Minimalist instruction

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1 Definition

  • Minimalist instruction is based on the idea that one should minimize negative impact of instructional materials and favor self-directed learning with meaningful tasks.
  • "The key idea in the minimalist approach is to present the smallest possible obstacle to learners' efforts, to accommodate, even to exploit, the learning strategies that cause problems for learners using systematic instructional materials. The goals is to let the learner get more out of the training experience by providing less overt training structure." (p. 77-78) (cited by Horn).

This approach developped by Caroll is based on studies on how people learn to use computers and how badly tutorials and manuals do the job. Therefore his message also is addressed to the "documentation people".

As Kearsley (1994d) explains, this theory suggests that:

  1. All learning activities should be meaningful and self-contained.
  2. Activities should exploit the learner's prior experience and knowledge.
  3. Learners should be given realistic projects as quickly as possible.
  4. Instruction should permit self-directed reasoning and improvising.
  5. Training materials and activities should provide for error recognition and use errors as learning opportunities.
  6. There should be a close linkage between training and the current task

2 Minimalist instructional design

In applying Carroll's Minimalist theory, Kearsley (1994d) recommends the following:

  1. Allow learners to start immediately on meaningful tasks.
  2. Minimize the amount of reading and other passive forms of training by allowing users to fill in the gaps themselves
  3. Include error recognition and recovery activities in the instruction
  4. Make all learning activities self-contained and independent of sequence.

Robert E. Horn in his book review (199?) summarizes the nine principles of the minimalist approach (shortened by DSchneider, read the original !):

  1. Use real tasks for the training exercises and let users select their own tasks. It enables people to use their prerequisite competence and engages a "powerful source of motivation."
  2. Get the learner started on real tasks fast by eliminating almost all front-end orientational material. Extensive preambles can "obstruct meaningful activity."
  3. Guide learners' reasoning, exploring and improvising with questions and other hints. This includes incomplete training materials, so that learners have to explore. He also suggests presenting summaries in place of complete texts.
  4. Design the materials so that they can be read in any order in so far as possible. This principle permits learners to "support their own goal-directed activities"
  5. Help learners to coordinate training materials and software by providing landmarks for normal or error situations, e.g. illustrations which show what the screen should look like if everything is OK
  6. Focus early attention in the training materials on enabling the learner to recognize and recover from errors. Learners make many kinds of errors in learning computer systems. "Training materials must therefore explicitly support the recognition of and recovery from error both to make the materials robust with respect to user error and to train error recovery skills." (p.10)
  7. Engage the learner's prior knowledge in introducing novel concepts. Use familiar office tasks, language and metaphors. Highlight differences in operation of the system from what might be expected from the learner's background.
  8. Consider using the learning situation, as opposed to practical on-the-job examples, for learning examples, exercises and explorations. Help the learner understand the "fine detail of the actual situations in order to create practical solutions." (p. 90)
  9. Aim for optimizing learning designs by repeated testing and avoiding the temptation to systematize approaches into checklists. Carroll says, "There is no deductive theory of minimalist instruction; that is, given a set of minimalist principles, we cannot just crank out a training manual. Design never works this way." (p.91)

Now DSchneider wonders how we should write a "how to use this wiki" manual for beginners :)

3 References

  • Carroll, J.M. (1990). The Nurnberg Funnel, Designing Minimalist Instruction for Practical Computer Skill. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • van der Meij, H. & Carroll, J.M. (1995). Principles and heuristics for designing minimalist instruction. Technical Communications, 42(2), 243-261.
  • Mary Beth Rosson, John M. Carroll, and Rachel K.E. Bellamy, Smalltalk Scaffolding: A Case Study of Minimalist Instruction, Proceedings of CH1'1990, pages 423-429, May 1990.