Supporting Mental Model Building

Mental models are schemas or internal representations of how we understand and grasp the world around us. These models are not built from one day to another or from scratch, but rather they are built and adjusted over time as we interact with our environment.

Some cognitive scientists represent this idea as a network that grows, expands, and is redefined constantly as we gain expertise. Experts solve problems more effectively than novices because they have more resources to connect with in their network. Novices, on the other hand, have fewer "connections" to build on, as they are building an understanding of the situation or context. An important concept to take into account is "adaptive expertise", which implies that whereas experts can have a large mental model on a particular area, they can always continue learning, adapting and reconstructing their understanding with a mindset and a humble attitude towards lifelong learning,

I have learned that is important to identify which "prior knowledge" learners bring to the learning experience to help them anchor those ideas by connecting with their previous experiences so new ideas and understanding can be created. Sometimes, by identifying learners' prior knowledge we can also identify possible misconceptions or funds of knowledge that are relevant to the learning goals.

An important strategy to keep in mind in this process is scaffolding, where the instructor or learning designer identifies the learner's zone of proximal development and designs a variety of strategies to help the learner succeed and achieve the goals according to their level.

I also have learned that is important to design so that learners have meaningful and relevant experiences while learning so that those connections are built strongly (as emotions play a huge role in creating these memories).

Moreover, embodied learning experiences are key for building mental models. We learn better if we are engaged with our senses and our body. Examples of theories that support this claim are " the embodied mind (Varela et al), learning by doing (Kolodner), constructionism (Papert), the maker culture, applications of VR/AR for learning, among others...

How I reflected this powerful ideas in my projects


Throughout the design process of the "Curiously App" project, I have been wondering about the richness and value of family engagement for early learners. How the role of caregivers in scaffolding influences mental model building, including meaningful aspects for learning such as islands of expertise, values, funds of knowledge, rich learning experiences to relate to as prior knowledge, identity as a learner, and engagement that then can thrive into intrinsic motivation. I believe in the value of connections that parents can promote in informal learning experiences as preparation for future learning for young learners.

Sustainable Self-care workshop

We took the design decision to include several opportunities during the workshop in which learners connected with their prior knowledge. For example, we include a section in the participants booklet to recall the products they use at home and measure their own plastic footprint based on this data. We also provided opportunities for reflection and imagination on how they'll make a personal commitment based on their own experiences.


During the summer semester, we worked on. a project for designing an immersive experience for learning. We designed an informal learning VR experience so that learners could identify key aspects of the Olmec culture by playing to be archeologists and museum curators. We took the design decision, based on the learning sciences, that learners actively engaged in an embodied experience, using virtual archeology tools as experts do and finding archeological artifacts of the Olmec culture by exploring the jungle.

Things to keep in mind for mental model building:

  • Prior Knowledge

  • Supporting making connections accross experiences

  • Constellation of activities

  • Learning happen bit by bit and overtime

  • Embodied learning

Additionally, I see the value of tools such as Cognitive Task Analysis in ways that can help inform my designs for supporting mental model building:

  • To understand the underlying cognitive processes experts use to develop a concrete task and learn more about a concrete discipline I might be designing for, help set design the learning objectives and sub-goals that have to be achieved, but also identify learning prerequisites that might be needed for learners to engage efficiently in a learning experience.

  • Understand tools experts use tools and manipulatives to elicit their thinking and how this can be transferable into designing learning tools that support learning in that particular field

  • Inform the Design of evaluation tools that are appropriate for the learning goals that reflect those “underlying processes” - consistency & coherence

I look forward to
keeping designing products, experiences, and technologies that foster these meaningful relationships for learning.

Learning Experience Design: Keys to keep in mind for Fostering Learning