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Are Seductive Details Damaging Your Training?


No Matter How Tempting They Are, It’s Not Worth It

How often have you opened a piece of training with a story that you know will have your audience laughing along, or in shock and awe, just to grab their attention? How many times have you done a quick google and grabbed the first half-decent image you saw just to add a visual element? Have you ever added a bit of background music just to set the mood, or for a bit of entertainment? If so, you may have fallen prey to seductive details. Don’t worry—we’ve all done it before. But what are seductive details? And why are they something you should avoid?

What Are Seductive Details?

Seductive details are interesting but irrelevant pieces of information that are slipped into training and learning experiences between the main points. Seductive details can often be fun and momentarily engaging. As a result, it can be very tempting for trainers and learning designers to add them to their sessions or courses to grab the attention of their learners. Some examples of seductive details include:

  • Unnecessary background information about a story character
  • Silly images, GIFs, or videos added just for laughs
  • Tangentially related fun facts or too many fun facts
  • Background music or sounds
  • Decorative images that are only loosely related to the topic or contain distracting elements such as celebrities
  • Information on the same topic, but which you wouldn’t assess

Seductive details often sneak their way into training content as they are loosely related to the topic at hand. This makes it easy for us to justify their inclusion. However, using seductive details in learning experiences is unfortunately likely to backfire.

Why Do Seductive Details Harm Learning And Training?

As fun as they might be, studies and metaanalyses (Rey, 2012; Sundararajan and Adesope, 2020) over the years have shown that seductive details most often result in worse outcomes for learners. Learners who engaged with material containing seductive details typically demonstrated poorer recall and a worse ability to transfer their learning to new problems. This is known as the seductive detail effect.

The exact reason why this happens is yet to be formally determined. However, there are a few strong theories that are often put forward, including:

  • High cognitive load
    Including extraneous details may be overburdening the working memory of learners. By splitting and distracting attention from the intended teaching points, seductive details decrease the learner’s capacity to identify and synthesize important information. This is supported by studies that showed an increased seductive detail effect on participants with lower working memory (Sanchez and Wiley, 2006).
  • Disrupted schema development
    As learners encounter new information, they build mental models (schemas) to organize and integrate their learning. Seductive details may result in confusing or incorrect schemas by highlighting irrelevant information. This is supported by studies that show that the location of the seductive details can influence the effect (Harp and Mayer, 1998).

While trainers and learning designers may be tempted to include seductive details to engage their audiences, this goal is ultimately shortsighted. As the seductive detail effect shows, engagement does not always result in better retention and application of knowledge.

4 Ways To Avoid Seductive Details

Because of their appealing nature, seductive details can easily slip into training material unnoticed. However, there are steps you can take to reduce the occurrence of seductive details in your learning experiences.

1. Write Learning Outcomes

We are huge advocates of writing learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are clear, concise statements of the knowledge and skills learners should obtain from a learning experience. Developing a set of learning outcomes at the beginning of the design process for a piece of training provides a clear focus for the content. Learning outcomes should be aligned with your audience research and learner personas so as to ensure they meet the needs of your learners.

2. Audit And Revise

With a clear set of learning outcomes at hand, you can far more easily audit your content for seductive details by asking if they are truly relevant to achieving the learning outcomes. Any material in your training that does not pass this test can be refined, discarded, or replaced in favor of more relevant content. It can be particularly helpful to bring in a fresh and neutral set of eyes to look for seductive details you have missed, as we are often fondly biased towards our own exciting stories or amusing gifs.

3. Communicate The Learning Outcomes To Learners

Learning outcomes are not just for learning designers—they’re for learners too! While it’s often tempting to skip past the learning outcome section of a piece of training, it’s actually highly beneficial for learners to have a clear road map of the learning ahead. By communicating your learning outcomes at the beginning of the learning experience, learners are better able to recognize key information and scaffold it into a cohesive schema.

4. Trust Your Content

Seductive details can often linger even after they are recognized for what they are. Why? Because we really love telling that particular story or sharing that funny picture. It gets the smiles, the laughs, the comments. Secretly, we’re worried that the training will be really boring without it. And so, it can be hard to let it go.

The antidote to this is to trust your content. Humans are naturally wired to enjoy learning new things, and it is possible to have an engaging learning experience without all the memes. Consider if you can tweak your story to tie back to your main point, or swap one picture with another that’s more relevant.

Don’t Get Seduced

Seductive details are exactly that—seductive. They love to sneak in and tell us how engaging we are, while they quietly distract, divide and confuse your learners. As 2022 kicks off, why not make it your goal this year to spot and thwart seductive details before they take over your training? Your learners will benefit from better recall and more effective application of their new knowledge.

References:

  • Harp, S. F., and R. E. Mayer. 1998. “How Seductive Details Do Their Damage: A Theory of Cognitive Interest in Science Learning.” Journal of Educational Psychology 90 (3): 414–434.
  • Rey, G.D. 2012. “A review of research and a meta-analysis of the seductive detail effect.” Educational Research Review 7 (3): 216–237.
  • Sanchez, C. and J. Wiley. 2006. “An Examination of the Seductive Detail Effects in Terms of Working Memory Capacity.” Memory & Cognition 34(2): 344–355.
  • Sundararajan, N., and O. Adesope. 2020. “Keep it coherent: A meta-analysis of the seductive details effect.” Educational Psychology Review 32 (3): 707–734.

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