Slinky : A Love Story -Misconceptions


Slinky: A Love Story

Consumer Behaviour- It’s just common sense!

In the early 1900’s department store owner John Wanamaker famously said,

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

What Wanamaker recognized is that advertising is not a simple matter. Despite what many people think, marketers are by no means as skilled at manipulating the public as many of us would believe. The fields of marketing and consumer behaviour are filled with misconceptions. It’s not uncommon for people to believe that we all know who we are and we know why we buy. Many believe that consumer behaviour is just about the buying process, and if we have the money we will buy the best product and that best product will be the one that succeeds. People also often believe that if they recognize they have made a poor decision in buying a product, they will readily acknowledge it. All the above are just a few of the many misconceptions about consumer behaviour.

Consumer Behaviour- Wait a minute it’s not so simple!

In reality, consumer behaviour is a complex process that includes what happens before, during and after a purchase. Humans are complex creatures and our self- knowledge varies from person to person. The best product is not always a winner and a poor or silly product can be successful. Although we can be manipulated by marketing pitches, we still have the ability to say no, but one thing is for sure-- thinking and challenging assumptions are required.

As a teacher of a college course called the Psychology of Consumer Behaviour, I have the task to teach the theories of consumer behaviour, stimulate students thinking processes and help them begin to challenge some of the assumptions they hold. Because my course is a general education elective course, I have students from a variety of programs. While some students are from marketing, others could be from graphic design, community service, accounting or any other college program. My approach to the subject has always been two sided. While I can admire a good marketing technique, it is just as important to help others understand how to defend themselves against that very technique.

Misconceptions, Concrete Examples, Discovery Methods and Inductive Reasoning to the Rescue!

In his book Learning and Instruction, Richard Mayer discusses the importance of breaking students’ misconceptions. He promotes the use of concrete examples, discovery methods and inductive reasoning to enable meaningful active learning. Although most of his examples relate to science or math, these same ideas can be used in any area, but specifically in teaching consumer behaviour.

Why I love my Slinky

“What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkity sound?
A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows- it's Slinky.”

By about week 6 in my course, I generally find that my students have a fair bit of knowledge about consumer behaviour. They have had a few opportunities to show that they understand concepts, but they don’t always recognize the depth of their own knowledge, and are not that confident in the area of problem solving. It is about that time that I bring my mini slinky to class. My slinky lesson uses a number of the concepts that Mayer discusses.

Student Mission: Discovery!

My purchase of the mini slinky pictured here has quite a story and it is my students’ mission to figure out all of the following:

· Where did I buy it?

· When did I buy it?

· What store, what location in the store?

· What was the first thing that came into my head when I saw it?

· What type of purchase was it-planned, unplanned?

· What are all the factors that motivated me to buy it?

· What do they know about me that might lead them to understand the purchase?

· Who did I buy it for? If I bought it for someone else, who was it for and why do I still have it?

· If I bought it for someone else how did I rationalize keeping it?

· What are all of the terms that we have talked about in class that explain this purchase?

What Happens when students set to the task: Action!

When students are first presented with the task, they immediately ask, “How do we know?” There are a few groans.

“Ah, but I’m sure by the end of class you will have discovered all the answers,” I say.

The first hint is that I bought it in walking distance of the school. As the students form themselves into groups, I promise that I will give them some hints as they go, but really I want them to question everything. If they want to use their computers to review notes, locate stores in the area or brainstorm in anyway that is all fair game in the pursuit of the slinky story. Technology may play a role, or it may not depending upon the groups’ own approach. Technology could enhance the result especially if they are reviewing course notes online. Students are allowed to ask me some small questions that may guide them. Mayer suggests that guided discovery is “more effective than pure discovery in helping students learn and transfer.” (Mayer, pg 317)

According to Bruner (1981) when students discover rules, they organize their ideas in meaningful ways that result in better learning. Discovery learning can encourage active engagement, promote motivation, autonomy and the development of creative problem solving. Once my students are in groups, I can see that they are really engaged in solving this problem. Immediately, brainstorming is taking place. The groups are active.

