Internet memes point to a feature of great learning design

This is the fourth post in a series on learning design principles for digital learning.

In previous posts we covered:

  1. The Coherence Principle
  2. The Redundancy Principle
  3. The Segmenting Principle

Captions are great.

Combining captions with unrelated pictures to create hilarious moments is a phenomenon known as the Internet meme. Borrowing from the word ‘meme’, coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, the Wired magazine writer Mike Godwin first proposed the term ‘Internet meme’ back in June 1993. Since then they have proliferated, evolving as they are shared and taking on the cultural relevance of the time.

The success of the Internet meme is predicated on three conditions:

  1. a picture, usually funny or strange or curious in some way
  2. a caption, unrelated to the picture, often with specific cultural, political or religious references
  3. the placing of the two together to create an entirely new, often hilarious, construct.

It is the third condition that embodies the principle of Contiguity. 

In learning design, contiguity is the presenting of corresponding printed words and graphics near rather than far from each other, and corresponding graphics and narration simultaneously rather than successively (Clark & Mayer, 2011).

This design feature in digital learning has been shown in numerous studies to improve knowledge retention compared to when there is a disconnect between graphics and words, whether written or spoken. It helps because it reduces extraneous processing.

This is a fairly straightforward principle to follow. But when designing your learning for digital consumption, don’t be a rebel like Gladys. Line up your words and graphics.

What classical antiquity can teach us about bite-size learning

This is the third post in a series on learning design principles for digital learning.

In previous posts we covered:

  1. The Coherence Principle
  2. The Redundancy Principle

Part of the experience of reading books these days is reading in chapters. It not only shapes the way we consume books but even defines our lives for us in retrospect. How many times have you looked back on events like leaving school, moving to a new city, ending a relationship, or changing a job and thought, “that was the end of a chapter”.  While chapters in books and life fade or blur into one another in recollection, they are ever present while reading the book or living your life.

But this was not always the case.

Historians conclude that chapters originated in classical antiquity; in the golden age of the Greek and Roman empires. But the first authors who wrote in chapters were not novelists, but rather encyclopedists, monks, and theologians. They were instead compilers of knowledge who used them to organize large texts. A fascinating New Yorker article chronicles the earliest known works written in chapters, listing Cato the Elder’s tome on farming and Pliny the Elder’s compilation of Roman science as examples.

As the article notes, these early thinkers exhibited great foresight “in their sense that some texts are consulted more than they are read; they envisioned a focussed, interested, but not immersed reader, dipping into their books by locating relevant passages.”

What is really interesting is that the chapters we are most familiar with, the chapters in novels, were not used until the eighteenth century. The chapter, so designed for information-seeking, simply did not fit with the narrative form designed for continuous reading.

But then chapters began to proliferate as novelists began to realize another value: providing readers a break to pause, reflect, ruminate or even refresh between readings of their work. Chapters “aerated” books. They allowed people to fit novels into the routines of everyday life. A chapter before bed. One chapter every morning. As the article puts it, chapters “encourage our immersion by letting us know that we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands.”

“An attention paid out rhythmically”

— The New Yorker Magazine

There are two benefits of chapters that this little history lesson highlights.


  1. organize information and allow for easy searching
  2. allow for time to reflect on what was just consumed

And this is exactly what the learning design principle of Segmenting does too.

These days attention spans are way shorter than in the eighteenth century. While people could sit for hours on end to read a chapter, now it is a struggle to sit for 5 minutes to watch a video. Breaking content into bite-size chunks helps people consume information more efficiently and effectively. In fact, studies have shown that learners who are able to process one step in a process at a time, and decide when they advance to the next step have significantly higher knowledge retention than learners receiving training in a continuous unit. (Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. 2011)

 Imagine trying to consume all this knowledge without the ability to find what you are looking for? Imagine trying to consume all this knowledge without the ability to find what you are looking for?

In designing instruction for digital consumption, it is critical that we pay attention to the dual benefits of chapters – organization and time for reflection – and design our learning appropriately.

Gone are the days that anyone can be expected to sit for an hour and absorb everything thrown at them. Continuing education accreditors must adjust to this new reality and provide micro-credits. Learning organizations are already adjusting and providing nano-degrees.

This is not to say that all learning should be micro-learning. There is a time and place for micro-learning, just as there is for slightly longer intervals of learning that simultaneously provide learners with the resources for additional exploration. This type of learning design can unlock long, complex subject matter, and make it easily digestable for learners.

