MindEdge LINK Symposium: Liz Breen on the power of story

At the 2017 MindEdge LINK Symposium, Emmy-nominated writer and advertising creative director, Liz Breen, graced the stage to offer her perspective on the importance of storytelling and narratives. Narrative, Liz described, can be used to pull an audience into the action. This funny, intelligent speech set our minds buzzing as to how we can better leverage narrative in course development. Please enjoy as much as we did!

Copyright © 2017 MindEdge, Inc.

Why learning variety matters

One foundation of student-centered learning is variety—providing learners with multiple ways to learn.
With the advent of online and blended learning, instructors can present students with a wide range of learning options. These include video (mini-lectures, animations), audio, interactive games, narrative learning (case studies and scenarios), writing to learn exercises, simulations, flash cards, formative and summative assessments, discussion boards, adaptive learning, concept mapping, and in-class group work and discussions.

MindEdge Varied Learning

As we’ve noted in the past, not everyone processes information in the same way. Some learners find video presentations help them master challenging material—others prefer text, some are most comfortable with visual aids.
There are key five benefits to focusing on variety. Students tell us that it:

  • Stimulates their interest.
  • Encourages their participation.
  • Engages them through their preferred way of learning
  • Supports their sense of achievement
  • Allows them to demonstrate their mastery in varied ways

We’ve also noted in the past the importance of planning ahead during the content development process. Instructional designers should consider the sequence and pacing of the learning. They should look for opportunities to introduce new and different learning elements. The pay-off will come in the form of learning that engages, entertains, and informs.

Helpful resources

Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Practices: A Handbook for College Faculty, Jossey-Bass, 2009.
Peter Brown, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Belknap Press, 2014.
Gerald F. Hess, “Value of Variety: An Organizing Principle to Enhance Teaching and Learning,” Elon University Law Review, June 10, 2010. (Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1796882)
James M. Lang, Small Teaching, Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Copyright © 2017 MindEdge, Inc.

About the National Institute for Online Learning


Last week MindEdge Online added two courses on online learning from the National Institute of Online Learning (NIOL). It was a milestone for the Institute, which seeks to improve the quality and effectiveness of online learning, especially for adult learners, by promoting best practices and innovation in the field.

We founded NIOL last year for several reasons. First, we thought that MindEdge Learning had knowledge and expertise of value that we believed would be helpful for those involved in online education. MindEdge has developed effective online courses and simulations used by hundreds of thousands of students in higher education and the private sector. The Institute seemed to be an appropriate vehicle in that transfer of learning.

Second, in working with partners and new entrants to the field, we encountered somewhat of a gap between theory and practice—some of those tasked with designing and creating online courses did not have prior grounding in learning theory or much exposure to the technology involved. We think the Institute can help in educating those who want a deeper background in online learning.

Third, we wanted a place where those interested in educating adults would be able to find resources. While the recent emphasis on MOOCs and undergraduate online education is promising, we thought that the challenges of designing and creating online courses and simulations for adults continues to deserve focused attention.

For those reasons, and others, we decided it was time for NIOL. What can you expect from the Institute in the near future? NIOL will be focused on training, education, consulting, and advocacy.

The Institute will offer additional courses focused on various aspects of online learning, including instructional design, course development, and key technologies. By the end of 2013, learners will have the opportunity to earn NIOL’s Online Learning Fundamentals Certificate, awarded for the successful completion of the Institute’s twelve introductory courses.

NIOL will also release occasional white papers focused on relevant learning topics (including narrative and adaptive learning) and will host webinars on best practices in course and simulation design and on technology issues.

The Institute will also be establishing an advisory board of academics, practitioners, educators, and others interested in online learning to help us keep NIOL abreast of the latest developments in the field.

You can learn more about the Institute at the NIOL website, or you can contact me directly at MindEdge Learning (info@mindedge.com) with any questions or suggestions.

Jefferson Flanders, an author and educator, is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2013 Jefferson Flanders

Variety and online learning

Variety, the old saying goes, is the spice of life—it’s also crucial in keeping online learners alert and engaged.

At MindEdge, we see incorporating a variety of learning approaches (including video, text, interactive exercises, flipbook presentations, writing-to-learning exercises, mini-cases, simulations, book excerpts, etc.) as a best practice for learner-centered instruction and education.

Here are four specific benefits of focusing on variety:

  • Variety offers multiple entry points for the learner.

    Learners who quickly scan the assignments in an online course may enter the course with an assignment or activity that appeals to them. Some learners proceed sequentially but others skip around. Some may even start with quizzes or tests as a way of gauging their level of knowledge. Variety is of value to all of these learners.

