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Effective encoding techniques

Practice has two complementary goals: to clear working memory and to move information into long-term memory. In cognitive psychology, the latter process is called encoding the information, and techniques that promote effective encoding are important to multimedia instructional design.

If you were to briefly study this list of words—spirit, rabbit, integrity, chair, focus, style, wing—which ones do you think you'd be more likely to remember several days later? Research shows that the words with concrete meanings, such as rabbit, are more memorable than abstract words like spirit. Why? One theory suggests that when you encounter a word that's concrete in meaning, your mind processes it in two different ways: phonetically (the sound of the word) and visually (the picture that forms in your mind's eye). Through this process of dual encoding, a concrete word like rabbit is lodged in your memory as two distinct, reinforcing pieces of information.

Dual encoding is at the heart of the seventh method for using multimedia effectively:

Encourage dual encoding through the use of concrete words and different modes—for example, text, graphics, and sound—to reinforce a message.

With its rich mix of elements, multimedia is admirably suited to reinforcing information through two (or more) expressions or representations, from text to pictures to sounds. It's up to you to make the ideas and information presented as concrete as possible, and to make the various expressions of an idea congruent with each other. Remember: you always want to focus, rather than splinter, the learner's attention.

How learners get to work with information is extremely important, too. In general, information in working memory can be rehearsed or practiced in two ways. Simple repetition can be used to keep information alive in working memory. For example, you may repeat a phone number over and over to yourself while walking to the telephone. But after you dial the number, it usually slips from your memory within moments. That's because such simple rehearsal, known as rote repetition, isn't very effective at moving information from working memory to long-term memory. Questions that encourage this kind of rehearsal, such as the one shown here, aren't effective instructional methods.

An example of rote repetition

The second type of practice, called elaborative rehearsal, is much more effective at encoding information in long-term memory. Elaborative rehearsal enables the learner to really interact with the information in working memory—and thereby to master the information.

To promote elaborative rehearsal, you must design questions that encourage the learner to apply knowledge in an appropriate context. In job training, for example, you might design interactions that are directly related to a job task at hand.

That's the goal of the eighth method for using multimedia effectively:

Avoid rote repetition in your interactions. Instead, design interactions that match job activities and skills.

Such interactions serve as especially effective rehearsal opportunities because they mimic the contexts in which the learner will be called upon to use knowledge on the job.

Indeed, in job training, the more faithfully the practice opportunity mimics real-life applications of knowledge or skills, the more effective it tends to be. The phenomenon promoted by such rehearsal, called encoding specificity, is the basis of the eighth method for designing effective multimedia instruction:

For procedural skills, encourage encoding specificity through the use of high-fidelity simulation practice. Simulations should replicate the actual job environment as closely as possible.

Consider, again, the example shown on the previous page. If you revised the question used there to create a more effective interaction, the result might be the drag-and-drop Authorware interaction illustrated here:

An example of encoding specificity

The purpose of the lesson is to teach airline gate agents the rules for allowing passengers onto an aircraft. The dialog that the learner hears when they click on a passenger depicts an individual who's inebriated or carrying a contagious disease. In the rehearsal exercise, the learner is challenged to "drag" the individual onto the airplane or back onto the concourse, depending on whether the passenger should be allowed to board or not—in other words, to enforce the rules. That's much more effective than asking the learner simply to list or identify the access rules for passengers.

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