Differentiation, Growth mentality, literacy, Multimedia, Technology

Designing learning through research: An analysis of Memrise for language learning.

This blog post came to be as a result of an assignment in a course I took this summer. I’m taking the Professional Master of Education program through Queens University, and I’ve chosen a literacy concentration. I wanted to share this information because it was one of the best pieces of learning that came my way this summer.

If you have taught or been in a language class recently, you know how common multimedia tools are now in second language learning and teaching. It’s hard to imagine going back to the days of cassette tapes, VCRs, and other tools we used to use to introduce a little bit of media to the classroom, and it’s exciting to know that integration of so many types of media is now possible. However, not all media is created equal, and calling something a literacy app or software program doesn’t necessarily mean it will improve literacy. It’s important for teachers to know how to assess the effectiveness of the tools they use, and to be aware of what they can and can’t do.

The assignment I’m referring to was to take a chapter written by Dr. Richard Mayer in the Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, and to use his criteria for assessing how well a given multimedia tool (app, software, etc.) meets three instructional goals. The three goals are:

  1. Minimize extraneous processing – this goal has to do with minimizing anything that is not related to the instructional goal.
  2. Manage essential processing – this goal has to do with keeping the amount of information manageable so that it can be processed by available working memory. This may vary, depending on the complexity of the material.
  3. Foster generative processing – this goal has to do with organizing and integrating new information and making sense of new material. This is usually done by the learner generating some written or oral work that shows understanding and connection.

The reason that goals 1 and 2 are important is to make sure the learner has cognitive capacity available for goal 3. If there are too many distractions and the learner has to process too much extraneous information, then they can’t figure out what is essential (#2) or have enough attention capacity to generate output based on what they have taken in (#3).

Each goal is broken down into several representative techniques, and a description is given to illustrate each one, which I’ll get to in a moment. I decided to use this assignment to assess the effectiveness of a multimedia tool I’ve been using for several years. Memrise is available as either a website or an app and can be downloaded for Apple or Android devices. Although a paid version is available, the free version is full-featured enough that I’ve never felt the need to pay to upgrade. My students have told me that it was really helpful for them in learning new vocabulary, and they especially liked the competitive aspect of being able to see other students’ high scores. Although I knew that it was an effective tool to learn words, I didn’t know how well Memrise supported developing literacy and I was really interested to see how it would stack up against Dr. Mayer’s criteria.

Introduction to Memrise

If you’re not familiar with Memrise, here’s a quick introduction. Available in both website and app forms, Memrise is designed to help learn new words or information in a second language quickly.

As a teacher, I can design my own “courses”, and they are known on the site or app, and share them with my students. A course is essentially a list of terms that I want my students to know, and before I can enter the words in the list that I want them to learn, I have to specify that I am teaching French for English speakers. The site also prompts teachers to create descriptions and add tags to their courses when they set them up so that they can be shared with other members of the community. This allows me to search for content already created by other teachers before I set my list up, which is a potential timesaver.

As I enter the terms in my list, I add the French terms first, followed by their English equivalents, and then I also have the option to add audio files to support pronunciation, parts of speech, and gender. I can separate the words into different levels in order to have students focus on specific terms rather than all at once, or I can leave my course as a simple list.

Once the terms are entered, Memrise does the work of generating a range of different question types for students to practice. It presents a limited list of terms first, adding gradually from what I have entered as students develop proficiency. Questions alternate between languages as prompts, encouraging students to encode learning in both languages as they go. Question types include reordering, multiple choice, and filling in blanks. Students receive points for each correct answer within the time limit given, and are able to see where other students are on the leader board for their class.

Memrise has many additional features, but rather than list them here, I have incorporated them into my analysis below to show how they fit Mayer’s goals.

Instructional Goal #1: Minimize extraneous processing

Representative TechniqueDescription of techniqueAnalysis of Memrise
Coherence principleEliminate extraneous materialThe clean design of the app and website keeps the learner focused on a given task and minimizes distractions. Students can mute music and sound effects if needed to helps focus.
Signalling principleHighlight essential materialIntuitive layouts of website and app help students navigate easily. Essential material is generally presented in a contrasting colour in the centre of the screen with other page features appearing smaller.
Redundancy principleDo not add printed text to spoken textPrinted text and spoken text can sometimes appear on the page, but this is characteristic of L2 instruction and is used to teach print recognition with phonology. Although it doesn’t conform to Mayer’s principle, it does conform to principles of L2 learning. If a teacher has not selected the audio option, it will not appear.
Spatial contiguity principlePlace printed text near corresponding graphicGraphics can be used to support meaning and will appear along with the text and/or audio for words. Graphics are also used to help prompt navigation of the site or app.
Temporal continuity principlePresent narration and corresponding graphic simultaneouslyGraphics can be used to support meaning and will appear along with the text and/or audio for words. Graphics are also used to help prompt navigation of the site or app.
Segmenting principleBreak presentation into partsCourses and words within the courses are broken up into parts and can be navigated separately.
Source: Mayer, R.E. (2014). Cognitive theory of multimedia learning. In R.E. Mayer (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (2nd ed., pp. 43-71). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Instructional Goal #2: Manage essential processing

