Understanding How Psychology can Help Technical Communicators

Active learning promotes problem solving, critical thinking, and discussions of ideas. It can be a crucial aspect of being a technical communicator because it benefits both the technical communicator and the end user. Different users may understand instructions differently. Some might prefer standard numbered guides while others might prefer video instruction. Technical communicators can learn to leverage cooperation for more effective learning skills in the reader. 

In the article “Which forms of active learning are most effective: Cooperative learning, writing-to-learn, multimedia instruction, or some combination?” Dr Jeremy Sawyer conducts research regarding active-learning techniques. He defines these forms and how they affect people differently by discussing each thoroughly.

When I write about learning it might be easy to connect the idea to classroom instruction. That is where most of our learning comes from. However, learning is also the ability to think critically and solve complex problems outside the classroom. It is the technical communicator’s role to make sure that information presented can be effectively used by their end users. Readers can interpret instructions differently and it can become challenging to know how specific readers take in information. Sawyer explores this topic and introduces three forms of learning: cooperative learning, writing-to-learn, and multimedia instruction. These three forms of learning can affect readers differently in the way they absorb and understand information.

Sawyer uses developmental psychology to conduct his research, which I found to be very intriguing. He introduces the concept of cooperative learning by pairing different writers for the purpose of exchanging ideas to gain a deeper understanding of subject matter. If I consider this from the perspective of a technical communicator, I can think of it as trying to share written work to gain feedback. Working together and sharing insight is one of the psychological approaches that Swayer explores regarding active learning.

Sawyer also discusses the benefits of writing-to-learn. I find that this form of learning can be effective for technical communicators as well. I like to think of this as a technical writer trying to draft instructions for a product. The writer knows how the product works and they need to be able to explain it in a way that is understood by their users. Writing out different sets of instructions and receiving feedback is an impactful way of writing critically. The technical communicator is moree able to notice mistakes and make adjustments. Thinking like this can help technical writers get a better sense of their own writing and how future revisions can be improved.  

The last active learning concept is multimedia instruction. I think that this concept is the most important for technical communicators. The technical writer might want visuals that go along with the text, as a way of improving understanding by their target readers. Multimedia learning requires knowing the user and how they respond to instructions. 

Let’s look at this through the lens of a technical writer who is creating a software troubleshooting guide. The user knows the software but they may not know how to troubleshoot it. The technical writer can provide screenshots so that the reader can better understand how to troubleshoot. Or maybe the user prefers video and audio instruction, navigating the software in real-time. In addition, PowerPoint presentations can be used to deliver information with photos and videos that go along with text. The text is often simplified while the presenter narrates the slides in more detail.

Design is a crucial aspect of multimedia instruction. The technical writer must make sure that important text has enough contrast that it can be easily picked out in a document. If the writer is creating instructions, then the text needs to be simple with appropriate images to go alongside them. Aspects like color, repetition, balance, and alignment of documents contribute to creating effective instructions. Multimedia instruction can be more than just images and I think that Swayer provided excellent insight into how a person comprehends multimedia instruction. 

I think that the research that Sawyer introduced not only impacts technical communicators but also assists them in understanding their users. I was drawn to his research because I find the psychology behind the way we take in information fascinating. While I was reading through it I shifted my thoughts about how this research could be effective for technical communicators. The research itself is grounded in psychology and instruction, which is why I found it so interesting in the first place. I believe that technical communicators can benefit from learning about the psychology of learning since it can help them perform more effectively in their field. 


Which forms of active learning are most effective: Cooperative learning, writing-to-learn, multimedia instruction, or some combination?, by Jeremy E. Sayer

Viewpoint Written by Jason Brown, Old Dominion University

Viewpoint Edited by Liz Fraley, TC Camp Volunteer

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