Dirksen, Julie. 2011. Design for How People Learn. New Riders.
- When it’s two different teachers, some of the differences are due to personality or charisma, but those aren’t usually the only differences. And when it’s an e-learning course, there’s no teacher at all. How is a really good e-learning course different from just reading a textbook online? Even more important, what’s the difference between a learning experience that’s effective versus one that gets forgotten as soon as the learner is done? Even “awesome” classes are useless if the learner doesn’t do something different afterwards (x).
- even if the learners memorized the exact information on each of those slides, that wouldn’t mean they were able to use it well. Information is the equipment your learners need to have in order to perform. Having information doesn’t accomplish anything by itself. Something is accomplished when the learner uses that information to do things. Basically, you want your learners to have the right supplies for their journey (5)
- If somebody knows what to do, but chooses not to do it, that’s a motivation gap. (9)
- If you are asking your learners to change an existing habit or practice, you are probably going to have some motivation issues to contend with. In those instances, there are a couple of things to be aware of.First, change is a process, not an event. You absolutely cannot expect someone to change based on a single explanation of the new practice. They need time and repetition to ease back on the old habit, and start cultivating the new one.Second, backsliding and grumpiness are part of that process—they don’t mean the change has failed (although that can happen too), but they are frequently an unavoidable part of even successful changes. (14)
Environment gaps can take a lot of different forms in an organization. For example, if you want somebody to change their behavior, does the process support it?
Sometimes the path itself isn’t set up to let people succeed (15)
Are there materials, references, and job aids to support the learner when they get back to their work environment? (16)
Do they have everything they need in terms of materials, resources, and technology? (17)
Are people being incented and rewarded for making the change? (17)
Sometimes someone is failing to perform isn’t due to a lack of knowledge but because they have bad directions. (17)
- What information does the learner need to be successful?
- When along the route will they need it?
- What formats would best support that?Skills
- What will the learners need to practice to develop the needed proficiencies?
- Where are their opportunities to practice?Motivation
- What is the learner’s attitude towards the change?
- Are they going to be resistant to changing course?Environment
- What in the environment is preventing the learner from being successful?
- What is needed to support them in being successful?Communication
- Are the goals being clearly communicated? (20)
- There are a variety of strategies to help identify the gaps. Here are a few for starters:
- Ask “What do they actually need to do with this?” (If you get the answer “They just need to be aware of it,” then ask “Yeah, but, what do they actually need to do with this?” again.)
- Follow a novice around and see what they do; then follow an expert around and see what they do differently.
- Ask yourself if the person would be able to do something if they wanted to badly enough. If they answer is yes, it’s not a knowledge or skills gap.
- Ask the question “Is there anything—anything at all—that we could do, besides training, that would make it more likely that people would do the right thing?”
- Ask “Is this going to involve changing the way they do things now?”
- Ask “What is the consequence if somebody does it wrong?”
- Ask “If someone is getting this exactly right, what would that look like?”
- Ask “Is it reasonable to assume that someone will get this right the first time out, or will they need to practice to get proficient?” (21)
Design strategies for teaching intrinsically motivated learners include:
- Saying “Thank you” to the learning gods. Seriously, your life is going to be much easier.
- Making sure your learners have time to work on their own problems. You may have some standard activities or challenges that everyone needs to do, but you will get a lot better mileage if learners are working on problems that are meaningful to them. (31)
Design strategies for teaching extrinsically motivated learners include:
- Scouring their situation for intrinsic motivators. Is there anything— anything—that they find intrinsically motivating about the subject matter? Ask lots of questions about what they might do with the information. Try to tie it back to relevant, real-world tasks.
- Looking for pain points. If your learners are unfamiliar with the material, they won’t be able to make connections between their aggravations and the solutions you are offering, but if you can figure out what annoys them and show them how they can alleviate that annoyance, you can transform extrinsic into intrinsic in moments.
- Avoiding extensive theory and background. You may find that academic stuff fascinating, but extrinsically motivated learners would rather stab themselves in the eye with the free pen. Stick with specific examples and challenges that directly relate to real-life scenarios. In fact, this is usually true for all learners. If you’ve got a lot of backstory, and you can’t say exactly why it’s important, then you should cut it. Seriously—highlight and delete (or at least move to the appendix or resource section).
