November 6, 2011

Want to Improve Learning? Take a Break…

You’re watching your favorite daily soap on T.V. and just before an important plot unveils, the commercial break jumps in.

You have to write an article and have a lot of cool ideas in your mind, but you don’t know where to start from. You take good five hours to hold the pen in your hand and write that first line. But, once the first line is scribbled on a piece of paper, the article is complete within an hour or two.

You are in office on a Friday evening and there is an important task that you need to complete but somehow you are not able to complete it on Friday. The task haunts you the entire weekend…

All these instances indicate that you don’t like the tasks to be left unfinished. You are always inquisitive to know what will happen next; you tend to finish the task once started; and aspire to complete all the important tasks assigned to you on time.

Ever wondered why this happens? It’s called the Zeigarnik Effect. It states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones. Constant thoughts of incomplete task cause it to be retained in memory better. But Zeigarnik Effect comes with an exception. It doesn’t work well when we’re not motivated to achieve our goal or don’t expect to do well. When the goals are unattractive or impossible we don’t bother with them.

The Zeigarnik effect suggests that students who suspend their study, during which they do unrelated activities (such as studying unrelated subjects or playing games), will remember material better than students who complete study sessions without a break (Zeigarnik, 1927; McKinney 1935).

Another study done by Greist-Bousquet and Schiffman (1992) stated that there is a tendency or “need” to complete a task once it has been initiated and the lack of closure that stems from an unfinished task promotes some continued task related cognitive effort. The cognitive effort that comes with these intrusive thoughts of the unfinished task is terminated only once the person returns to complete the task.

So how do we use such a powerful effect in eLearning, which keeps us hooked to the TV set and drives us to complete our tasks? Here’s my take on it…

Suspense is the name of the game: Start your course with a scenario/story and pose a problem in front of the learners and stop there. Do not solve the problem or ask the learners to solve it until the last few screens of your course.

Mix and match: Start with the first topic and leave it at a point where you are about to reveal some critical information. Then talk about a completely different topic before getting back to the first one. This will make the learners inquisitive to know more about the ‘untied ends’ from the first topic and think about it, thus improve learning.

Bring on the games: Before providing the critical information, ask the learners to play a game and reveal it only if they clear the levels of the game. This is the best way to give your learners a break! 🙂

Stagger the roll-out: Send out some teasers to the learners before assigning the course to increase inquisitiveness. Post that, assign the course module by module with a gap of a week or so. Do not give a logical end to these modules, leave them thinking about some concept or process and end it with “To be continued…” and reveal the information in the next module.

Start it simple: Move from simple to complex concepts so that the learner finds it easy to get started. Once the learner has started taking the course, the inclination to finish will be high.

Here are a few more interesting ways to incorporate the Zeigernik Effect in training by Barbara Carnes in her blog post on After Training – The Zeigarnik Effect:

  • Provide incomplete explanations for some of the learning.  Post the complete explanation on a static source, such as a webpage, which participants can refer to during the class and later.
  • If an action plan or after-training checklist is to be developed, ask trainees to provide 1-2 items for it and stop them before they can do more.
  • Use a stopwatch or clock timer on your phone to help force you to stop before participants are finished.
  • When providing learning points or a list in the training, provide only the first few, and let participants know where and when the rest will be provided.  Maybe this is a new use for social learning tools such as discussion boards and Twitter.  An LMS system can probably be set up to send prompts and reminders automatically.

Liked the idea of using Zeigarnik Effect in eLearning? Chime in with your thoughts on how you plan to implement it in your eLearning courses.

Posted by poojajaisingh2:34 PM
  • Smitha V

    Excellent! 🙂

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  • Leddy

    I found this section interesting about all that happens when you’re fully committed to a task like learning or reading something and you’re suddenly interrupted by something. For me to not complete a task stays forever in my mind and I anticipate when I can actually complete it because I could have finished it sooner. Apparently this is called the Zeigarnik Effect (Zeigarnik, 1927; McKinney 1935) which occurs when people remember tasks that are interrupted with the wrong information or it’s incomplete and it stays in memory longer than mostly when they’re motivated in a learning setting. Some ways that are listed in getting students back on the right track would be in action plans of providing explanations of learning on a website and having the students refer back to it for more information. I didn’t have a website at the time, but I did refer my students to their books on certain pages for references if they wanted additional information. It did help but the adjunct of having a website really could have benefitted them. For future classes, I’ll keep in mind to have a reliable site available. I like this information because it’s something I’ve experienced as a student or even when I was at home trying to complete a task like cooking a recipe and I get interrupted numerous times. I end missing an ingredient the recipe is just not going to work! See other comments people are inputting towards this site.

    • Hi Leddy,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here and on your blog page. The use of Zeigarnik Effect is really effective if used well and with caution in teaching-learning scenario.

  • Pingback: Training and Teaching with the Brain in Mind | We Can Be More()

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