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Ergonomics Vol. 50, No. 10, October 2007, 1530–1546

The ergonomics of learning: educational design and learning performance
Human Factors Research Laboratory, School of Kinesiology, 226 Cooke Hall, University of Minnesota, 1900 University Avenue SE, Minneapolis, MN 55455

The application of ergonomics/human factors (E/HF) principles and practices, and the implementation ofergonomics programmes, have achieved proven success in improving performance, productivity, competitiveness, and safety and health in most occupational sectors. However, the benefits that the application of E/HF science might bring to promoting student learning have yet to be widely recognized. This paper deals with the fundamental purpose of education – student learning – and with the question of howthe ergonomic design of the learning environment influences learning performance. The underlying premise, embodied in the quote below, is that student learning performance to a substantial degree is context specific – influenced and specialized in relation to specific design factors in the learning environment. The basic scientific question confronting learning ergonomics is which designcharacteristics in the learning environment have the greatest influence on variability in learning performance. Practically, the basic challenge is to apply this scientific understanding to ergonomic interventions directed at design improvements of learning environments to benefit learning. This paper expands upon these themes by addressing the origins and scope of learning ergonomics, differing perspectives onthe nature of learning, evidence for context specificity in learning and conclusions and research implications regarding an ergonomics perspective on learning. Keywords: Behavioural cybernetics; Educational ergonomics; Learning ergonomics ‘The main challenge in the science of human learning is to understand the requirements of educational design at all levels’ (K. U. Smith and Smith, CyberneticPrinciples of Learning and Educational Design, 1966, p. 478) 1. Introduction For some time now, a passionate debate has been raging regarding the performance of the educational system in the United States (US). Critics point out that scholastic *Corresponding author. Email:
Ergonomics ISSN 0014-0139 print/ISSN 1366-5847 online ª 2007 Taylor & Francis 10.1080/00140130701587608

The ergonomics of learning


achievement test (SAT) scores of US students have dropped markedly from levels achieved in the 1960s and early 1970s, that US students perform poorly in math and science relative to students from many other industrialized countries, and that recent national tests in geography and history show dismal results. Others counter withstatistics showing that the percentage of US students graduating from high school is at an all time high, as are student scores on other national achievement tests. One point of common agreement appears to be that the performance of US schools can be improved. Lacking in this debate has been any meaningful acknowledgment of the contributions that ergonomics/human factors (E/HF) science might maketo improving student learning and the performance of educational systems. That is, of all the sociotechnical systems areas whose design features have received attention from E/HF, education has been least affected (the term ‘sociotechnical system’ refers to a conceptual approach (Trist 1981) that emphasizes the need to integrate social behavioural, technical engineering and organizationalrequirements in the design of complex systems). The application of E/HF principles and practices, and the implementation of ergonomics programmes, have achieved proven success in improving performance, productivity, competitiveness, and safety and health in most occupational sectors. In the educational arena, as papers in this special issue illustrate, some research has been done on the application of...
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