  • Novelty helps keep the learner engaged.

    Research shows that learners are more likely to lose focus after 15 minutes or so of concentrating on new content (which is one reason why MindEdge looks to keep its video segments short). Variety breaks up the pace of learning; changing the way content is presented can spark fresh interest.

  • Learning variety can better illuminate difficult content.

    Not everyone processes information in the same way. Some learners find video presentations help them master challenging material—others prefer text, some are most comfortable with visual aids. A simple graph or chart can often elicit that “aha” moment. Consider the following graphic about Six Sigma from MindEdge’s “Quality Management Basics” course:

    Six Sigma Bell Curve

    The chart shows clearly that processes working at a “Six Sigma” level are 99.9997% defect-free (or only 3.4 defects per million process outputs) in a way that many learners are going to find quite helpful.

  • Different learning methods reinforce different learning goals.

    Learners benefit when different learning approaches align with outcomes: writing-to-learn exercises, for example, are an effective way to help students in synthesizing what they have learned. Learning games can make mastering definitions or concepts enjoyable rather than tedious. Narrative learning (case studies, simulations) connects with learners in ways that non-narrative presentations don’t.

To make sure that courses, simulations, and other learning resources provide varied approaches to learning, it’s important to plan ahead during the content development process. Instructional designers should consider the sequence and pacing of the learning. They should look for opportunities to introduce new and different learning elements. The pay-off will come in the form of learning that engages, entertains, and informs.

Copyright © 2012 MindEdge, Inc.

Best Practices: A Fading Approach to Worked Examples

Lindsey Collins Sudbury

Guest writer: Lindsey Collins Sudbury
MindEdge Senior Editor
We structure MindEdge courses using a whole-part-whole learning approach, a model that works well for adult learners. Within that broad whole-part-whole framework, we use different instructional techniques. For teaching specific parts, where concrete skills or knowledge is being transferred to the learner, we often turn to the fading approach to worked examples.
Instructional designers should not underestimate the importance of examples. Learners learn by example—oftentimes, whether for reasons of time, personal learning preference, or of lack of confidence with the language, learners actually skip instructional content and head straight for the examples. In fact, teaching through worked examples (example problems that provide concurrent instructions for solving them at each step) has been found to be more effective than opening up a problem for learners to solve on their own, even when given previous instruction (Nievelstein et al. 2010; Van Gog et al. 2006).

Why does it work?

Showing worked examples before turning learners loose to apply instructional content to a problem reduces unnecessary load on working memory and discourages the learner from filling in imagined—but incorrect or incomplete—guesses about how the process works (Cooper et al. 2001; Ginns et al. 2003) or skimming the steps rather than steeping themselves in the details necessary for learning. “Fading out” support for completion of these examples so that examples slowly become exercises or problems for the learner to solve independently is like offering training wheels. When you use the fading approach with worked examples, learners can learn by doing and understand the whole process before being asked to exercise a skill with insufficient help.
Remember to start out with the explanation of the whole concept, and ensure that the details provided in the worked examples aren’t too overwhelming for your learners. Before teaching any skill in detail, learners will usually want an overview that answers some of the main journalist’s questions: what the skill is, why it is necessary, and how—generally—it works. Answering these questions usually provides enough schema to jump into worked examples.