During the group discussions, students pass around the little slinky box, the slinky story booklet and the slinky. They examine all of the pieces of the object. I often play one or two of the original slinky commercials during the activity. (There are hints in that.) By using all of the senses students are able to really get into the task through a concrete example. They begin to envision me in the store being motivated by my surroundings while trying to use what they know about me and what they know about consumer behaviour, they transfer their knowledge to the task. The task appeals to Howard Gardners’ Multiple Intelligences. There is thinking, reflecting, spatial knowledge, kinesthetic involvement with the objects, music, pictures and words in the commercial, a group social experience and the use of logic.

The slinky lesson starts with no rules. This is an inductive process. There is the slinky, there is me and then there are only questions. It is not about one final answer-- the lesson involves many steps where the process is more valuable than the end goal. According to Polya, the emphasis should be on the process of problem solving rather than the final answer.” (Mayer, 434) Generally, all the groups answer the majority of the questions.

Reflection. Ah ha!

When we discuss the results and the potential answers, students become aware of other concepts they had not thought of and sometimes I too become aware of things I had not considered. Together the class comes to the conclusion that buying anything no matter how simple can be a complex process that can involve little thinking at times and a lot of thinking at other times. They realize too how questioning can uncover motivations and rationalizations in purchase behaviour. A simple buying process can be affected by people, places, prior experiences and more. Human nature is complex.

I’ve used the slinky lesson a number of times and it has been very successful in showing the students what they know and in reinforcing many of the basic concepts of consumer behaviour. It has also given students an opportunity to problem solve a simple scenario with complex concepts showing them what they know and what they can find out if they question assumptions. From a teacher’s point of view, it illustrates that students are able to transfer knowledge to explain novel situations.

Next time: Maybe a Little More Problem-Solving Process!

What I might do the next time around is outline the problem solving process more. Perhaps I would ask students to write up their process. For example, ask them to clearly define what the problem is. State what is known and unknown, and what are the constraints. I might give them a copy of Wood’s Problem Solving Model: Define the problem, think about it, plan a solution, carry out the plan, look back. (see more detail in Teaching Problem-Solving Skills, University of Waterloo)

Maybe a Little More History to Begin

Next time around, I may begin with a brief history of the slinky. Did you know that there have been over 250 million slinkies made and that if you stretched them out they would circle the earth 126 times? Or that a slinky has been in outer space? NASA crew members took a slinky to space to illustrate simple zero gravity physics. Did you know that the slinky was invented by Richard James as part of his WWII research into springs to stabilize instruments on ships while on rough seas? While James was working, he accidently knocked one of the springs off a bookshelf. Instead of falling to the ground, it stepped its way down a set of books.

And did you know that although it was invented by a man, it took a woman to realize its potential? James’ wife Betty named it “slinky” and pointed out how it could be used as a toy.

“A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows it's Slinky.”

What concepts does the slinky story tell?

For those who want to know more about the slinky story, I can tell you that some of the concepts it involves are these: consumer behaviour definition, role theory, market segmentation: demographics, psychographics, nostalgic attachment, sensation, perception, vision-colour-graphics-layout, touch, sound, exposure, attention, stimulus selection factors, interpretation, schema, semiotics, positioning strategy, advertising, jingles, learning-classical conditioning, repetition, operant conditioning, cognitive learning, memory, retrieval, recognition, situational factors-environment, drive theory, expectancy theory, needs/wants-goals, motivation- motivational conflict, cognitive dissonance, maslow, involvement, the self, fantasy, self-image congruence model, the extended self, personality, brand personality-branding, point-of purchase displays, time, impulse/planned purchases, attitudes, ABC Model of Attitudes, emotional/rational appeal, theparadox ---> the less important the product is to consumers, the more important are the marketing stimuli.

Slinky Confessional Time!

I did buy the slinky for someone else, but I couldn’t bear to give it up, so I convinced myself I needed it. How did I resolve my cognitive dissonance?

Well, it took me a few minutes to come up with it, but my rational is a good one: It’s not just that I wanted the slinky, I actually need the slinky to teach Psychology of Consumer Behaviour.

And that is a short story of how a want became a need.



