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Multitasking: The Brain Seeks Novelty

This is your brain on Twitter/facebook/email/iPhone/TV/crack cocaine.

Very simple and what should be an obvious message for site designers in online learning: never show exactly the same page twice.

In learning we move from one novelty to the next - that's part of what makes it such fun. One problem with a typical coursel site that shows a static content hierarchy (rather a lot of LMS - based courses) is that the jump-off page tends to vary little. In a program I used to run I insisted that the entry point for every course was the discussion forum, driven by Michael Moore's transactional distance theory more than anything else. However, it was a pretty good motivator too, bringing people to the sites more frequently than those for static content course sites. I thought it was just because people like to socialise and also had to keep visiting in order to know what was happening. Turns out that dopamine may have played a role in this too!


  • Jon

    If I have got this correctly, the doing itself facilitates the learning experience as it enables content absorption through bits of content attaching themselves to the dopamine flowing among neurons, metaphorically speaking.

    To take this a little further, does this lead to the suggestion that providing a continuous series of learning activities would likely be more successful than the approach of a text with a couple of assignments? 


    Brian Stewart January 9, 2011 - 11:35am

  • Note that the researcher is concerned with how we can keep ourselves from being novelty-seeking zombies. I'm not denying the benefit of multiple activities in a course and of using various techniques to engage learners. I'm saying, though, that the 'discipline' part of academic disciplines does often require an act of the will to focus attention on something in a way that does not come naturally to us.  I want to support learners in every way, including the understanding that many things worth pursuing do not come easily or naturally.

    Mary Pringle January 10, 2011 - 9:46am

  • @Brian - I think so, for some things, in some ways, though the devil is in the detail. To engage in a learning experience is, by definition, to encounter the novel. I'm far from convinced that we should over-stress that in the learning process (see Mary's point) as another really important part of the process is to do with anchoring it in what we already know. Indeed, in vaguely Socratic mode, a lot of the process is not to do with learning things that are novel but in creating novel connections between things we already know, seeing how things fit together and constructing models in our heads/bodies. Plus, a lot of what matters in some forms of learning is to do with repetition (albeit with gradual change implied) to improve: practice in music and sports, say. My ambitions are a little lowlier here...

    I think this research is potentially useful because it gives a bit more basis for ways we might encourage and motivate learners through simple design choices in the learning environment. One of the things that a linear book naturally provides, but a hierarchical hypertext doesn't, is continual change - a good book makes you want to move on to the next page. In a typical LMS implementation, where what we initially encounter on every visit is more often than not  exactly what we encountered last time, we are often wasting an opportunity to capture the viewer's interest at exactly the point it would be most useful. Sure, we could think of its static form as being a little like a book's front cover, but it has the affordance to be more than that. It doesn't have to take much: apart from obvious techniques like my discussion forum edict, we can include stuff like random glossary entries, RSS feeds and announcements to help pique interest. I've always done that kind of thing because, intuitively, it seemed like a good idea to sustain a sense of involvement and engagement. This little bit of research suggests there's a good basis for doing it in brain science and, while deliberate manipulation of an addiction response might be touching on grey ethical ground, there are few things more motivating than withdrawal symptoms! Of course, taking Mary's point, it should be done with care: the novelty should be aligned with intended learning, not just to keep learners addicted to the site :-)

    @Mary - yes, I like the zombie image! And I agree that this is only a tiny part of the story of how we should help learners. However, the whole point of teaching is to make learning easier than it would be without it. If we can reduce the need for willpower to engage in the first place, then the rest of the battle should be that much easier. Aiming for maximal novelty is probably not helpful and it has to be constructively aligned, but anything we can do to help people overcome inertia, fear or ennui is probably a useful thing.

    Jon Dron January 10, 2011 - 10:35am

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