5 Tips To Apply The Repair Theory In eLearning

5 Tips To Apply The Repair Theory In eLearning
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Summary: Mistakes and experience are two of the most effective teachers. Every error we make brings us one step closer to reaching our true potential, but only if we treat them as opportunities to grow. In this article, I’ll offer 5 tips on how to apply the Repair Theory in eLearning.

How To Apply The Repair Theory In eLearning

Brown & VanLehn's Repair Theory [1] explores the connection between learning procedural knowledge and making mistakes. These mistakes are known as "bugs". When learners are unable to complete a task or process, they must apply a variety of different strategies, or "repairs", in order to surmount the obstacle. While certain repairs may lead them to the desired outcome, others may result in further errors and incorrect performance behaviors.

According to VanLehn, due to the fact that learners’ bugs are unstable, they may cause "bug migration" [2]. When this occurs, the learner moves between "bugs" because they do not have a solid foundation to build on. In other words, they have developed an effective procedure, but it has flaws or gaps that create even more "bugs". However, as these "bugs" are systematic, they can be identified and corrected. Here are 5 tips that can help you apply the Repair Theory in your eLearning course design and turn every mistake into a learning opportunity.

1. Focus on eLearning feedback

Your online learners aren't going to be able to benefit from their "bugs" if they don't know what they are. This is why immediate, individualized eLearning feedback is a must in eLearning environments. For example, if an online learner chooses a wrong branch path in a branching scenario, let them know what they did wrong, how they can correct it, and which eLearning resources may help them to expand their comprehension. According to the Repair Theory, bugs can occur when online learners receive flawed or incomplete feedback. It also states that vague or biased examples are one of the main culprits. Therefore, you must give them a clear idea of how they can improve moving forward in order to prevent recurring bugs.

It's also important to mention that this should be targeted eLearning feedback, rather than generalized praise. In some cases, eLearning professionals include pre-programmed generalized feedback that automatically appears after an online learner has completed an eLearning activity. This does not help online learners identify their strengths and weaknesses, nor does it offer them any real value, for that matter.

2. Add branching scenarios and eLearning simulations to provide context

The Repair Theory suggests that bugs can occur when online learners attempt to use the procedures that they've learned in situations that were not outlined in the examples. For example, if they try to use the same steps to complete an unrelated task, under the assumption that it will work for any process. You can avoid this by including branching scenarios, eLearning simulations and demos into your eLearning course design. These eLearning activities allow them to put their knowledge into action in a contextual setting. They will explore how to use specific skills and information in order to accomplish certain tasks. Online learners even have the power to see how they can use previously learned knowledge in new and innovative ways by testing it out in a risk-free environment.

3. Conduct research to identify the "bugs"

Based on the Repair Theory, mistakes that occur during procedural tasks are systematic, which means that you can pinpoint them and identify the best instructional treatment. Questionnaires, observations, eLearning assessments, interviews, and managerial input are all effective eLearning feedback tools that can help you identify common mistakes. Many online learners may not even realize that there are bugs in their performance which are holding them back, in which case you may have to do extensive research into their background and past experiences to identify biases or incorrect assumptions. For this reason, the eLearning audience research and planning phase may be the most time-consuming and involved. Some bugs are so concealed that it's difficult to find them right away.

4. Use "bugs" as learning opportunities

Bugs can be learning opportunities for both you and your audience. After you've conducted research to identify the most common bugs, you can use this data to create customized eLearning experiences. You are able to develop eLearning content that meets their needs and helps to prevent future bugs from occurring. This valuable knowledge can also be an integral part of your eLearning strategy in the future, particularly if you discover that the bugs are the result of your eLearning course design. For example, if your research reveals that online learners are making mistakes during one specific procedure, there may be an issue with the examples you are providing or a lack of personalized eLearning feedback.

5. Integrate collaborative problem-solving eLearning activities

One of the most effective ways to remedy bugs is to look at the problem from different angles. By using collaborative learning your online learners have the opportunity to discover new strategies and problem-solving approaches. This also allows them to benefit from the eLearning experience of their peers and come up with new repairs they hadn't even considered.

Encourage your online learners to break into groups and then participate in eLearning simulations and serious games that involve procedural tasks. Ask each member of the group to share how they would approach the problem or complete the eLearning process, which gives everyone a chance to see things from a fresh perspective. These collaborative eLearning activities have a secondary benefit, as well, which is identifying bugs that were previously hidden. For instance, an online learner may have been performing the task a certain way for years, but after watching their peers they realize that they've been taking the wrong approach since the beginning.

The Repair Theory can be used in any eLearning course that deals with procedures and processes. It gives online learners the opportunity to benefit from their mistakes and make the most of their eLearning experiences. Every problem that they overcome brings them closer to perfecting their performance behaviors.

Another Instructional Design approach that you may want to consider is mistake-driven learning. Read the article 7 Benefits Of Mistake-Driven Learning to learn how to treat your mistakes as learning opportunities.


  1. Brown, J.S. & VanLehn, K. (1980). Repair theory: A generative theory of bugs in procedural skills. Cognitive Science, 4, 379-426.
  2. VanLehn, K. (1990). Mind Bugs. Cambridge , MA: MIT Press.