General Approach to Creating Applied Learning Activities

Survey the domain

To avoid a piecemeal approach to developing content modules and applied learning activities, an educator should first survey the real-world domain of interest and decide which competencies learners should develop. The next step is to identify which real-world tasks and constituent skills characterize each competency. And finally, identify the relevant variability in context and complexity that occurs within each type of task. This survey is used to establish task classes, which are specific types of real-world tasks that are defined for each level of complexity along with their relevant variability and context.

Create applied learning activities for individual task classes

The next step is to develop several applied learning activities for each task class. Some of the activities will be used to model the solution process in-class or by video, while others will be assigned to learners. Some of the activities assigned to learners may included partial solutions with guidance, while other activities from the same task class may provide no solution or guidance. This approach provides a scaffolding in the form of partial solutions and guidance that are gradually reduced as learners demonstrate competence. In the ideal, when all solutions and guidance are removed, the learning objective(s) of the activity will have become internalized as part of a learner’s mental schema.

All of the applied learning tasks within the same task class should require the same mental model and cognitive strategies to solve. As learners work through the learning activities within a task class, each should require a manageable intrinsic cognitive load with a minimum of extraneous cognitive load. In addition, learners should be given enough time to address the germane cognitive load of building and elaborating their mental schemas. For learning to occur, the total cognitive load cannot exceed a learners working memory. After receiving feedback, learners can reflect more on their performance, which is used to further build, elaborate, and/or prune and refine their mental model and cognitive strategies.

Once a task class is mastered, then learners can progress to the next more complex task class, which in order to solve require an even more robust mental schema with additional cognitive strategies. Once again, the demand of the intrinsic cognitive load must be manageable based on a learner’s increased ability. Note that even though in an absolute sense, the task is more difficult than the tasks in the previous task class, it is just as manageable because of the increased competency of the learner.

Task classes will be augmented and refined as educators reflect upon overall learner performance, and the relationship between competencies and applied learning activities.

General approach to designing an applied learning activity

When deciding on the content of an applied learning activity, an educator should ask, “What portion of my mental schema with its facts, relationships, and cognitive processes do I want my learners to acquire and practice?” Notice the word “portion.”

From Cognitive Load Theory, it is clear that it does no good to try and activate vast sections of a learner’s schema when it is first being constructed. Avoiding this approach is not only merciful to learners by keeping the complexity of an applied learning activity manageable, it is merciful to educators by keeping learning activities focused and relatively simple to assess and provide feedback.

The next decision is what situational context of a real-world task will be used. Creating a context for an applied learning activity is educational art, and the real challenge is to deconstruct one’s expertise into discrete units of knowledge and skills and present them in a context that is sufficiently engaging without becoming distracting or overwhelming. Unfortunately, this deconstruction goes against a brain’s natural tendency because it is in one sense, a regression to surface the automated subconscious processes of its schema.

While deconstructing one’s expertise is difficult, it should not be thought of as a regression in the ultimate sense because no dismantling actually occurs. In fact, the ability to deconstruct and communicate one’s expertise is a further elaboration and strengthening of the same, which results in the acquisition of even more expertise. Recall the schema challenge for educators.

Deconstructing one’s expertise is not unlike an artist who must reduce a painting into brushstrokes or a novelist who must reduce a bestselling novel into its themes and individual sentences. As difficult as this can be, an expert must never lose sight of the fact that learners are trying to create expertise in their own minds, and such a deconstruction is required for them to manage the complexity of the task.

The next decision is which dimensions of variability in context and complexity of the real-world task will be modeled in the activity. This decision should be based on the current ability of the intended learners. As mentioned previously, applied learning activities that require substantially more schema than learners have, or can activate will result in their frustration and falling back into survival mode.

In summary

An applied learning activity should be thought of as a single conceptual step in a series of steps that begin with relatively simple contexts and exercises that focus on relatively simple tasks and subtasks. As learners increase in competency, activities should increase in complexity with new challenges introduced in the context of previously mastered knowledge and cognitive skills. As learners build competence and confidence, increasingly complex activities can be introduced until overall mastery of an applied learning objective is achieved. Recall that the ideal is that every activity is perceived by learners as equally difficult, because as each additional activity increases in complexity, the competency of learners will have previously increased accordingly.