually and connect them into a cohesive whole. Mapping can be a highly effective, though cognitively demanding, method of learning the relationships between information and developing effective knowledge structures.
Instructional methods to practice applying information:
Spacing and distribution: Spacing and distribution refer to spreading out application activities instead of massing them into one long practice session (i.e., cramming). Except in some cases, spacing/distributing practice improves retention. Though Andre does not mention interleaved versus blocked practice, it is a related concept. Interleaved practice refers to switching the topic of study regularly (e.g., study history, then math, then Spanish, then history…) rather than studying one topic completely before moving on to the next. Spacing and distribution encourage interleaved practice because other activities are done between practice sessions.
Automatization: Aligned with the cognitive information-processing model and subsequent models (e.g., ACT-R; Anderson, 1996), Andre suggests providing practice opportunities to help learners automate lower-level objectives. Taking the pato-duck example from earlier, learners should not always need to follow mnemonic devices to translate pato to duck. With enough practice, this connection becomes automatic, alleviating learners’ cognitive load and allowing them to move on to more advanced concepts.
Why this is important: Now that Andre’s chapter is more than 20 years old, it is interesting to consider the methods that he highlighted in 1997 compared to what is popular today. At least in my experience, the theoretical premises (i.e., cognitive information-processing model and constructivism) haven’t changed, and many of the recommendations that he makes are so common today that some may have forgotten the original research, and failed variations, that motivated and guided these methods. He goes into much more detail on the nuances of these methods in the chapter, and if you can get a copy, it’s a good read.
Anderson, J. R. (1996). ACT: A simple theory of complex cognition. American Psychologist, 51(4), 355.
Andre, T. (1997). Selected microinstructional methods to facilitate knowledge construction: Implications for instructional design. Instructional Design: International Perspectives. Theory, Research, and Models. Vol. 1 (pp. 243-267).
Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes1. In Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Vol. 2 (pp. 89-195). Academic Press.
Ausubel, D. P. (1960). The use of advance organizers in the learning and retention of meaningful verbal material. Journal of Educational Psychology, 51(5), 267.
Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59.
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