- Using interesting hypothetical problems to awaken their intrinsic motivation. If you start with a genuinely interesting challenge or puzzle that the learner needs to solve, their extrinsic motivation will start to drift towards more a more intrinsic motivation, like puzzle-solving or winning. Just keep in mind that when I say “interesting” I mean “interesting to them.” (32)
Some ways to engage wary learners:
- Leverage what they already know. Can you take advantage of any knowledge they already have about the topic?
- Give them some early success. What can be something they can achieve early on? Is there some accomplishment that they can tackle with the material within the first lesson?
- Create safe places to fail. Can they practice or self-assess in a private or non-judgmental environment? (35)
Examples of ways to scaffold:
- Reduce the complexity of the environment. Let’s say you want to teach someone about the controls in a plane cockpit, but it’s too overwhelming for a novice learner. To scaffold their learning experience, you could fade out all but a few of the key controls for the first few scenarios, and then gradually add controls back in as the learner becomes more proficient and competent.
- Use walkthroughs. Have the learner go through the whole process with
a simplified case. For example, if you want to teach students about the scientific research process, have them work through a very simple research problem with step-by-step guidance and pretty obvious results, and then move on to more complex cases.Another example: I once created a fairly complicated environment for salespeople to learn a specific sales process by selling technical products to several virtual customers. Their very first scenario was a short and slightly silly example where they sold snowsuits in Hawaii, which gave them the opportunity to learn the interface and the sales process without worrying about the technical content right away.
- Provide supports. If possible, embed easily accessed references in the experience. For example, have samples, definitions, or help documentation right at hand so the learners can have the support they need while in the midst of trying to accomplish the task (41).
Here are a few ways to help your learners build shelves:
Use a story. People have amazingly sticky memories for well-told stories, par- ticularly ones that arouse emotions.
Work through problems. One way experts categorize information is by how they can use it to solve a problem, or how they can apply it. Working through problems helps novices start developing their own similar structure.
Have learners design shelves. Give learners the information as a specific task, and have them decide how it should be organized. Ask them how they would present it if they had to teach it to others. You can then have them compare their organization to the expert view and let them think about what they would do differently in future.
Use a metaphor or an analogy. Compare the relevant subject matter to some- thing that your learners are already familiar with, so you can leverage the storage and retrieval capability of one of their existing mental models. It’s fre- quently a good idea to use something common and everyday that the learner can’t help but be familiar with, like, oh, say—a closet.
It’s worth mentioning that while it’s more common to have experts teaching novice learners, that’s not always the case. Sometimes experts teach other experts, or, most difficult, an expert is teaching an audience of widely mixed levels of expertise.
As we’ve already mentioned, people who already have a lot of expertise really don’t need a lot of setup—they know where the blue sweater goes, and just want to get on with it.
Learning experiences for people who already have a lot of expertise should be efficient, and should be more “pull” than “push.” Let them decide when they need it and how much.
Whenever possible, you want to make sure that a knowledgeable person has a fast-forward lane, so they can get the necessary information without having to wade through all the material they already know.
- Use a high-level organizer. Start them with some structure that will help them organize what follows. This could be a road map of the broad categories, an overview of the basic principles, or an acronym or a mnemonic device. This gives them some shelves on which to start putting information on.
Use visuals. Visual information contains several extra cues that give your learner more hooks for storing and retrieving the information. (47-48)
This may sound unbelievably obvious, but in my experience, a lot of learning gets designed without talking to learners. As an instructional designer, I’ve had a number of projects where I talk to project stakeholders, to trainers, to manag- ers, and to subject matter experts. Unless I insist on it, I rarely get to talk to the actual learners. To be fair, most of these experts have a lot of experience with the subject matter and with the learners, so they are great sources of informa- tion, but they also have pretty sophisticated closets. You should talk to all of those people AND you should talk to your learners.