An implementation

We recently completed a project for a university in which we relied heavily on the fading approach to teach the skill of paraphrasing.
Paraphrasing is a skill that we take for granted, but teaching this skill to someone unfamiliar with it threatens overload at every step. To paraphrase properly, the learner must read a paragraph from a research article, look up any unfamiliar words, rephrase the paragraph in his or her own words—being careful not to introduce any personal opinions or biases—, and cite the original source using proper citation conventions.
We chose examples from the four fields of our target learners in this multi-disciplinary course, but even that meant that only a quarter of the example reading passages is likely to be from of a field familiar to each given learner. Therefore, even providing examples of paraphrases in the context of research writing can be tricky because the content of the example itself can easily add mental strain unnecessary to learning a reliable process for paraphrasing.
Our solution was to use a fading approach to worked examples until the point in the lesson where most learners should be comfortable enough with the process to apply it to new content—and then to content that they may submit for grading.
The first worked example uses a judicious amount of clicking to draw attention to important components of a paraphrase. Annotations explain the thinking process for creating the paraphrase example and, in turn, structure the learner’s subsequent self-explanations about the process:
Annotated Example
You’ll notice that the learner is asked to do very little other than click to see how the example provides a model of the skill. As the learner builds a better mental model of the paraphrasing process, worked examples will begin to ask the learner to participate more in the process by identifying which of three sample paraphrases offers a best response to the task of paraphrasing a given passage.
To further fade support for task completion and allow the learner to apply his or her understanding of the concept to new situations, the next set of exercises asks the learner to identify which parts of erroneous paraphrase responses do not meet task requirements and then rewrite the paraphrase, eliminating the errors.
Step 2 asks learners to fix a negative response
Exercises that provide negative responses, or poor models of the completed task, which the learner must correct have been shown to help learners develop self-explanation and self-monitoring skills that become helpful as the learner gains more independence. The use of negative responses has also been shown to lead to longer retention as long as learners have developed the schema to support such explanations (Große and Renkl, 2007). So make sure that your examples offer plenty of annotations and feedback to support learning. We ensure that, as with any worked example, when the activity involves a negative response, the learner is ultimately provided with specific information about what is wrong with the negative response and with a positive model for completion.
Feedback is detailed and offers a correct solution.
Only after a sufficient number of examples and exercises with fading support is the learner asked to take on all of the steps of paraphrasing independently and generate his or her own paraphrase without support to structure the process. Still, however, the suggested response offers a sample solution and discusses any complex patterns of thinking necessary for understanding the paraphrase process used for that example.
After the learner completes as many of these practice examples and exercises as he or she wishes—and is offered enough feedback so that he or she understands how the process may be applied to any content—the final exercise walks the learner through the paraphrase submission task. For this task, which will be submitted for grading, the learner paraphrases a paragraph from an article that he or she is likely to use in his or her research paper. The fading approach has sufficiently modeled the processes necessary for completing this task, and the learner is now applying the process to his or her own work.

A sample worked example/exercise sequence

Item Purpose
Overview: Answers what, why, how Provides motivation for learning; places the skill in context.
Example with annotations Offers more structure than any other example/exercise in the sequence. Helps the learner understand the goal of the tasks without resorting to forming an incorrect or incomplete understanding of the process.
Example of a completed submission task with three different potential paraphrases. Learner is asked to review the possible answers and choose one. Feedback explains which paraphrase best fits task requirements and discusses the proficiencies and deficiencies of each choice. Allows the learner to understand the scope and requirements of the process being taught without having to complete the process himself or herself.
Exercise offers a negative example. Learner is asked to explain where it falls short and correct those aspects. Feedback reinforces the salient aspects of the process. Offers structure without asking the learner to independently complete the task before he or she is ready.
Exercise asks the learner to create a paraphrase independently. Feedback provides the correct answer and discusses the more complicated decisions that were necessary for completing the task. Helps the learner begin to independently apply skills to new situations.
Exercise walks the learner through completing a task for submission Structures completion of the task while letting the learner write independently. This exercise later acts as a reference or job aid to help the learner complete the task when he or she is called upon to paraphrase in the future.


We were faced with teaching a complex process that was bound to cause unnecessary strain to students—several of the steps of the paraphrase process, even when taught alone, are likely to be taxing on working memory. To help learners create a complete and correct model of the process in their minds, we decided to teach by example. We used a fading approach for worked examples: we began by showing complete examples with annotations alongside (which offered the most support), and we faded out to examples and exercises that allowed the learner to complete the paraphrase process more and more independently. Key to our success was careful annotations that helped learners understand what made for a successful paraphrase, followed by exercises and examples that provided extensive feedback alongside and after learner efforts.

Primary resources

Van Gog and Rummel offer a fantastic literature review of research on worked examples:
van Gog, T, & Rummel, N. (2010, May 8). Example-based learning: Integrating cognitive and social-cognitive research perspectives. Educational Psychology Review 22:155–174.

Other helpful resources

Cooper, G., Tindall-Ford, S., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2001). Learning by imagining. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied, 7, 68–82.
Ginns, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). When imagining information is effective. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 28, 229–251.
Große, C. S., & Renkl, A. (2007). Finding and fixing errors in worked examples: Can this foster learning outcomes? Learning and Instruction, 17, 612–634.
Nievelstein, F., Van Gog, T., Van Dijck, G., & Boshuizen, H. P. A. (2010). The worked example and expertise reversal effect in less structured tasks: Learning to reason about legal cases. Manuscript submitted for publication.
Van Gog, T., Paas, F., & Van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2006). Effects of process-oriented worked examples on troubleshooting transfer performance. Learning and Instruction, 16, 154–164.

