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Harnessing Uncertainty in eLearning

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The best time to learn is when you’re not sure of something.  When you’re sure you know the answer but it’s wrong learning can be difficult.  You have to unlearn the wrong piece of information first, and only then can you learn what’s correct.  If you don’t know something and have no interest in learning it, well then it can be pretty hard to learn as well.  Lack of motivation is always a serious problem in learning new information.  But when you’re not sure about something, then you’re interested.  Your curiosity is piqued, and you’re primed to learn something new.

Turning uncertainty into curiosity is an amazing trick, and one that is crucial to any learning process.  The easiest way to accomplish this feat is usually to appeal to the learner’s innate desire to know.  Like the cliffhanger at the end of a good serial, uncertainty about what happens next can motivate the learner to continue and even expend extra effort to learn.  If done correctly, this motivation can snowball, and propel the learner into a frame of mind where they continue to learn because they enjoy it.  

Let’s look at a couple of examples of how to make this happen.  The easiest scenario is when the learner is uncertain about a topic in which they have a vested interest, or which is already important to them.  If it is crucial to someone’s job to know how to format their code correctly, then they’ll be extra attentive when learning about the correct format.  

The trick is to make sure that as they’re learning the correct format, they are also being exposed to interesting and more complex areas where their new knowledge can be applied.  So rather than just learning about the proper format for their code, they also see examples of some of the projects which can be built with the software, or interesting problems it can be used to solve.  This way the information isn’t learned in a vacuum.  Rather, it acts as a bridge to the next thing, and then the next.

A similar strategy can work in the opposite scenario where the learner doesn’t care about the information they are expected to learn.  In this type of case it’s important to draw connections between the subject matter and other topics not as a way of sustaining interest, but rather of provoking it.  If I’m not particularly interested in the proper way to offer criticism in a constructive manner, but I am interested in management positions, then seeing the connection between learning the one, and succeeding at the other, can spark my desire to learn, even if the subject matter itself holds no intrinsic appeal for me.

In the end, the hope is always that the training will spark an intrinsic or internal motivation.  Learning with these types of motivations is superior in the long run, because it’s self perpetuating.  A learner who enjoys learning for its own sake will continue to improve and gather more skills and information, making them increasingly more valuable.  A learner who finds a personal resonance with a subject will be willing to perfect their skills and knowledge in that area to everyone’s benefit.  When uncertainty is channeled into intrinsically and internally motivated learning progress will continue long after the course has finished.  And that’s the real benefit.