I employ classic Human Factors/User Experience principles in the design of my courses. If people keep pushing on a pull door, a big sign that says “pull” is a waste of time. In the classroom, we know that processing information before writing it down is better for recall (Craik & Lockhart, 1972; Craik, 2002), but telling students not to write down what’s on the board word for word doesn’t change their behavior. Changing a student’s default behavior by telling them what to do, much like putting up a “pull” sign, is a Sisyphean task. In Human Factors, when we want to change a behavior, we redesign the system so the desired outcome is the default. You redesign the door so that every affordance says “pull.” That’s how I set up my course.
Undergraduate students have been implicitly trained to treat presentation slides as the primary information channel and the spoken portion of the lecture as a supplemental channel. The benefit of a system like this is that students have ample opportunity to write down the important information verbatim, and have something to reference later. However, the act of copying down the information doesn’t necessitate much processing, class time is primarily used for transcription and most of their learning occurs elsewhere.
I design my lectures such that students’ default behavior promotes learning during class time. I accomplish this by minimizing what goes on the board. I will have a powerpoint slide with the overall topic for a 10 - 15 minute section of class, and as I lecture, I write some key phrases or study designs on the board. As a consequence, if their attention gets diverted for some time, students are still able to reorient themselves. For example, when discussing context effects, I might write “Godden & Baddeley (1975)” on the board with a graph of the results, but the necessary context for that information comes to the students as I speak. Their normal tendency to copy down the primary information source is now directed at the lecture, promoting learning in the classroom.
This user experience-based approach accomplishes the goal of having students process information (and learn) during class by leaning on a distinct feature of auditory information: it’s temporally constrained. Visual information is spatially constrained. If students want to see something again, they can just move their eyes back, spatially, over the information. They don’t, however, have a time-travel organ they can use to rehear information. Information is maintained in the phonological loop for approximately two seconds (Baddeley, Thomson, & Buchanan, 1975), which is not long enough to take notes verbatim. Due to task constraints, students must process the information and transcribe the gist of what was said. Through interpreting information, students are engaging in a deeper level of processing and are therefore much more likely to recall the information (Craik & Lockhart, 1972). These additional constraints placed on the primary information source aids them in learning the course content, which is the desired outcome. I don’t tell them to listen and transcribe only the gist of what I say because that will help them learn, I just design the course so that it becomes the default behavior.
When evaluating students, I continue to rely on core principles of Human Factors and User Experience. The best way to evaluate whether someone can do a task, is by having them do the task itself. For each course I teach, I include an experiential component that both evaluates and solidifies learning. The experiential component emulates what a practitioner in that field of study would commonly be expected to do. The project in my human factors course is based on what a human factors psychologist might be doing out in the field. Students are expected to identify issues in a product through classic techniques such as a task analysis, generate a redesign, and develop an associated test plan. They then spend two class sessions moderating and participating in each others projects. The data is then synthesized in a final report discussing the research process and final recommendations for the product. Students can then take any artifacts they generated while completing the project, and use them as part of a professional portfolio. My cognitive psychology course generates a different type of artifact. Cognitive psychology has a stronger focus on more basic research questions. Reflecting this focus, my cognitive psychology course and its experiential component take a more academic route. Students in this course spend their time developing a large research proposal, reviewing literature and developing novel research questions.
Scholarly training, no matter the field, focuses on the critical evaluation of information. My training as a Human Factors Psychologist and User Experience researcher, gives me an advantage. Not only is there a focus on critically evaluating information, but an evaluation of what drives behavior and how we can design systems to get our desired outcome. Designing a course which fosters relevant, measurable learning is just an extension of that.
Baddeley, A. D., Thomson, N., & Buchanan, M. (1975). Word length and the structure of short-term memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 14(6), 575-589.
Craik, F. I. (2002). Levels of processing: Past, present... and future? Memory, 10(5-6), 305-318.
Craik, F. I., & Lockhart, R. S. (1972). Levels of processing: A framework for memory research. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 11(6), 671-684.
Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context‐dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater. British Journal of Psychology, 66(3), 325-331.