Copyright © 2011 Lindsey Collins Sudbury

Variety key to effective online learning

One of the challenges in facilitating online learning is that, unlike face-to-face instruction, it’s hard to tell when a student or learner’s attention is flagging. The tell-tale signs (blank looks, yawning, physical restlessness) aren’t there to suggest that it’s time to shift gears, change topics or approach, etc.
To counter this, we recommend that courses or learning resources be constructed with variety in mind. Changing the type of learning offered to the learner helps make it engaging and keeps the boredom factor to a minimum. It allows for a balance between “guided discovery” and “routinized learning.”
When designing a course it’s helpful to look at the outline of assignments and deliberately alternate kinds of learning. If you notice that your course pages don’t have enough variety, try any of the following format changes to wake up the learner:

  • visually-enhanced presentations
  • video segments
  • Flash interactive exercises
  • asynchronous discussion
  • self-assessments
  • flashcards
  • brief essays
  • reflective prompts
  • slideshows
  • case studies
  • video or Web chats
  • hyperlinks to pertinent websites
  • excerpts from books

Interactive exercises can follow presentations or reading; reflective prompts or brief self-assessments are a great way to help the learner stop and consider what he or she has absorbed.
It’s important to recognize that sometimes the learner will find learning difficult: concepts may be complex; foundational formulas or definitions must be memorized; a synthesis of disparate ideas may be required. Varying the learning style or approach can help in these cases as well. Vocabulary games can make remembering definitions less of a chore. Step-by-step problem-solving, in which the learner is asked to complete a complex task in an incremental fashion, can help in the mastery of difficult concepts. Offering more than one explanatory avenue to the learner (pairing a brief video segment with a slide presentation) can also prove effective.
This may all seem elementary, yet it’s not hard to find examples where the Law of Variety is violated in online learning, often by instructors or course designers who prefer one kind (or format) of learning and assume that it will appeal to all learners. Another concern is the growing proliferation of software like Adobe Captivate and Camtasia, which places learning tools into the hands of teachers and instructors, but can result in a mechanical experience for the learner because of the templated quality of much of the output from these programs. (Some choose the Captivate/Camtasia mode of presentation because they mistakenly believe that a learner shouldn’t be asked to scroll down or around the screen.)
We recommend using beta testing and feedback from learners to evaluate when more variety in an online learning resource is called for. We’ve found that students are eager to let you know when a learning element isn’t working for them. Beware of long-form videos and repeated passive presentations (where the student is asked to absorb, but not respond or interact)–break these into smaller learning units where the learner does something. It’s one more reason to integrate continuous improvement into your instructional design, if you haven’t already.

The power of narrative learning

I lost count of the number of times my wife or I read aloud books like Big and Little or Goodnight Moon to our sons when they were pre-schoolers. Perhaps you, too, have experienced the wide-eyed enthusiasm the very young have for hearing the same story over and over again. Some of my happiest childhood memories revolve around being read to by mother or father, and to this day I can remember the stories (and illustrations) from those books (The Golden Cockerel, The Story of King Arthur and his Knights, The Wind in the Willows, and many others).
There’s a reason for this (life-long) delight in stories. Storytelling has deep evolutionary roots. We are wired to learn from stories. We fashion meaning from them, and they help lend order to our world. We connect naturally with narrative structure and its sequential resolution of conflict. Stories provide our minds with vivid pictures–ones that we are more likely to remember. (A fascinating new book by Brian Boyd (On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction) connects human evolution to the development of story telling, including fiction).
Narrative can become a powerful learning tool in the classroom and beyond, bringing abstract concepts to life. My favorite teachers relied on anecdotes, sayings, and stories when they presented new material.

We are wired to learn from stories. We fashion meaning from them, and they help lend order to our world.

Narrative techniques are at the forefront of today’s innovation in adult learning — case studies, interactive scenarios, games, graphic nonfiction stories, and simulation. The narrative structure appeals to learners who, for example, can compare the arc of a brief business mini-case with what they have experienced in the workplace.
One guiding principle in developing narrative learning is that any scenarios or situations presented should be accurate and realistic. (Our experience at MindEdge: learners quickly tell you if they don’t find the narrative believable). To insure realism, rely on subject matter experts and/or practitioners during the instructional design process to validate the content.
Narrative learning can help improve comprehension and mastery of concepts; it can also challenge learners to analyze, synthesize, and make decisions – the sorts of more complex cognition that tests the ability of learners to apply what they have learned.

Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders

Best Practice: Five Steps for Continuous Improvement Learning

We regard a continuous improvement (CI) process as vital to any effective training or learning program aimed at adult learners. “Listening to the learner” can dramatically improve the quality and impact of your content and courses. At MindEdge, we believe the process of continuous improvement must begin with goal-oriented advanced planning and appropriate revisions and enhancements based on learner feedback.

