Interaction, Activities, and Learning: Engage learners meaningfully to develop mastery

Written By

Patti Shank

May 03, 2004

Interaction is a pretty hot topic in our field and for good reason. Its importance for learning has been clearly documented in instructional research. Some of the most critical outcomes of interaction include feedback, motivation, and the ability to adapt content to a learner’s needs.

If interactivity is considered an important measure of good online learning, the dilemma is that we often don’t know what we’re measuring, and that’s a pretty slippery slope. To answer that question we first have to ask: Interaction for what? That’s easy... Interaction that supports the desired learning. If the fundamental nature of learning is engagement in activity over time, as two significant teachers have convinced me, two of the words from that assertion hold important keys for what good interaction requires: activities and time.

Meaningful interactions

The design of meaningful interaction, for the purpose of learning, requires selecting activities that allow learners to practice doing what knowledgeable and experienced people DO with the content (in order to gain expertise and mastery — over time).

Too many online instructional materials contain limited or the wrong types of activities, though. Most of the time when we design instruction, we need learners to be able to use the content, not just recall it. If we truly want learners to be able to use the content, we need to design instructional activities that involve learners in the types of activities that allow them to practice using the content as it is used in real-life situations, deal with increasingly complex uses of the content as a whole (not just the parts), and get meaningful feedback and necessary support along the way. That’s a big charge, but that’s what it takes. Recall activities are useful to assure understanding of simpler concepts, but often do not go far enough.

Activity types

The table below shows activities that are commonly used in online learning and support. The categorization reflects ways that these activities are commonly used in practice.

Research shows that transfer of learning is greatly enhanced when learning environments allow learners to experience real world complexity, with support. People don’t learn as well by being fed information. They learn best by engaging in meaningful activity. The best activities are those that mirror the way the content is used in the real world.


Consider an online module on tools used for project management. Limited interactions that allow the user to see example project plans and Gantt charts improve learners’ awareness of tools of the trade and how they are used. This is fine as a conceptual starting point. Even better is adding the ability to manipulate the tools by changing data and determining how that impacts deliverables. Then use the tools in cases to experience how different tools support different processes... now we’re getting into real, real-life uses. Allow learners to use the tools and gain feedback, advice, and support on their own projects over time, and the learning environment begins to support real mastery.

The essential design question, when it comes to selecting activities (interactions) is the complexity of the learning task and the degree of skill that is desired... awareness, newbie, middle level, or expert? If you have a complex learning task (almost a given) and require more than awareness or newbie level of skill, the use of meaningful DO activities is needed.


Online learning & support activity types

Recall activities

Quiz Drill-and-practice
Simple animation
Presentation sequence
  (text/graphics or slides/text)
One-way Webcast

Do activities

Hands-on practice
Field work
Guided analysis
Case study
Virtual lab
Discussion questions
Role play
Peer review/group critique

Information and support

Decision tool
Help files
Knowledge bank
Resource list


Next time...

In this series of articles, I’ll describe methods and tools for accomplishing a DO activity each time. We’ll start on June 7 with how to accomplish hands-on practice. Think you need to spend a fortune building highly realistic simulations? If you’re training folks to fly 757s or clean up hazardous waste spills, that makes sense. Otherwise, it’s often overkill... better strategies can cost loads less. I believe I have some Ah Ha’s in store for you. 

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