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The nuts and bolts of learning


At Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the schools of engineering and psychology have been collaborating to understand more about learning in a bid to improve industrial productivity.

Gareth Watson, a PhD student at the university explained the work that he has been conducting: “We have been looking at the psychology behind learning and discerning the human factors that influence the use of work instructions. We ran a series of experiments where groups of people had to perform complex engineering assembly tasks using different kinds of instructions: written, static diagrams and animated 3D models.”

Gareth continued, “As expected, animation teaches people fastest; static images second and written instructions third. Animation is 37% quicker to learn by than written instruction and 16% quicker than static images. Quality is also improved.”

Lessons learned

The ease with which the 3D models were built and animated made experiments quick to set up. Since the university has strong contacts with UK industry, genuine aerospace and automotive assemblies were used so that the study’s methodology can be brought to these industries as well as others that the department of mechanics and aerospace works with.

Joe Butterfield, a research fellow at that department commented: “Since an assembly task is also governed by how well it has been optimised, planners can use this methodology to design better and more efficient assembly strategies.”

Learning mentor

Sue Clark, director of operations at Applied PLM Solutions, which supports the university's work, said: “We provide the university with software training and because we have close connections with the automotive and aerospace industries we are able to ensure that the university maintains its systems and practices to current industry standards.”

She added: “It is important for the university to demonstrate potential return on Investment (ROI) when its work is transferred to a commercial environment."

“The need for language independent instructions for technical publications and methods is growing, particularly in aerospace where industry globalisation and the portable nature of aeroplanes means that engineers of various nationalities need to access complete and up to date work instructions.” Said Sue.

Mindful of clarity

Cathy Craig, senior lecturer in perception at Queen’s University’s school of psychology, has been involved with several industrial cognition projects and commented:

“This work has implications not only in industry but in activities such as sport, where trainers can observe situations from another person’s perspective using avatars. This work feeds back into industry and helps us to understand through visual feedback and mental models how production processes and their organisation can be improved.”

For more information about the research project go to the website for The Northern Ireland Technology Centre, at Queen’s University, Belfast:, or go to


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