All approaches to learning are not created equal. Years of research across fields like cognitive science, educational psychology, and multimedia learning have yielded foundational instructional design principles for teaching and learning in an online environment. We’ve created this research base to show you why Themis works the way it does, and why we believe that the Themis methodology is the best way to prepare for the bar exam.
The theory of learning underlying the Themis methodology is cognitive load theory, or CLT. CLT was initially developed by Australian educational psychologist John Sweller in the late 1980s. Since that time, many instructional designers have relied on CLT in their work, especially instructional designers concerned primarily with learning in an online environment.
CLT attempts to offer sound instructional principles based on a basic understanding of human cognitive architecture. The theory describes learning as the process of holding novel information in working memory, then somehow processing or organizing it, and thereby transferring it to long-term memory, where it can be accessed again when needed. Meaningful learning has occurred when the information can be not only recalled, but also described in one’s own words and applied to a problem or situation.
While this process sounds straightforward, research in CLT and other fields has identified two major stumbling blocks present in any learning experience. First, working memory is severely limited – humans cannot simply record novel information. Instead, they must place a very limited amount into working memory and manage that information before being able to move on to learning something else.
This principle is easily demonstrated by way of example: if your friend asked you to remember a phone number, you would be able to do so, without difficulty. If asked to remember three phone numbers at once, you’d likely fail to remember any of them. However, if asked to remember three phone numbers and given adequate time to process each – by memorizing the numbers via rote exercises, creating mnemonics, or some other method – you would have no problem transferring all three to long-term memory and repeating them back when needed.
The first challenge for instructional designers, then, is to be sure not to provide more information than a student’s working memory can accommodate at any given time.
The second stumbling block present in any learning experience is the transfer of information from short-term memory to long-term memory. Simply providing information to a student does not mean it will be learned. Thus, the challenge is very straightforward – to employ strategies and tactics that make it more likely that the student will successfully transfer novel information from working memory to long-term memory, from which it can be recalled at the critical time.
The Themis methodology is primarily focused on those two challenges: preserving the student’s working memory for critical tasks (bar exam preparation) and facilitating the transfer of information from working memory to long-term memory. We think of these challenges together as we consider the kinds of cognitive processing students do while using Themis. We have three main goals with respect to student cognitive processing, all of which mirror goals identified in research by psychology Professor Richard E. Mayer:
Extraneous processing is unrelated to the instructional goal. Good instructional design seeks to reduce it. In an online learning environment, common examples of extraneous processing are cognitive resources devoted to ignoring unwanted background music, realizing the distracting clip art isn’t relevant, or trying to process instructions that are being simultaneously presented as both written text and spoken words. All of these things require cognitive resources that could be otherwise devoted to learning. The Themis portal seeks to minimize extraneous processing whenever possible. Specifically, Themis follows the “coherence principle,”, established in the research of Professor Mayer, among others. Mayer and Fiorella defined the coherence principle as “people learn more deeply from a multimedia message when extraneous material is excluded rather than included” and in a review of studies concerning the coherence principle found that following the principle had a consistent positive effect, (Mayer & Fiorella, 2014). To see how specifically Themis implements the coherence principle, and the other principles described below, consult the chart at the end of this summary.
When information is exceedingly complex (as is the case with the content on the bar exam), good instructional design seeks to manage the amount of essential processing a learner must do at any one time. Themis attempts to manage essential processing in a variety of ways, but we are most focused on implementing what researchers in multimedia learning call the “segmenting principle.” From Mayer and Pilegard: “people learn more deeply when a multimedia message is presented in learner-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit” and, as above, a review of studies concerning the segmenting principle found its implementation had a consistent positive effect. (Mayer & Pilegard, 2014).
Additionally, Themis utilizes the “pre-training principle,” to manage essential processing. The pre-training principle describes positive learning effects when students know the names and characteristics of key concepts prior to the main presentation of information.
Generative processing is the cognitive processing that lets you “‘make sense’” of something via organizing it and integrating it into long-term memory. Unlike essential processing requirements, generative processing is not inherent to a task – the amount of generative processing required may vary based on learner characteristics. So, the generative processing it requires for a seasoned attorney to organize and integrate a court case into long-term memory is likely less than the generative processing required for a non-attorney to do so. This is because the seasoned attorney’s long-term memory holds many points of comparison and previous experiences with court cases that help the attorney process the court case more quickly.
Themis facilitates students integrating information into long-term memory through “retrieval practice.”. Retrieval practice is offering students multiple opportunities to retrieve critical information from memory; it usually takes the form of intermittent quizzing. Retrieval practice is well-supported across a variety of disciplines as a method for increasing memory retention, and in a recent study involving students learning anatomy and physiology material, students engaging in retrieval practice retained an average of 41% more material than their peers who did not. (Dobson, 2013).
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