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Using Progressive Complexity or Layering in Instructional Design

I was camping with my family the year I turned 14. The family car was parked in such a way that my dad couldn’t anchor all of the tent pegs correctly, so he tossed me the keys and said, “Back it up.” I hadn’t driven a car before and didn’t have any idea what I was doing, so when I released the handbrake, the car started rolling backwards while my dad yelled, “Brake, Brake, Brake” with increasing intensity. Eventually I figured out where the brake was and got the car stopped. Of course, my dad learned his lesson and before I drove the car again, he proceeded to give me a year’s worth of detailed lectures on everything I might need to know about driving a car.

Too Simple or the Kitchen Sink – Neither Works Well

Neither one of these strategies results in particularly successful instruction. Too little information and the learner doesn’t know how to perform the task at all. Too much information and the learner doesn’t know where to apply what they learn. The latter, sadly, is a method we see a lot of people employing when they develop online content. They gather up all the information on their course content, divide it into topics and give the learner everything on that topic all at once.

Using a Layered Approach

There is a different way to think about teaching content that instructional designers call, layering. The idea behind this is that the overall task you want to teach can be divided into progressively complex versions, so the learners master the simplest version first and then more difficult versions are taught afterwards.

Let's take driving a car, for example. While the overall task is driving a car, we want to think about what the simplest form of the task might be. For example, ‘drive the car 5 feet forward in a parking lot’. Then we ask, “What is the least information the learner would need to know to do that?” Perhaps we’d teach them how to turn the car on, how to release the parking brake, how to put the car in gear, how to minimally step on the gas, and how to apply the brake. This content is just enough to move the car forward 5 feet and stop. That is our base task (Layer 1). To teach more about how to drive the car we add progressively more difficult tasks, something like this:

Each successive layer employs the skills and knowledge the learner gained in the prior layer so that learning feels natural and organic, and mastery comes as a biproduct of the design of your course.

So, the next time you start to build an online course, think about your content in terms of progressively more complex layers and help your learners take the necessary steps to mastery.

Photo by Ian User on Unsplash

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