be consistent Would you notice if the sun didn’t come up tomorrow? Of course you would, because the sun comes up every day. You’re used to it. If it didn’t come up that would be breaking the pattern you’ve become accustomed to. There needs to be a pattern in order for a pattern to be broken and when a pattern is broken people take notice. This can be a real double edged sword, particularly in eLearning.

When Used Incorrectly

Courses that don’t have a pattern in the first place end up being a mess. The lack of consistency ends up contributing to a lack of meaning. In short, you end up with things like the worst eLearning course ever. Trying to “spice things up” by making every screen look significantly different not only detracts from learners’ ability to tell what’s what, it’s also going to make the course look unprofessional. That’s not to say that having multiple layouts or a few different colors is a bad thing. The key is to have a unified approach that uses complementary components and maintains a good balance.

Lack of consistency doesn’t just hurt the visual department either. What about a course where the audio narration doesn’t match the closed caption text? Or how about one where multiple different terms are used to talk about the same concept? For instance, having the words cougar, mountain lion, puma, and panther used interchangeably would probably be confusing if you didn’t already know that they’re all names for the same animal. And that’s to say nothing of interactive activities that aren’t formatted coherently.

But compulsive consistency presents its own problems too. If there’s no flexibility ever, for any reason, you’re backing yourself into a corner. Besides, if everything is repetitive all the time the learner will eventually acclimate to the setup. When something reaches “monotony” status it becomes boring and they’ll zone out.

The occasional jolt of, “Whoa, what’s that?” is exactly what conscientious pattern breaking is for.

When Used Correctly

Once you have a pattern established it’s pretty easy to break one. You need to focus on asking yourself:

  • Why would I want to break this pattern?
  • How should it be broken?
  • How do I decide when it’s a good idea to do so?

The answers to these questions will vary from project to project. The key takeaway is that effective pattern breaking is something that should be done intentionally for a specific purpose, not “just because.” If you can’t explain why something was done differently somewhere then it probably shouldn’t be have been done differently.

For example, let’s say you have a course that’s almost entirely silent. There’s no audio narration, no background music, and no sound effects. Until you get to the conclusion screen, where’s there’s a short piece of music. (In reality that’s not the greatest idea because there’s a good chance people will either have it on mute and will miss it or won’t know what their device’s audio is set at and may blow their ears out, but it’ll illustrate the basics). Let’s break it down:

  • Why would I want to break this pattern (the lack of audio)? – To indicate that the learner has reached the end.
  • How should it be broken? – Add some form of audio.
  • How do I decide when it’s a good idea to do so? – The end is the end, so that’s easy in this case.

Learners will notice that difference. And, wait for the irony, when that break in the pattern is used consistently it’ll form its own pattern. It will have meaning, the end of the lesson. But since it’s only used every once in a while it’s still a break from the original pattern. Neat isn’t it?

So in summary, always be consistent most of the time. Establish meaningful patterns and then be strategic about why, how, and when, you break them.

If you’d like to read more about training, learning, and instructional design check out the rest of this author’s blogs.

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