Mayer, R.E. (2008). Learning and instruction. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education

Barnes, Julian E. (Jan 26, 2001). Business DIARY: A Name, a name, destined for fame. New York Times. Retrieved from

Discovery learning (Bruner), Retieved from

Fashionable myths about advertising. (May 6, 2009) The Ad Contrarion. Retrieved from

Foshay, R., Kirkley, J. (1998). Principles for teaching problem solving.

Kapp, Karl. (June 2009) Teaching tips for problem solving skills, Kapp Notes. Retrieved from

Teaching problem-solving skills, Centre for Teaching Excellence University of Waterloo. Retrieved from

Toy time in space. (April 16, 1995) New York Times. Retrieved from

Zargaj-Reynolds, Paula. (Aug 8, 2007) Advertising is good for you: Advertising Myths. Retrieved from

From Ugly and Bad to A-ha!

From Ugly and Bad to A-ha!

Is reading online different from reading text in printed form? Is learning from a textbook different from learning online?

If you are like most people, you will probably have answered yes to both of these questions. When an instructional designer sets about to create an online lesson, it isn’t as simple as pasting text into an online page. If you have taken online courses, you may have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly. The good would include text with illustrations and interactivity that enhances comprehension. The bad would include massive amounts of text on pages and pages of text with no headings, no focus, no sequence, no classification and no interaction. The ugly would include excessive use of colour on colour without reason, pictures for the sake of pictures rather than illustration, music with no relevance, and information every which way all jammed into one chaotic page. (See samples of the bad and ugly at end of essay)

The Goal of Good Design Principles

In many respects good design principles that promote comprehension in print are transferable to multimedia, but multimedia presents more complications and there is even more need for simplicity and clarity. According to Richard E. Mayer in Learning and Instruction, learners impose structure on lessons. One learner may be advanced and another weak, so it is important that authors of textbooks or lessons impose a structure on their writing. Writing should guide readers to select key ideas, organize these into concepts and integrate new information with their current knowledge or experience. The goal is not just memorization but transferability of ideas, problem-solving and critical thinking.

Structure and Transfer of Learning

In “Teaching by Guiding Cognitive Processes During Learning” (Chapter 10) of Learning and Instruction, Mayer talks about methods to impose structure and aid in transfer of learning. Specifically, he talks about adjunct questions, signaling and advance organizers. Adjunct questions direct the reader’s attention to important material; while signally uses outlines, headings, signal words to aid the creation and organization of a learner’s conceptual framework. Advance organizers may include things like models or diagrams that activate prior knowledge and aid in the understanding and transfer of new concepts. It would be safe to say that all of these concepts apply to the online environment, but one would have to look further to understand multimedia.

Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

Since the advent of the online environment many researchers have studied and developed models that relate cognitive theory to multimedia. Drawing on his own work in meaningful learning and the work of others on cognitive load theory, Mayer proposes his Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning (1997). According to the theory learners possess two separate processing systems where auditory messages go to a verbal processing system and animation goes to visual system. His theory includes the following principles:

1. Multiple Representation Principle: An explanation in words and pictures is better than words alone.

2. Contiguity Principle: A multimedia explanation with words and pictures should present corresponding words and pictures contiguously rather than separately

3. Split-Attention Principle: A multimedia explanation with auditory narration and pictures should not also show the words as text which causes cognitive overload

4. Individual Differences Principle: The above principles are more important for low knowledge than high-knowledge learners, and for high-spatial rather than low-spatial learners.

5. Coherence Principle: A multimedia explanation with fewer relevant words and pictures is better than one with too many. A short summary allows a student to select information and organize and interpret using their own framework.

Design Features: Navigation

Others who have studied multimedia and cognition are Thuring, Hannemann & Hake. In their 1995 paper “Hypermedia and Cognition: Designing for Comprehension,” they point out that websites should enable viewers to clearly identify their current position with respect to the overall site, easily retrace their steps, and easily find different options to continue. With multimedia, it is not so simple as turning the next page. Many of us have seen this happen: we are at an important site and we follow a link and then another and then have trouble getting back to where we started or perhaps go off never to return again.

Design Features: Line Length and White Space Online

Should a line of text in the online environment be the same length as that in print material? Do readers prefer certain length of lines online? Do shorter lines aid in comprehension? What effect does white space have?

