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March 5, 2007

How much responsibility for learning will you take?

Last entry in the "do's and don'ts" for good design I mentioned a "do" that said, "Take responsibility for your learners meeting your objectives." It seems to me that this one, in particular, merits more discussion. As teachers we all are faced with a decision - how much of our content are we going to take responsibility for our learners to actually learn it, and how much will we depend on the learner to take responsibility for learning on their own?

To answer this question, ask yourself who you are being in a certain situation. Are you a teacher, are you a lecturer, or are you an orientation leader?

The last two roles – lecturer and orientation leader – probably give the learner more responsibility to handle the content on their own. But the first role – teacher – places you with a greater responsibility to ensure that learning is taking place.

When I give my train the library teacher workshops to other librarians, this topic usually comes up after the design teams have brainstormed pages and pages of content and are now attempting to figure out what content is really crucial and what is less so. Inevitably, someone in the groups will say, "Well, we're just going to mention that item, we're not really going to teach it."

Now remember – we’re not designing orientations and we’re not designing lectures – we’re designing workshops. So, I have a pretty strong reaction to this. What I remind folks is that “mentioning? content comes at a cost to the learner. Learners only have so much cognitive ability to absorb and make sense of your content. In fact, when it comes to short term memory, the rule of thumb is that a person can only take in about 5 to 9 pieces of information before their capacity to take in information is reached. At that point the learner has to do something with that knowledge – apply it, synthesize it, process it – in order for it move into long term memory. So every time you mention something (“Oh, and you can order this through Interlibrary Loan. That’s a service where you… blah blah blah?) you’re tipping the learner towards or over the 5 to 9 mark. The problem is that when you do get to something that you actually want them to learn, you’ve used up your ration, and have to move directly into the “doing something? part of your lesson plan instead of covering more content/teaching points. But chances are, you wouldn't have designed this fast detour into "doing something" and so your handouts and exercises wouldn't work. If you're not fast on your feet, guess what - it probably means you’ve just messed up your essential need-to-know content with a bunch of "nice to know," yet less essential information. Yikes!

There’s a fabulous book out there called Telling Ain’t Training. This should be essential reading for all of us librarian enamored with our content and information. The single most important thing we can probably do is to lose our infatuation with sharing EVERYTHING that should be known and focus solely on the most essential items that must be known.