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Interestingness Can Lead to Decreased Learning – Interesting…

Interesting. Interstingness. What makes something interesting to learners when you are presenting to them? What your method of inserting interesting tidbits about your topic - do you add a slide that has a 'side note' of a real-life example? Or perhaps you verbally give an example, or show a video clip? An example of this is how some of our instructors have used a video clip from a James Bond movie early in our curriculum to expand upon the concept of poison and how it affects the body. Do you feel it's necessary to include interestingness to your presentations? Does it 'spice it up' a bit in order to keep students' attention?

The main assumptions of andragogy, which is an adult learning theory developed by Malcolm Knowles, include:

  • Adults need to know why they need to learn something
  • Adults need to learn experientially
  • Adults approach learning as problem-solving
  • Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value

It makes sense, right? We assume adults have developed some life experiences by the time they come to higher education, especially medical school. Some more than others, I would say. All this leads to an interesting article I read recently called: Increased Interestingness of Extraneous Details in a Multimedia Science Presentation Leads to Decreased Learning. This article can be found in the UIC Library here: (You will have to log in with your NETID to see it).

Richard Mayer (one of the authors) conducted research on learning and cognition and came up with the cognitive theory of multimedia learning. It is also connected to John Sweller's work regarding cognitive load. In essence, cognitive theory states that learners have a limited mental capacity to process incoming information during learning experiences. Learners may not realize it, but they are selecting which information can pass through the cognitive processing doors to enter into short term and then, if necessary for retention (e.g., quizzes, tests, board exams, future practice) into long term memory. They must also integrate this information, or connect it, with previous learning experiences. Finally, they must also be able to weed out any extraneous information that might hinder the 'important stuff' from making it into long term memory.

Here are some 'interesting' points from the article.

the pattern of results is consistent with the seduction hypothesis—the idea that learners engage in more extraneous processing for lessons containing high-interest extraneous material than low-interest extraneous material, thereby leaving less cognitive capacity for deep cognitive processing of the essential material during learning. (p. 337).

And a much longer section of the article regarding practical implications from their study...

On the practical level, searching for ways to increase the interestingness of extraneous material is not a good strategy when the instructional goal is to promote deep understanding of the presented material. The results suggest instructional designers should refrain from attempts to increase learner understanding by seeking ever more interesting extraneous details. This recommendation contradicts the common practice of inserting highly interesting anecdotes and cartoons in science lessons. A rationale for adding highly interesting extraneous material is that it can increase the learner’s motivation to learn the core material. Under some circumstances, adding highly interesting details (which also are called seductive details) may improve student learning, such as when the added details cause the learner to study harder and when the added details are used sparingly. Further research is needed to pinpoint the conditions under which highly interesting extraneous details could improve student learning. (p. 338).

So, what is the takeaway here? Medical education is 'unique.' We know this. We also know that some of the content can be, let's say dry, so including some real-life / real-world examples does seem to have a positive implication on learning. It can create a memory anchor for the information to be processed. What do you think about the practical implications above - do you feel that including extraneous information is beneficial, despite the study intimating that it's not a good strategy?