Researchers at John Hopkins University have found that if you slightly vary the learning activity each time, then learning can be improved.
To quote Science Alert from a post on 30 November 2017:
The researchers figured this out by getting 86 volunteers to learn to a new skill – moving a cursor on a computer screen by squeezing a small device, instead of using a mouse.
The volunteers were split into three groups, and each spent 45 minutes practising this.
Six hours later, one of the groups was asked to repeat the same training exercise again, while another group performed a slightly different version that required different squeezing force to move the cursor.
The third group only completed the first training session, so they could act as a control.
At the end of the training period, everyone was tested on how accurately and quickly they could perform the new skill, and predictably, the control group did the worst after their one training session.
But the surprise was that the group that had repeated the original training session actually did worse on the test compared to those who had mixed things up and trained in new areas – in fact, the group that modified their training did twice as well as those who’d repeated the original skill.
So if you are learning a piece of music for example it helps if instead of having the metronome on the same speed each time, to vary it each time slower and sometimes faster than the desired speed. This is not news to some as it kind of makes common sense (learning something the same way can get boring) and there are some areas of psychology such as Flow where variation of tasks, eg playing variations on the piece of music you are learning, are emphasised.
It does create a useful point of reflection on how we might consider our online learning design. After all the value of technology is that often it supports repetition, however this can also have a negative potential. Technology can support a lazy approach to online design, where once something is set up it doesn’t have to be changed. What this research says is that deliberate variation is better – and it doesn’t have to be much. What could work best is incremental change, ie small changes over time that require slight variation of attention on the part of the learners. As a similar approach, I admire how some familiar websites such as Linkedin, are always changing their platform in small ways, so that the overall experience is consistent but the immediate experience is fresh.
This approach scaffolds for the advantages of indirect design, where we might deliberately create sites for students that are challenging to navigate, either for teaching about the overriding value of aesthetic principles in certain online contexts, or to set students a gamified challenge to find their way through, increasing digital literacy and resilience. More on that in another post.