Progressive disclosure in learning design

Posted by Greten on 25 Feb 2019 under Tips

Progressive disclosure, also called gradual reveal, refers to several techniques in which more information is gradually disclosed to the receiver in small bits at a time.

Two of the interesting things about progressive disclosure are:

  • First, it is used in several diverse disciplines from classroom teaching to user interface design, and
  • Second, people are using it even if they are not aware of what it is called.

Do you remember your teacher drawing a concept map that started small, and with more nodes added to it as they deliver the lesson? Do you regularly use a software program or visit a website that instead of showing all the icons or menus to you, the interface shows only a few, with some of the icons expanding to show more options? These are examples of progressive disclosure as used in learning design and user interface design.

Why incorporate progressive disclosure to learning?

Progressive disclosure has been used in many learning materials, from teachers' lesson plans to interactive online lessons for one reason, it works.

  • Progressive disclosure prevents overwhelming learners with information. The brain will find it easier to process and retain information that is presented in small bits rather than large chunk. Also, research in neuroscience shows that the brain tends to get tired of continuous focused learning after 20 minutes. Progressive disclosure provides pauses that are necessary to learn lessons that go beyond that time limit.
  • Progressive disclosure provides interconnectivity to different parts of the lesson. The brain stores knowledge not as discrete units of information, but as interconnected branches of related information from both learning and experience. An example of a curriculum-wide progressive disclosure that uses the interconnectivity of knowledge is the real number system in math. When students know how to count whole numbers, they still do not know of fractions, decimal numbers, and negatives. Fraction is simply a notation that connects the learning of whole numbers to decimal numbers. When students learn negatives, they already know whole numbers and decimals, and simply regard negatives as the same numbers on the opposite side of zero. While learning these numbers, the teacher also relates these to real life quantities, such as part of a kilogram of rice or sugar for decimals, and debt and cold temperature for negatives.
  • Progressive disclosure triggers emotion, making the learning likely to stay in the long term memory. Progressive disclosure accomplishes this by providing surprises and "Aha!" moments during the lesson. One way you can do this is to start teaching topics that are somehow familiar to learners and then gradually proceed to similar but more complicated topics. For example, teach that animals like dogs and chicken reproduce by sexual reproduction: the fusion of sperm cell and egg cell. Then reveal to students that certain microscopic animals, like amoebae, reproduce with the opposite process of cell fission. The manner of presentation is surprising because first, students are more familiar with dogs and chickens than amoebae, and second, it juxtaposes the fusion of sperm and egg cells with the fission of a unicellular amoeba.

What are the ways of integrating progressive disclosure to learning design?

There are different ways in which you can use the concepts of progressive disclosure to your learning module as well as your curriculum. In a single learning module, here are some of the methods of progressive reveal:

  • Put related concepts or processes to consecutive slides, starting with the most familiar and ending with the most complicated. For example, put the animals involved in sexual reproduction in slide 1, the amoeba undergoing cell fission in slide 2, and so on.
  • Create a large concept map but show only the part where you intend to start. Then, gradually zoom-out as you discuss more of the concepts connected to it. You can also move the concept map around to focus on its different part at a time and show the entire map near the end of the module. Another option is to start with a part of the diagram and a large white space and make the nodes appear as the narration discusses them.
  • Show a diagram, but cover a part of it. Ask the learners a question that will make them think, develop a hypothesis, or try to recall previous learning or experience. Then, reveal the correct or best answer by removing the cover.
  • Animate the module, or make it a video. The module reveals more information as the learner continues to watch.

The best method depends on what's suitable for your lesson topic, the medium or equipment available, and your learners.

The progressive disclosure can also be curriculum-wide; it is enforced as prerequisites. Meaning, you cannot start learning about a topic until you learned another topic. In one of the previous examples, the lesson on whole numbers is the prerequisite to learning decimal numbers, which in turn is the prerequisite to learning negative numbers.

Progressive disclosure is an integral part of the processes of teaching and learning. It makes learning easier and more interesting, it can be done in several different ways, and it can be done in both traditional classroom setting and online elearning.


Last updated on 25 Feb 2019.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning