Mental Models: Everything eLearning Professionals Need To Know
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How To Use Mental Models In eLearning Course Design

When we approach a new scenario, we rely on mental models to help us figure out how to proceed. Not many situations we find ourselves in are truly new to us. Usually, we can find a similar example in our past that helps us decide how to proceed. This is where our brains employ mental models, which are the footprints on which to base future activity. How can this help in eLearning course design? Mental models are a powerful tool in pitching eLearning at the right level, helping online learners to absorb and adopt new skills. Mental model analysis underlines good Instructional Design.

Understanding Mental Models

We each have thousands of mental models. They help us whenever we encounter new situations: a new piece of software, a new workplace, a new car. What did we do last time we experienced something similar? What decisions did we make then, and how do we apply those here? That’s why it’s so much more straightforward having a second baby than having your first! You’ve already done the thinking, and your mind has made tracks and paths that it’s ready to revisit.

When we are training, we want to be able to apply what online learners are learning to a previous experience. How would I respond in this scenario, given what I’ve just learned? As Instructional Designers, it’s important to be able to assess what mental models an online learner is using. They help guide the online learners back down the path taken before, and expand their understanding.

How Can We "Unpick" Existing Mental Models?

The difficulty arises when we need to design an eLearning course for a group of online learners. We want to be able to structure our eLearning course around the previous inbuilt assumptions. We need to generalize to be able to highlight learning gaps and design an interface that is structured intuitively. But we can’t ask each individual online learner to describe their mental models in detail. We need to use a Training Needs Analysis and ask appropriate questions. This will give information on an eLearning course design that points online learners to access their mental models when advancing through the eLearning course. Other methods of identifying mental models include:

  • Interviewing users from different groups to analyze how they think about the subject matter. This may involve focus groups or video conferencing interviews, as well as surveys and polls to gather eLearning feedback from larger audiences.
  • Reviewing previous data that shows how users navigate a system or process. This includes eLearning feedback data, LMS metrics, and eLearning assessment scores.
  • Observing daily task completion. In the case of remote learning, simulations and branching scenarios can help online instructors/facilitators monitor online learner performance.

You’ll end up with many different pieces of information that you will want to group together. Turn this into a flowchart and identify any weaknesses or gaps. Find similarities with previous experiences to inform your eLearning course design. Support your online learners wherever you have to create a new structure because their mental models are incomplete.

The Power Of Metaphors And Frameworks

Establishing frameworks for communicating strategies within an organization creates a mental model that can be accessed through learning technologies. Structuring your eLearning course design around familiar frameworks will help guide your online learners through the eLearning course and hold their attention. The eLearning content may be new, but the delivery is consistent with what has been before. You may wish to echo eLearning Project Management or software design language to show progress through an eLearning course. Metaphors prompt online learners to access a memory or idea which transports them into the real world, from within a branching scenario. Anything that helps online learners internalize and relate to a concept creates better adoption in practice.

Challenging Online Learners To Challenge Their Assumptions

It’s important to note that most online learners aren’t even aware of the mental models they possess. It is all happening in the subconscious. Thus, they might not even acknowledge that certain beliefs or assumptions exist, despite the fact that these cognitions are holding them back. Use simulations, branching scenarios, and other mistaken-driven learning activities to allow them to identify limiting mental models. They may discover that a "perceived reality" is preventing them from achieving professional success. Or that their past experiences are forcing them to have false expectations regarding the situation. Mental models are flexible and fluid. They may also serve as a psychological foundation in some cases, giving online learners a mental framework to build on. They can be barriers to the knowledge transfer process as well.

Building A Common Mindset

A common mental model amongst a group, embedded by thoughtfully structured eLearning, helps build collaboration and communication. If you design eLearning around a shared mental model, then you will equip teams with a common approach to challenges. This will minimize conflict and make it easier to introduce new concepts and ideas. Accessing existing mental models is not easy, but the payoff is huge. Triggering long-term memory is shown to deeply embed new memory. If you can reflect similarities between new eLearning content and what has gone before, online learners will more readily adopt the desired new behavior. Technology forces us to constantly upgrade our knowledge and learn new information. Good eLearning design can help us find the familiar in the new, using technology to better understand our world.

Some critics rebuke the idea of mental models, stating that they are too vague and unstable to factor into the eLearning process. However, there’s no denying that each of us has pre-existing cognitions and expectations that dictate our attitudes toward eLearning. Thus, mental models can help eLearning professionals have a better understanding of their audience and how to facilitate meaning in eLearning.

Having comprehended the ways you can utilize mental models, you might want to dig further into Instructional Design theories and models. Download our eBook How To Kick Start And Boost An Amazing Instructional Design Career to read and learn how to create eLearning experiences that offer real-world value, having a firm grasp on how the human mind absorbs, assimilates, and retains information.

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