Learn about learning

(This is a continuous work-in-progress.)

Making a good Cycourse is hard. You need a design framework to help. The framework should be based on a solid understanding of the thing you are designing for. The attributes of that thing constrain your design options.


Where are skills kept? In students’ brains.

Skills are kept in brains.

That’s why zombies like brains so much. They taste skilly.

What do vegetarian zombies eat?


Mental models

Brains are complex. Trying to think about all of the details of brains as you design for them is impossible. We need intermediate concepts to design with.

It’s the same in every field. For example, this computer has links and buttons on the screen. Right? Well, not really. The links and buttons are made up of dots of color. You can act as if they’re real, though. It’s easier to think of buttons, than about an area formed from dots of light grey with dots of dark grey around it, and dots of white in the middle. It’s easier to talk about buttons as well, than to say to someone,

“You know that area of light grey dots surrounded by dark grey dots?”

Links and buttons are part of your mental model of a browser. A mental model is a set of objects and processes you use to think about something. Some of the things in your mental model of a browser include:

  • Links
  • Buttons
  • Menus
  • Images
  • Clicking
  • The back button

Learning researchers have the same problem. They don’t talk about neurons directly, at least not much. They talk about things like schemas and metacognition, words that describe typical patterns of brain action in learning situations.

Where are we going with this? When you’re designing courses, you need object you can think about. Ideally, those objects, or at least some of them, are supported directly in the software. When Cyco was being created, someone had to create a mental model of learning as reflected in the software, that was based in how learning actually works, as reflected in learning research. Researchers themselves created abstractions like schemas, to make it easier for them to think about how brains work.

Whew! This is messy. But it’s worth thinking about these things, to give authors a good set of objects they can think with, and that are supported in the software.

Here are the abstraction levels from physical neurons up:

The Cyco abstraction stack

What’s that “Context” thing in the diagram? When you’re making courses, it’s not enough to think about brains. You also need to think about the learning context. Questions like:

  • Who are the students?
  • What do they know already?
  • How much time do they have?
  • What do you want students to learn?
  • What equipment and software is available?

Some of the things in learning research (and hence in Cyco’s design objects) reflect the learning context.

Where to begin?

We’ll start by describing how brains work. Just a little. Then we’ll look at some of the implications of how brains work.

Implications? Here’s an example:

Students forget everything between one semester and the next!

Prof. Bob is right. But he could be missing something. For many courses, student forgetting is predictable, given how the courses are designed and how brains work. It would be more of a surprise if most students didn’t forget.

Let’s get started with that squishy, wobbly head meat.


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