Will students learn if we make the teaching material entertaining?

December11, 2018
by Apoorva
17 min read

If you are a parent, teacher or from school leadership, there is a very high chance that you have spent a substantial amount of time looking at products that promise targeting the root cause of poor performance namely lack of interest. These products often offer spectacular visualisations of every concept to be taught with added animations to grab the student’s attention. Not only have you seen such products, you are also likely to get seduced by the appeal of modern technology. But have you wondered whether it will actually work? Ours is not the first generation to get seduced by fancy technology.

For every new innovation in communications technology, tall promises were made about how it will revolutionize education. A very famous man from 1922 claimed said, “I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize educational system … it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks”. That very famous man was Thomas Edison.

Such heavily optimistic visions of how technology will revolutionise learning lies on some basic (and perhaps faulty) assumptions about how learning happens. The basic assumption is that students fail to learn because they are bored. Therefore, if you can make things interesting then you can make them learn. The problem with this approach is that most people confuse arousal with cognitive engagement.

Proponents of arousal posit that adding entertaining and interesting material stimulates emotional engagement which in turn improves learning outcomes. The keyword here is emotional engagement. Arousal theorists focus heavily on likeability of content. This explains why a huge number of products in the space focus on fancy animations and graphics because it fits the criteria of “likeability”.

Proponents of cognitive engagement posit that learning happens by helping students actively think about key concepts/topics from the syllabus. Keyword here is thinking. Believers in cognitive engagement focus heavily on mistakes the students make and how to remedy them. They are thinking about the concepts are represented in the student’s head and how can we improve the representation. Products built keeping this in mind tend to offer some kind of diagnostics of what has and hasn’t been learned properly and how content design can help solve the problem (by suggesting a remedy).

What does the research say?

As early as 1913, John Dewey saw the problem with the popular notion of “making things interesting”. In Dewey’s view, interest rested within an individual which can get attached to objects in the individual’s environment. This means that interest may shift from one object to another as an interesting object or a thing is interesting so long as it is important to the self at that point of time. Objects serve a purpose so long as they are attached to the core interest. 

Thus, according to Dewey, the act of making things interesting made no sense as you cannot make an object any more interesting than it already is. It will cause what he called a ‘division of energies’ into the mind of the learner. The learner that was supposed to focus on content is perhaps distracted by the colors and animations used to communicate the same. Was Dewey’s intuition correct?

In their influential book titled E-learning and the science of instruction, Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer, reference several studies that favor Dewey’s intuition of harmful effects of ‘division of energies’. They call it the Cognitive Load Theory. While, Ruth and Clark’s theory is much more refined with empirical evidence and practical advice for e-learning designers, the core intuition that Dewey argued for is the same. Experiments done by various cognitive scientists prove that learning outcomes suffer when cognitive load (division of energies) goes up.

Dewey didn’t just stop there he also claimed that students will acquire an interest in the subject they otherwise found uninteresting if they get the opportunity to understand the subject matter. His quote –

I have it argued in all seriousness that a child kept after school to study has often acquired an interest in arithmetic or grammar which he did n t have before as if this proved the efficacy of “discipline” versus interest. Of course, the reality is that the greater leisure, the opportunity for individual explanation afforded, served to bring the material into its proper relations in the child s mind he “got a hold “of it.

This claim is not covered by Cognitive Load Theory because this theory was meant to solve the problem of efficacy (not motivation) but other studies unrelated to cognitive load have found a correlation between cognitive engagement and motivation. Dewey at the time of writing, however, was making a causal claim.

What should you do as an educator or parent?

If you are a concerned parent, teacher or educationist you should keep in mind that what sounds intuitive may not always measure up with data. The author is not saying that better visualisations or animations do not serve the purpose of better communication. But instead the author is emphasising that the graphics will be effective only as long as they are supporting the learning goal. The more important criteria to judge may be whether the content is making the student think and engage cognitively.

Open Door continues to focuses heavily on designing thought-provoking questions, then using them as a medium to improve learning outcomes, which improves students’ interest and motivation. 

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