The trend is towards smaller chunks of content consumed over longer time periods. Create the rhythm of consumption, and you will be rewarded with the attention of your learners.

How dealing with Redundancy helps the brain process information

This is the second post in a series on learning design principles for digital learning.

In previous posts we covered:

  1. The Coherence Principle

You know that situation you sometimes find yourself in…  you’re at a bar or a restaurant with friends, and either side of you people are having deep meaningful conversations that you desperately want to take part in…

It’s impossible to focus on both conversations at the same time, and because you are not the center of the universe, both conversations carry on, whether you are involved or not. You can try to make sense of what each speaker is saying, but at some point, you’re going to have to choose which conversation you are going to pay attention to.

And of course, deal with the dreaded Fear Of Missing Out…

This is what is happening to your brain when you try to focus on one of those e-learnings in which the narrator reads the on-screen text to you. In our post about cognitive load,  we saw how the processing demands placed on our brains can exceed the capacity we have in working memory. When we see on-screen text, we read it, taking in the information through our visual channel. But if someone is also reading it to us, it is like an assault on our verbal channel – we cannot easily block it out, and suddenly the processing demands have exceeded our capacity to process.

This is where the principle of Redundancy can help.

Presenting information as graphics with narration, without the associated on-screen text, has been proven in numerous studies to be the most effective method of designing learning experiences (Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. 2011).

There are two important caveats to this:

(1) experienced learners are able to handle some amount of on-screen text (especially when used for signaling – see the next blog post in this series), and

(2) on-screen text to show the translation of another language being spoken is an effective way for foreign language speakers to make connections between the content and their language.

So next time you are designing an online learning experience, consider the two channels we have for processing information. Optimize for the visual channel, and design strong support (but not repetition) for the verbal channel.

How the Japanese KonMari method can improve your learning design

In two previous blog posts, we looked into how the human brain learns and what cognitive overload is. Over the next eight weeks, we are going to explore some of the principles and techniques that can be employed to reduce extraneous processing through smart learning design; manage essential processing also through smart design, and engaging training delivery; and foster generative processing by presenting scenarios, requiring learner input, and providing feedback.

In this post, we will start with a principle known as Coherence.

To help explain what this is, let me introduce you to Marie Kondo.

 Source: Web Summit - Sportsfile (Web Summit), CC BY 2.0 Source: Web Summit – Sportsfile (Web Summit), CC BY 2.0

Marie Kondo is a Japanese organizing consultant, author, and entrepreneur.

She developed a method of organizing, known as the KonMari Method, that is taking the world by storm. It is more a state of mind than a method for organizing. It involves gathering all of your possessions and physically handling each and every object you own and asking yourself if it “sparks joy.” If it does, you find a dedicated place to keep it, and if not, you discard it, allowing someone else to find joy in it. She published her ideas in two books that have sold over seven million copies in forty countries.

The result of implementing her incredibly simple, but powerful, method is a decluttering of your home, and by extension your life.

This is at the heart of the learning design principle of Coherence,  which can help us reduce extraneous processing.

A learning designer applying this principle is focused on weeding out words, graphics, animations, and sounds that are not central to the learning outcomes (Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. 2011).

Think about the last work complex task you had to complete. Did you have all the necessary answers in your memory, or did you have to look a few things up? Maybe ask a colleague? You probably knew what you didn’t know, and knew where to look. This is the skill we, as learning designers, must be teaching.

Think about that for a minute. This involves:

  • a single-minded approach to crafting strong learning outcomes,
  • keeping them in the forefront as you develop the lesson to meet this outcome,
  • focusing on only the most essential information needed to achieve this outcome,
  • pointing the learner to where they can find additional information when the time comes to apply it in their jobs.

This can sometimes be in direct conflict with the typical Subject Matter Expert (SME) tendency to treat all information as essential. But a learner simply cannot absorb all the information that is necessary to achieve a certain learning outcome – not into short-term memory, which is where it goes first and which has a limited capacity.

Managing the expectations of SMEs is an important skill for learning designers to have, and the topic for another blog post. But next time you’re in discussion with an SME, try asking them for the 3 most essential concepts the learner should know. Then ask them what resources a learner should be aware of, and make sure the training points them there.

Asking them to remember any more than that results in a clutter of the mind, and certainly no sparks of joy.