Several researchers have studied the above questions with mixed results. A 2005 study by A. Dawn Shaikh looked at online news reading speed, comprehension and line length preference. Students read passages that were 35, 55,75 and 95 characters wide and then were tested for speed, comprehension and preference. Although the 95-character line was read faster, it did not translate to better comprehension. Some users preferred the short lines and some the longer lines. Researchers McMullin, Varnhagen, Heng & Apedoe in 2002, found that line length had no significant effect on comprehension but white space did. Participants had better comprehension when there was more whitespace. They also found that irrelevant information inserted into a page decreased comprehension. In 2003 Bernard, Fernandez, Hull, and Chaparro found differences in preferences between adults and children (Shaikh, 2005). Adults preferred medium line length 76 characters per line and children preferred shorter 45 characters when compared to 132 characters per line. Maybe the answer lies with the audience’s preference, but certainly layout plays a factor.

Gestalt Theory

Those who study graphic design often refer to the principles of Gestalt theory when designing meaningful messages. A phrase to explain Gestalt theory is, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” What this means is that we tend to take in an overall view of images and text, before we begin to dissect it into pieces. Because one of the courses I teach is Visual Communications and because Gestalt theory also relates to comprehension, I have chosen two websites on Gestalt principles to compare and contrast readability, usability and comprehension with respect to the previously mentioned criteria.

Both sites have been online for quite awhile, and I have found both sites effective in different ways. One is mostly textual and the other is interactive.

Site One: Spokane Falls Community College’s page: The Gestalt Principles

The Gestalt Principles page opens into a basic white page with black text and black and white illustrations page. The page is aligned left and each line is approximately 50 characters long. There is a lot of white space in the page. The page opens with a brief definition of Gestalt and then goes on to explain and illustrate the principles of similarity, continuation, closure, proximity and figure/ground. Each topic has a clear identifying heading and either one or two simple examples of the concept. The author also bolds key words throughout the brief explanations. The top navigation allows the user to jump to the specific concept within the same page. The one link out is to a PDF file that is an exercise for students to test their knowledge and to further explain their answers.

This webpage is simple and to the point. It clearly guides the reader to select key points, signals an overall framework and allows readers the opportunity to integrate the understanding into their own framework. The exercise allows learners to self-test thereby ensuring transfer of knowledge. Although the site is black and white and not very interactive, it does what it sets out to do in a way that is clear and coherent. The line length is neither long nor short, so it would appeal to most readers in the target group. The whitespace certainly creates an easy flow of information. Of course the true test is this-- After reading the page, do you have a good understanding of the basic Gestalt design concepts? How can you use these concepts to better design a page for your learners?

Site Two: Mike Cuenta’s Gestalt & Typography Presentation

This page was created in 2000. The page discusses the two Gestalt concepts similarity and proximity specifically as they pertain to type and online layout. Compared to site one, the topic is narrower and illustrates type and image placement; whereas, site one’s emphasis was more focused on Gestalt and images, which may relate to logo design. Site two uses the application Shockwave, so some learners will have to download Shockwave to their computers to view it. This could present a slight obstacle for some users.

Like the previous example the page opens aligned left. The whole size of the page is small so that it would be viewable on multiple screen sizes. The start page has simple colour and design with the logo and a start button. Navigation-wise, pressing start is the only option. The narration starts with a definition of Gestalt and then talks over visual representations that illustrate the concepts. It follows exactly Mayer’s principles Multiple Representation, Contiguity, Coherence and does not violate Split-Attention. It presents the material using two methods at the same time on different channels without causing cognitive overload. The navigation is simple. You can end at any minute but you cannot pause and rewind a bit to replay; you would need to start again from the beginning. There is no activity to check transfer like site one, but that could be provided elsewhere if one were to use this. This multimedia explanation appeals to the particular learners involved. Graphic design students tend to be visual learners, but it also appeals to the other learning styles as well. The visuals are simple; the text is simple; the movement throughout illustrates the changing concepts so it does an excellent job of bringing to life a concept that is hard to explain in simple text and pictures. But again the true test is: What did you learn and how can you apply it to your own learning environment?

The two samples although older still represent good opportunities for learning and consolidating Gestalt design concepts. In most respects they follow Mayer’s and other’s principles.

What have we learned?

