Maybe It’s not Attention Deficit Disorder but Poor Design Habits in Academia: Can We Make Science Education and Communication More User-Friendly?

8:38 PM John C. Lokman 0 Comments

If the reader is to grasp what the writer means, the writer must understand what the reader needs.” —Gopen & Swan

 The success of your presentation will be judged not by the knowledge you send but by what the listener receives.” —Walters

Did you ever have that grim look on your face while staring at an academic article and felt frustrated when you realized how painful and time consuming it was going to be to understand it? (And reading its abstract only made it worse?) Or did you ever pretend to listen to lecture and felt like an impostor despite your best attempts to listen?

If you had these experiences often, then you probably also blamed yourself for having an attention deficit, not being motivated or smart enough, or for being lazy. And perhaps, because of the fear of being perceived as slow in a culture where intelligence is the most prized possession, you shared your problems with no one and felt like you are the only one. Indeed, our intellectual culture tells you that there is something wrong with you if you fail to control your attention long enough to read an article or listen to a lecturer. Perhaps you indeed have an attention deficit or it's just that you don't like the subject enough to find it more interesting than your Friday evening plans.

But what if the article or book taking too long to get to the point, the lecturer is talking in maths, and the presentation is basically lists appearing on a wall? Is it too arrogant for a student to ask for more?

Given the fact that current academic system is hierarchical and is a knowledge-centric system rather than a student-centric one (i.e., an order that worships knowledge and the knower but not to the learner), the answer is probably yes. And given that science is perceived almost as a sacred pursuit for truth that is undertaken by threateningly intelligent individuals who must surely know a lot about teaching too, the popular perspective is also not very helpful.

How about looking at it from a design perspective then?

Ergonomic Design in Academic Education and Communication

Although academia deals with frontiers of human knowledge and technology, it lags far behind other disciplines when it comes to communicating itself. It is almost as if researchers care about expressing their ideas more than making their audiences comprehend them. Academic language is a cryptic one: scientific communications resemble secret messages that can only be understood by those who has skills and mental discipline to decipher them. Furthermore, these messages are delivered in the most unattractive and daunting form: long blocks of arcane text and pedantic PowerPoint presentations—basically lists appearing on a screen one after another. It is no wonder we feel proud of ourselves each time we finish reading a long article, or when we manage to keep ourselves engaged during a long-winded presentation.

The problem is not that the content is uninteresting, but the way is it presented does not engage the minds of modern audiences anymore[1]. This is an audience who is used to[2] rich internet media and highly interactive video games—mediums designed to capture attention without requiring much motivation from the perceiver. In other words, our attention has been increasingly trained to be sustained by rich external stimuli; and it is no surprise that the black and white text on the screen does not do the trick anymore. The preference for richer, more intense, and therefore engaging stimuli (i.e., higher bandwidth in communication) is further increased by the high workload of the information age: nobody has time anymore to indulge in literary pleasures in a research article, or patience to unscramble information presented in an unclear format—be it in a presentation or on a scientific poster.

A mere ten years ago, such a demanding audience could have been blamed for not being motivated or disciplined enough. However, writers and speakers of the age of information (overload) are starting to realize that they are equally responsible in maintaining their audience’s attention[3]. This is an objective that can be reached with applying what we found out in the last decades about human cognition, learning, and motivation to our mediums of academic communication and education—mediums (i.e., lists on walls and pages of text) that stubbornly refused to change for centuries. In fact, this is not even new ground to cover: We already did it extensively in entertainment, gaming, and design industries. We now know very well what engages and sustains the attention of audiences and are able to design immersive experiences without fail[4]. And no, it's not just violence or sex[5] but rather rich visuals, animations, frequent feedback and interactivity.

"But science and education is different; this is a serious field; why should academia be expected to use the same techniques with entertainment and design industries to deliver content?" Why not? Why do we believe that science education is NOT a matter of designing an experience for an audience? Why is it natural for us to see a dancer, an actor, a musician to prepare to the point of perfection to design an experience for their audiences, while we seek the mistake in ourselves when an educator fails to recreate in us what he or she experienced when s/he understood something? We leave the movie and the performance if it's mediocre but we feel stupid if we don't understand a lecture or article. Perhaps it's about time to get over the conditioning we received since the kindergarden, which puts educators —and educational materials— at a higher, sacred, uncriticizable place, and begin to use a more objective perspective.

We can instead try to see education from a (-n experience) design perspective; a perspective where teachers, presentations, and scientific articles become content delivery mediums and students become users. When the issue is seen from this perspective, terms like user-centric design, presentation and lecture design, cognitive ergonomy, or gamification come into play; and we can start to say (dangerous) things like "Being a researcher (i.e., a knower) does not automatically make one a good lecturer or writer (i.e., a communicator)." Then we can also say (annoying) things like "Each sentence you deliver that takes more than 8 seconds to read or listen is disrespectful to my working memory, so could you please stop trying to impress us with your linguistic abilities and get to the point?" This is a perspective where students are not expected to fit to the system, but system is expected to fit to the students and their cognitive properties—something that has never been so possible as it is today thanks to our knowledge on human cognition and new technological possibilities. Only by looking at education in such a design perspective, we can see which educational methods and materials are not compatible with what we know about human motivational and cognitive systems, and update them accordingly. Only then we can teach science scientifically. Unless we make this change in our perspective first as individuals and then as institutions, academic communication and education will remain a bottleneck between what science knows and what society understands.

So, what could your role be in all of this as of right now? You can help raise the standards simply by NOT automatically assuming that there is something wrong with you for not understanding an article or lecturer, and demand modern/ergonomic educational materials and methods [6]. I mean, just look at this; after all, we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere if today we choose present the same information this way (1), rather than this way (2)...


Further Reading

• "A concise and highlighted version of preface" of Bryne's book for his views on ergonomy in education and more.

• "The science of scientific writing." George Gopen & Judith Swan, 1990, American Scientist. 

• A good read about an (indirectly-but-highly) related topic: "Working Hours." Jacob Jolij, 2016.

Image Sources

1 – “First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid” by John Casey, Project Gutenberg

2 – “The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid (In Which Coloured Diagrams and Symbols are Used Instead of Letters for the Greater Ease of Learners)” by Oliver Byrne,

[1] That is, if we optimistically assume that it engaged the minds of pre-modern audiences.
[2] And even grew up with, or addicted to...
[3] Even if the writers and educators may still blame their audiences, in this era more popularly with having attention deficit disorder rather than just low self-discipline, these “problem students” are no more just at the back rows of the class but in all rows. These students are becoming the norm now, and although this is bad for the short term, it can be wonderful news for future as there could be finally enough critical mass to force the academia and education industry to change their archaic ways of communicating and teaching.
[4] Imagine an IMAX movie for instance. And then ask why can we spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create a movie for an entertainment experience that hundreds of millions of people can relate to and enjoy, but not for updating knowledge of humanity on mind blowing things like what we know about the universe or our brains. Is science really that boring?
[5] Although sex and violence greatly help too, but perhaps that could be taking it a tad too far in education. Yet, sex can translate into sexy (i.e., visually attractive) and violent can be replaced with intense and intense or impactful.
[6] Of course, it may be a challenge for you to be aware of it when you are just being lazy and not actually trying.