eCoaching Tip 70 Course Beginnings — Identifying and Affirming the Patterns in Your Content

September 17, 2009

eCoaching Tip 70 Course Beginnings — Identifying and Affirming the Patterns in Your Content

“Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern recognition.”   Marshall McLuhan, 1969.

This tip begins with a fascinating observation attributed to Marshall McLuhan in 1969.  McLuhan asserted the following: “Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern recognition.”   

What about the patterns in your course content?Have you thought about or reflected on the fundamental patterns and cycles in your course content? What are the patterns and relationships in your course content that you want to affirm again and again for your students?

As we are dealing with information overload on an almost minute-to-minute basis, McLuhan’s assertion highlights a critical future-oriented skill that we need to be nurturing in our learners. That skill is the ability to readily detect patterns, cycles and relationships.  Discrete pieces of knowledge or factoids are too disembodied and uncontextualized to be very useful.  Surrounded by data we need better thinking strategies for navigating and making information useful.

What I think is intriguing about McLuhan’s statement is the idea that faced with information overload, our brains appear to adapt out of necessity to being more efficient at pattern recognition.  If we can chunk course content into fewer disparate segments, the whole is more readily seen. In other words, information overload might be viewed as a positive development because it is messaging our brain to adjust.  Brain researchers refer to this capability as brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to “not only to create new neurons throughout life, but to modify networks of neurons to better cope with new circumstances.” (Society for Neuroscience, 2007)

The first phase of a course is an exciting and enthusiastic time.  It is a time that learners and faculty gather together with core course resources and plan out the learning that they want to achieve. The first phase of a course is similar to the launching of a new project initiative. Spirits are high, ideals expansive and opportunities seem limitless.  But of course this phase passes, and reality sets in.

This tip gives some ideas on how to increase the probability that learners will retain some of their initial excitement and take more away from the course.

Think Patterns, Think Cycles, Think Relationships

First of all, look at your content with a fresh eye.  Artists will often step back from their painting and squint at their work to see how the objects are all coming together.  Try this with your course content.  Step back and consider what patterns and relationships and frameworks tie the content all together. Then consider what kinds of experiences will help your learners discern those patterns, and link ideas across papers, discussions and personal reflections?  In leadership courses, particularly, we want to discover the patterns and relationships in core concepts of power, leadership, culture, and organizations. Detecting patterns in these core concepts will provide new insight about these concepts and how they work or manifest themselves in different environments.

Here are a few questions that might guide your learner’s awareness or discovery of course patterns.

  • What traits, characteristics or thought positions do the members of your learning community share?
  • What are the predictable patterns within society, power, and culture, XX?
  • What patterns regarding health care reform (Insert course topics here.) are emerging?What can be predicted from those patterns?  What might cause the pattern to change?
  • Can you create an image, or metaphor that illustrates a core concept or clarifies a key course article? How might that image change in other expert positions?
  • What cycles in XXX are repeating themselves?

Background Notes

Here are a few background notes about this tip.

  1. This tip had its genesis in early August 0f 2009 when I had the good fortune to participate in the 25th Annual Teaching and Learning at a Distanceconference in Madison WI. One of the many interesting speakers was a social technologist Teemu Arina,from Finland. Teemu used the beginning quote above that is widely attributed to Marshall McLuhan, the well-known Canadian media theorist and critic who coined the phrases “ The Medium is the Message,” and the “Global Village.”

While searching for a good bibliographic reference for the McLuhan quote above, I also found a variation of the quote — “Information overload equals pattern recognition” —used by Mark Federson,Chief Strategist and head of McLuhan Management Studiesfrom the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.

By the way, my search for the source of the quote used by Arina was unsuccessful, even though one source attributed it to the year 1969.  However, it is something that McLuhan might well have said. J

  1. If you are feeling curious about what a social technologist thinks or does, be sure to look at the six concepts identified by Teemu Arina on his blogas key themes for future learning. These concepts are already at the root of many changes in our current learning and work environments. In particular the concept of Social Experiential Learningreinforces the importance of the role of reflection and abstraction in learning. The power of the emerging social technologies for learning is that they allow reflection and abstraction to happen in an increasingly shared context, enabling individuals to learn from each other’s experiences, and I would add, patterns of thinking.  Note: Some of the other concepts for future learning success identified by Arina are: Organic Enterprise, Extended Events, Social Experiential Learning, Digital Ecosystems, Age of Real-Time, Serendipic Learning and Fractal Learning.
  2. For more about the usefulness and need for skills in pattern detection, check out the resource called The Revenge of the Right Brainby Daniel Pink, a former speechwriter for Al Gore.

References and Resources

E-Coaching Tip 27 (Fall, 2006): A Rubric for Analyzing Critical Thinking.Retrieved July 10, 2010 from

E-Coaching Tip 58 (Spring, 2008): Reaching the Heights of Learning — Authentic Problem-Solving.  Retrieved July 10, 2010 from

Guide to Rating Critical & Integrative Thinking. Washington State University, Fall 2006. Retrieved June 26, 2009 from

Pink, D. H. (2005). Revenge of the Right Brain. Wired,13, 70-72.  Retrieved July 10, 2010 from his 2005 book,AWhole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age.  Or his video on motivation and reward at the TED conference.  Retrieved July 10, 2010 from

Note: These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized, expanded and updated  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita- Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by

Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2020