The Progressive Reveal

I like to provide learners with progressive revelations. This instructional strategy involves slowly revealing information, especially visual information.

I like to start with one part of a visual concept and then build on it. I show one part of a diagram and then slowly complete it. For example, picture a simple hierarchical diagram where only the box at the top is visible. Then as you discuss, you show the next row of boxes, discuss some more and show the next and so on. This can work well interactively too, where the learner reveals the diagram through certain actions.



It’s Good for Working Memory

Why is this a good way to present information? Because working memory, the online portion of our brain, is limited in capacity. Most people just can’t hold too much more than around four bits of information in working memory at one time. I know they used to say it was seven bits of information, plus or minus two. But the number seems to be shrinking.

By progressively building on a previous concept or rule or principle, we give learners time to retrieve information from long-term storage, so they can comprehend the initial information. Once the initial information is firmly understood, there’s a much better chance they will comprehend the next bit of information than if we sped ahead from the start.

It’s Good for Encoding Information

A progressive build is also a good way to help learners encode information into long-term memory. When a learner holds information associated with the instruction in working memory, it helps the instruction make sense and gives it meaning. When information is meaningful, it’s connected to one’s personal network of knowledge. Well-connected information is more likely to get encoded “deeply” into long-term memory.

A Simple Approach

Sometimes I’ll use the most basic approach to create a progressive revelation, without even creating a Flash animation. Using one of the PowerPoint based authoring tools, I just place a rectangle over a portion of the graphic that I want to progressively reveal. The rectangle is the same color as the background. Over time or over several screens, whichever works best for the learning situation, I’ll slowly move the rectangle away so that it progressively reveals the visual beneath. What could be easier? I don’t want everyone to know how easy it is to do this, so I’m just telling you.