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Here’s Why I Love Content Types: And You Should, Too

Let’s say that you’ve been asked (for some good reason) to design or deliver training….

What if you had an instant way to turn that request from a Big Scary Cauldron of Swirling Content into a step-by-step plan for helping people to learn?

02-28 Big Scary Cauldron

Glass Beach, Ft. Bragg, CA

Want to make this easier? Learn your content types. They hold the keys to quick design and great delivery, whether you’re putting together a casual on-the-job session or a full-blown training program.

In this post, I’ll introduce the content types, and in a future post, we’ll look at how you can quickly use them to size up any learning opportunity and recommend great solutions.

There are a few different (but compatible) ways to divide up the universe of potential content. Here’s one great way, from Robert Gagné.

  1. Declarative Knowledge is about knowing what: facts, lists, names, or organized information (for example, the History of X). It’s stuff you can learn, memorize, and repeat.
  2. Intellectual Skills are all about knowing how to do something, and they come in a few different forms:
    Discriminations. This is just being able to tell that one thing is different from another (for example, that a “3” is different from a “5”).
    Concepts. Sets of objects, ideas, or events that have characteristics in common and share a common name. They can be concrete (discernable by our senses—car, truck, motorcycle) or abstract (defined by somebody—holiday, conference, leadership).
    Principles. Rules that help us to predict, explain, or control things. These can be natural laws or rules that people define. (Think, “If this happens, then that will happen.”)
    Procedures. A series of steps we take to complete a task. Something we do “step-by-step. Make coffee. Assemble a widget. File a report.
    Problem Solving (or “Processes”). With this one, the learner must select from multiple potentially-relevant rules and then apply them to make something better. Instructional design, performance technology, medical diagnoses, planning a complicated trip to Timbuktu, or creating a fitness program for someone all fall into this category.
  3. Cognitive Strategies. Here, we find out how to manage our own learning. For example, we learn study skills. We show students how to organize their thoughts, or good ways to memorize, or how to use elaboration to tie something they’re learning to their own experience.
  4. Attitudes. We help our learners to form or change their approach toward something. We also call this “affective learning.” We can usually infer that students have a particular attitude by certain choices. For example, students show that they respect the dangers of traffic when they choose to “stop, look, and listen” before crossing a street.
  5. Psychomotor Skills. This is the physical stuff. Coordinated muscle movements. There are “fine” motor skills, like typing, suturing a wound, or filling a cavity and “gross” motor skills, like swinging a golf club, making gestures during a presentation, or throwing a discus.

Little Cautions. Usually, there’s a combination of types for any complex learning situation. And there can be some variance, depending on what the learner knows already.

The great thing is that once you can identify the types, then you can apply useful prescriptions to help you design and teach your content. We’ll go over this more in a future post.

I’ve included a Learning Outcomes Matrix for you in the Resources. It includes the content types (except for discriminations) with quick definitions and examples all on one page.


Post | Merrill’s Component Display Theory
David Merrill has a great list of content types, too. It’s embedded in his Component Display Theory, which sounds a lot more complicated than it is.

Post | Bookshelf: Instructional Design

pdf | Learning Outcomes Matrix

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