You don’t need to have an advanced degree in educational theory or psychology to create impactful eLearning experiences, but there are some foundational ideas that warrant your attention. Gestalt Theory is a different approach in psychology to understanding how people perceive things in our chaotic world. It doesn’t view the brain as sponge that only passively receives information. Instead, it recognizes that the brain is constantly filtering, structuring, and organizing incoming information in order to compare it with known patterns. It includes 6 different principles of grouping that can be incorporated into your eLearning efforts:
- Law of Similarity: That which appears to be similar will be grouped together. This one can inform how you organize the different concepts that you’re trying to get across to your learners. This is especially important when there are sub-groups that make up a larger group. In the eLearning environment, different main concepts may make use of different font colors to keep them separate. If a main concept has several sub-topics within it, then you’d want to make sure that those sub-topics have the same color associated with the main topic of which they’re a part. This will automatically get people’s brains to keep them grouped in the way you want them to be. This idea can be carried through in terms of graphics, fonts, and so on.
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- Law of Proximity: Items physically close to each other are assumed to share some vital connection. This one is surprisingly simple but profound. If it’s important that certain concepts be kept distinct, then you want to make sure that each has it’s own adequate physical space so that you don’t trigger the proximity effect in people’s brains. By the same token, if you want people to connect some concepts, get them closer to each other.
- Law of Simplicity or Good Form: People perceive things in wholes, not immediately in their parts. In the eLearning context, this means that the simpler your visual presentations, the better. When things get too complex, chaotic, or cluttered, the result is cognitive overload and disengagement – the last thing you want to happen in your eLearning program!
- Law of Closure: The brain fills in missing information based on past experiences. People perceive a circle composed of a dashed line as a whole circle even though it’s technically not whole. In this sense, the human mind is always looking for completion. We fill in the blanks. Just keep in mind that when presented with something completely novel that past experience can’t inform, the brain can once again become confused and disengaged.
- Law of Common Fate: When different elements move at the same speed and in the same direction, the brain assumes they come from the same cause. This was and is a key law to keep in mind when designing user interfaces in the world of computing. There has to be a clear connection between mouse movements and cursor movements on the screen. The same applies to scroll bars and so forth. If you use animations to highlight content, make sure that related concepts and ideas have animations that obey this law and people will automatically associate them to each other.
- Law of Good Continuation: Even when objects intersect overlap, the brain sees them as distinct and separate entities. In the eLearning environment, you want to make sure that the alignment of objects matches you want in terms of how related or distinct the concepts are in relation to each other.
The origins of Gestalt Theory and the principles of grouping can be traced back to the late 19th century. The founders of this school of thought could have never imagined that it might be applied to eLearning, but learning professionals would do well to keep these laws in mind when designing their content.