The five steps

Our continuous improvement process has five steps that apply to both online and face-to-face settings. For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to describe the process MindEdge employs for developing its online courses and educational solutions.

  1. Identify desired educational or training goals for the learner.
  2. Define learning objectives and create feedback and assessment mechanisms.
  3. Identify any gaps between learner performance and learning objectives based on feedback.
  4. Revise content to address gaps.
  5. Monitor feedback to ensure effectiveness.

1. Identify desired educational or training goals for the learner.

…online courses allow an accelerated continuous improvement process. Revisions can be rapidly incorporated, even into a live course—with proper planning.

We begin course development by thinking about what the learner will take away after he or she has completed the course or instructional activity. At this stage, we ask ourselves, What body of knowledge should learners have mastered after completion? What should they be able to do with this knowledge? How can this be assessed? Will there need to be evidence of student learning for accreditation? What will be considered an acceptable performance level?
Spending the time up front on establishing these goals makes course development easier and results in a well-thought out experience for the learner. (It’s worth heeding the advice of Abraham Lincoln on the question of preparation: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”)
Objectives block letters stacked
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2. Define learning objectives and create feedback and assessment mechanisms.
Once learning goals are established, it’s time to develop learning objectives and establish a way to collect feedback and assess progress. Learning objectives are brief, clear, specific statements of expected student performance: “The learner will be able to calculate probability and explain its practical application in assessing project risk.”
We craft learning objectives to cover the range of learning in Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy, with a focus on the cognitive domain (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation). Click here to see a table of Bloom’s taxonomy.
The course development quality review process presents an ideal opportunity to compare learning objectives against the instructional presentations, exercises, and activities in the course. Our reviewers have a different role from the subject matter experts or instructors who develop the course and who often “know too much.” Especially when the reviewer is new to the discipline or area of knowledge, he or she brings a fresh set of eyes and can assess the course as a new learner rather than a seasoned expert.
During this step, we ask a number of CI questions:

  • Do reviewers find the course learner-friendly?
  • Are terms and concepts clearly defined?
  • Are there connections made with real world applications (always appreciated by adult learners)?
  • Is there an appropriate balance between knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation?
  • Is there attention paid to differing learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic)?

Performance measures (open-ended questions, multiple-choice questions, short answer, interpretative essay questions) offer another channel for feedback. It’s important to make sure that these measures are aligned with the course learning objectives, so that what you measure is what needs to be mastered.
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3. Identify any gaps between learner performance and learning objectives based on feedback.
We have found most valuable the actual learner feedback we receive once the course is live. Adult learners generally are not shy about expressing themselves, so we provide multiple opportunities for learner response: feedback forms (based on IACET-approved questions) embedded in our courses and an “Ask the Expert” function that lets learners send us questions as they work their way through the course.
Monitoring and analyzing learner feedback represents a marvelous opportunity for continuous improvement. In some cases, adult learners will tell you directly where improvements are called for (“A fuller explanation of Tuckman’s model of team development, please.” or “How to arrive at the payback period isn’t clear to me.”), and revisions are straightforward. In some cases it may make sense to provide supplementary explanations or additional exercises.
And since performance measures are linked to learning objectives, we can also tell whether the course needs improvement by looking at test scores and student work. If it becomes clear that, for example, many learners cannot calculate probability and explain its practical application in assessing project risk, then it’s time to make changes in the course to address that gap.
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4. Revise content to address gaps.
For the most part, online courses allow an accelerated continuous improvement process. Revisions can be rapidly incorporated, even into a live course—with proper planning. One of the questions we ask ourselves when make decisions about course development is: “How will this decision affect our ability to continuously improve based on learner feedback?” Our course structure has become more modular over time because of this consideration.
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5. Monitor feedback to ensure effectiveness.
A continuous improvement process should be…continuous. It means continuing to monitor feedback, especially when learners have indicated (through comments or performance) there are problem areas or barriers to learning. When learners bring challenges to our attention, we like to follow up with them and make sure that the revisions have addressed whatever problems they’ve encountered. It can take several iterations to find the optimal way to teach something.

Room for innovation

Along with this five-step approach, we also actively seek fresh ways to improve the way we teach and develop courses. We don’t want our overall CI process to become overly reactive—too focused on “checking and fixing” at the expense of innovation and potential quantum improvements. That’s why we review our courses on an ongoing basis, always looking to incorporate the latest insight or best practice into what we do.

Copyright © 2009 MindEdge, Inc.