If we understand our audience, start with a solid plan, follow proven strategies and design principles, and provide opportunity for interaction through questions and self-evaluation, we will most certainly create more meaningful instruction.

As promised:

Example of the bad in web page design here

Example of the Ugly in web page design here


Cuenta, Mike. (2000). Gestalt & typography: An interactive design tutorial. Retrieved from February 12, 2010.

Graham, Lisa. (2008). Gestalt theory in interactive media design. Scientific Journals, 2(1), Retrieved from February12, 2010.

Mayer, Richard.E . (2008). Learning and instruction. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education.

Mayer, R.E., & Moreno, R. (1998). A Cognitive theory of multimedia learning:Implications for design principles. Retrieved from February 12, 2010.

Mayer, Richard E. (1997). The Cambridge handbook of multimedia learning. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from February 14, 2010.

McMullin, J., Varnhagen, C.K., Heng,P. & Apedoe, X. (2002) Effects of surrounding information and line length on text comprehension. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 28(1), Retrieved from February 13, 2010.

Shaikh, A.D., (2005).The Effects of line length on reading online news. Usability News, (7)2. Retrieved from February 12, 2010.

Spokane Falls Community College, Initials. The Gestalt Principles. Retrieved from February 10, 2010.

Thuring, M., Hannemannn, J., & Haake, J.M. (1995). Hypermedia and cognition: Designing for comprehension. Communications of the ACM, 38(8), Retrieved from;jsessionid=9F74F8D42E2B84068F1B1E63B1D51507?doi= February 12, 2010.

Wilkinson, M.J. (2009, May 20). The Line length misconception, The Viget Advance. Retrieved from February 14, 2010.

Metacomprehension-When "I don't know" is the answer!

If you are a homeowner, I’m sure you’ve met him. He comes in tools ablazing ready to fix that washing machine, refrigerator, eavestrough, or whatever item has just put you into homeowner hell. He might be drop dead gorgeous or be the guy with the moon-man pants. He might even be a she. He could be your partner, neighbour or friend --Whatever, one thing is for sure: he’s cocksure and he’s got tools. Wow, look at those tools!

It isn’t long before he is at work. He doesn’t seem to ask you a lot of questions. He knows just about everything. Why ask questions? While he’s working, he’s telling you about his wife, his mother, his kids, and all manner of things you’d never thought of or wanted to know. Time is beginning to drag on. There are items strewn all over the place. Dollar signs flash before your eyes as he brings in more parts and more parts and even more parts. Wasn’t this supposed to be a simple job? It’s getting late now and it’s still not fixed. He tells you that the problem is a “what’s-it-widget” and it’s going to need ordering. He’ll have to come back. Now wait a minute! Wasn’t this guy an expert? What about those fancy tools?

What you have just encountered is “The Hack.” He’s the guy who thinks he knows everything but doesn’t stop to ask, “What do I really know?” In metacognitive terms, he’s low on comprehension and low on metacomprehension.

Say what? Meta who? OK let’s start from the beginning. Do you know what you don’t know? Do you think about your own thinking? Have you ever been reading a book or watching a movie and suddenly realized that time has gone by and you don’t know a thing that you have just read or seen? When you make that realization you are using your metacognitive skills. You are thinking about thinking. According to J. H. Flavell metacognition, “refers to one’s knowledge concerning one’s own cognitive processes or anything related to them.” When we use metacognitive skills, we plan how to approach a task, monitor our progress, ask questions, re-evaluate and continue until hopefully we have reached our destination. We have learned and we have learned about our learning.

So how does metacomprehension fit in? According to Sally N, Staniford, in her 1984 article Metacomprehension, metacomprehension is simply, “the awareness of and conscious control over one's own understanding or lack of it.” Metacomprehension is then a type of metacognition. Many times we see it used to refer to reading comprehension and strategies to improve comprehension but it could include comprehension of many things like comprehending deeper meanings in film or art.