Representative TechniqueDescription of techniqueAnalysis of Memrise
Pre-training principleDescribe names & characteristics of key elements before the lessonCourses can be divided into levels by teachers, and content can be broken up to require learning of one part before moving on. When a student learns the content in a course, they begin with a limited set of terms and only add to it as they develop proficiency. There is no function to add a pre-lesson or introductory material.
Modality principleUse spoken rather than printed textDepending on how a teacher sets up their course, audio may or may not be included, but will be presented with accompanying text. While this does not conform to Mayer’s principle, it does conform to principles of L2 learning. Text and audio are often presented together to reinforce recognition of the print form of a word with its pronunciation.
Multimedia principleUse words & pictures rather than words aloneWords & pictures can be used to construct courses, and graphics are also used to prompt navigation of the site and app.
Source: Mayer, R.E. (2014). Cognitive theory of multimedia learning. In R.E. Mayer (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (2nd ed., pp. 43-71). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Instructional Goal #3: Foster generative processing

Representative TechniqueDescription of techniqueAnalysis of Memrise
Personalization principlePut words in conversational styleThis feature is only available in the app and is not customizable. Using the “Immerse” and “Communicate” features, students will both hear and produce language in a conversational style.
Voice principleUse human voice for spoken wordsAll audio uses human voices and can be recorded by teachers or uploaded from other resources.
Embodiment principleGive on-screen characters humanlike gesturesThis feature is only available in the app and is not customizable. The characters in the “Immerse” and “Communicate” sections are played by human actors wearing situationally appropriate costumes and using appropriate gestures and facial expressions.
Guided discovery principleProvide hints & feedback as learner solves problemsAs new terms are introduced, students view them before answering questions with them, and question prompts are similar to introductory materials. Icons indicate learner progress, and if students make mistakes they are presented with new opportunities to learn difficult terms.
Self-explanation principleAsk learners to explain a lesson to themselvesThis is not a feature of the app or website. Learners can practice some oral responses using the “Communicate” feature of the app, but this material is unrelated to course content created by teachers, and teachers cannot access it to provide feedback on student progress.
Drawing principleAsk learners to make drawings for the lessonThis is not a feature of courses in the app or website. Students are not asked to create drawings or visual representations of ideas contained in lessons, but can use the “Explore” feature to take pictures of items for which labels are generated in the target language. Students can create their own library of images and can organize them in folders in the app.
Source: Mayer, R.E. (2014). Cognitive theory of multimedia learning. In R.E. Mayer (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (2nd ed., pp. 43-71). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Using the analysis to inform instruction

Based on Mayer’s principles, this app is a good resource to support literacy development in L2 classes. There are some things it doesn’t do, notably in the third category of fostering generative processing. Rather than see these as failings of the app, I see them as opportunities to integrate the app in classroom instruction.

Here’s a short list of things the app does not do:

  • Describe names & characteristics of key elements before the lesson
  • Put words from my teacher-created courses in conversational style
  • Give on-screen characters from my teacher-created courses humanlike gestures
  • Ask learners to explain a lesson to themselves
  • Ask learners to make drawings for the lesson

Having completed the analysis, I know that students need opportunities to do these things to support their literacy development. I can easily integrate these elements in my classroom instruction to support learning a list or course for students to practice through Memrise. Before assigning the list, I can pre-teach the names and characteristics of key elements they will encounter, so that the information is familiar. After students have had an opportunity to work with the material, I can ask students to use the material in conversations in class, using gestures. The use of oral language to support literacy is a critical element in language learning, and a great opportunity for them to go back and check their pronunciation and learning as they practice with a human partner. As a summary of their learning, I can ask students to create a written or oral explanation of the lesson, annotated with drawings, photos, and diagrams as appropriate to help make connections with other learned material. In doing so, the information shared with students on Memrise could be treated like an out of class reading assignment, and can then be the basis for discussion, explanation and visual representation to solidify learning and provide a richer basis for moving forward with other literacy tasks in class.

The instructional benefits of Memrise depend to a large extent on the background knowledge of the teacher designing the course, as well as the integration of the tool into classroom instruction. As a standalone tool (not connected to a class), Memrise is unlikely to engage a large number of adolescent users long-term, but when used in conjunction with or as a support for text, audio and video literacy in a classroom, it has tremendous value. Terms included in courses should be chosen strategically to connect to texts and content included in class so as to maximize benefit to student learning and to allow students to receive the greatest possible return for the time invested in learning.

Identifying what a multimedia tool does and does not do allows me to plan my classroom instruction more effectively to complete the cycle of learning and to better support my students’ literacy development. Although I have used Memrise for years in my classes, the way that I will use it going forward will change as a result of what I have learned from this analysis, and I look forward to the benefits to my students’ learning as well.

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