In many respects metacomprehension can be seen as a bottomless toolbox. This toolbox has all the things we need to solve any problem. There are simple things like hammers and nails and duct tape, but there are all types of fancy specific tools too. Before you look into your toolbox, you’ll need to know exactly what type of problem you have. There will be questions! Your toolbox looks exciting, but you’ll need to study its contents and evaluate. Which tool should you use? Is it a simple problem, or a complex one? Will you need a more complex tool? Do you know how to use it? In no time, you’ll be testing out your tools and hopefully learning more and more. Sometimes you might even stop and say to yourself, “I know exactly what is wrong, but I just don’t know how to do it.” Dratz, now what? Wait, what’s that in there? Hey it’s my friend the expert in the toolbox. What can she recommend? But even though this toolbox is bottomless, each person who looks into it may see something different. One person may pick just the right tool and another person might pick something that will work eventually. It appears there is more to this toolbox than meets the eye. Even though the toolbox is bottomless and has all the answers, it will depend upon the level of expertise of its user.

Sally N. Staniford suggests that metacomprehension can be broken out into four categories. In category one we have High Comprehension and High Metacomprehension. This means you know something and are aware that you know. For example you are given a problem to solve and you are correct in knowing that you solved it correctly.

In category two we have Low Comprehension and High Metacomprehension. Here we say to ourselves, “I don’t know and I know I don’t know.” We are aware that we don’t understand.

In category three we have High Comprehension and Low Metacomprehension. In this case we know the answer but do not know we know the answer. If you are a teacher, you will know this student. She always knows the answer but she has to ask you if she is right every time.

In category four we have Low Comprehension and Low Metacomprehension. This is where “The Hack” lives. Here we are sure we know, but in fact we do not and we are unaware that we do not.

Optimally, what we all want is high comprehension and high metacomprehension. As teachers, we want our students to know subjects and to have the metacognitive skills to become aware of their thinking processes. To get there we reflect on our thinking and encourage our students to reflect on their own thinking. How do we do that when sometimes it seems that everyone just wants to rush to the magic answer?

Let’s go back to our favorite “Hack.” Where did he go wrong? He appeared to have the right tools and say the right things before he came in. But he started off badly. He asked no questions! He never really found out what was wrong and when it was going wrong. He dove in without thinking seemingly rushing to the end. While he was at work he talked about everything else but the job he was doing. He had no plan; he was distracted. Instead of finding out the exact problem, he just kept changing things to see what would work. He didn’t ask enough questions about what had just happened and how this thing was related to that thing. He didn’t monitor his progress and make changes to improve his strategies. He never once said, “I don’t know.” He was unaware that he didn’t know. And worst of all he walked away and was paid for it. Ouch! Reinforcement!

If we now think of these same basic concepts and apply them to the work that we assign as teachers, most likely we will develop work that requires students to reflect on their learning by having them focus on the learning process step-by-step. Ask them to summarize, explain a concept another way through analogy of metaphor, (lol) read a story line by line and ask them to guess what comes next (double lol) and question, question and question again. Beware the final answer!

Picasso once said, “Computers are useless; they can only give you answers.” But did he really mean that computers are useless? Or did he mean that what is important is the questions? We look into our bottomless toolbox and we find answers, but aren’t we really more in search of the next questions? There will always be a point where we say, “I don’t know.” The key is to say that in the form of a question. Learning is like that.

As for “The Hack,” Bertrand Russell sums it us best in his Triumph of Stupidity when he says, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Well Bertrand, I do consider myself an intelligent person and I, for one, don’t mind a little doubt now and then as long as it leads to the next question!


Blakey, Elaine & Spence, Sheila. (Nov 1990) Developing metacognition. ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Resources Syracuse NY. ERIC Identifier: ED327218 Retrieved from on February 1, 2010.

Halter. Julie, Metacognition, encyclopedia of educational technology, San Diego State University. Retrieved from February 1, 2010.

Livingston, Jennifer A. (1997) Metacognition: An overview. Retrieved from February 1, 2010.

Pierce, William (2003) Metacognition: Study strategies, monitoring, and motivation, Prince George Community College. Retrieved from February 1, 2010.

Russell, Bertrand. The triumph of stupidity (1933-05-10) in Mortals and others: Bertrand Russell’s American essays, 1931-1935, 1998, p28.

Standiford, Sally N. (1984) Metacomprehension. Retrieved from ERIC database. February 1, 2010 (ED250670).

My Curation of Inovations in elearning