Here are a few reasons why:
- They will tell you how it works, not how it should work. Stakeholders, managers, and experts are often very vested in the “right” way to do something. They’ll tell you how the manual says to do it, but your learners will frequently tell you what happens in the real world. In theory, loan-closing requests are scheduled “by the book,” but actually the customer service people use a particular shortcut. In theory, programmers write their own subroutine for a particular function, but really everyone goes to the same open-source code site and copies the free code that’s posted there. You may still need to teach the official version, but you can create better scenarios and support materials if you know how it really happens.
- They can tell you where it hurts. Your best friend when designing learning is someone who is currently learning the topic or has just recently learned it. They are very clear on what was confusing or difficult to wrap their heads around. They can tell you what made sense to them when they were trying to understand the new concepts or ideas. They can tell you what was easy and what they are still struggling with.
- They can give you examples and context. Learners’ comments, complaints, suggestions, and ideas can give you all the little details necessary to create really good learning scenarios. Your experts can sometimes do this as well, but sometimes their examples get a little out of date (it may have been a while since they did it themselves), while your current learners frequently know what the current challenges are. (53)
Why is following your learners around important?
- Context, context, context. You want your learning to create contextual triggers that will allow learners to remember things later. We’ll talk more about this in Chapter 4, but people remember more in a similar environment than they do in a dissimilar environment, and the more context (visual or situational) that you can leverage, the better people will remember.
- Even new learners have started to build some shelves. Even if you are talking to new learners, they’ve already started to develop their closets, which means that they’ve probably already automated some of the steps in their brains.
If you’re asking them about what they do, they are already starting to gloss over details, but if you watch them in their actual environments, you see what’s happening, and can stop and get more information, e.g., “Can you tell me more about that step you just did?”
- Juicy details. If you are trying to create good examples or scenarios for learning, you can get the best details from seeing people in their actual environments. If you know about their world, you can create better examples, scenarios, and activities much more easily. (55)
Some questions you should ask learners:
- Why are you learning this?
- How will learning this help you (how are they motivated)?
- What are the biggest hassles or challenges you experience (in relation to the topic)?
- What are some examples of when you’ve had problems?
- What was the hardest thing for you to learn?
- What were the easy parts?
- What could make it easier for you?
- How do you use this information now?
- What do you wish you knew when you first started?
- Can you walk me through it?
- What does a typical example look like?
- What crazy exceptions have you seen? (54)
- You want to know about your learners—not just about their demographics, but about their motivation, likes and dislikes, skill level, and about how they understand the world.
- Provide more structure for your new learners, and more resources and autonomy for your experienced learners.
- Don’t just hand your learners information, but instead help them construct and organize their framework for that information.
- Learning experiences should be two-way interactions, so you know when learners understand correctly, and when they don’t.
- All of the theory in the world won’t help you as much as spending time in your learners’ world, and testing your designs early and often. (56)
Taxonomy/How a Learner Might Do This
- Remember: Tell somebody what the acronym is and what each item stands for.
- Understand: Explain what each principle means.
- Apply: Organize the elements of a web page using the four principles.
- Analyze: Look at a print advertisement and explain how each of the four principles is being used in the design.
- Evaluate: Expertly critique several different advertisements based on their use of the four principles.
- Create: Create a print or web layout from scratch (68)
- Some things change quickly (the actual contents of the room might change daily, the interior decorating might change in months to years), and some things will change more slowly (the space usage, the interior layout, the actual structure might change in years), and some things will change only very slowly (the structure, the foundation might change in years, decades, or centuries).(Brand 1994 via 76)
- The fast parts learn, propose, and absorb shocks; the slow parts remember, integrate, and constrain. The fast parts get all the attention. The slow parts have all the power (Brand 1994 via 77)
So how can you create proper and effective emotional contexts? There are several ways:
Use role-playing. Even though we know it’s not real, role-playing can be an effective way to create the feel of the emotional context, especially if you have someone effective playing the part. Even though it won’t be exactly the same, just having practiced saying the words out loud make them easier to recall in real-life situations.
Create pressure. Even if the pressure is different, sometimes adding elements of similar pressure can create similar feelings. For example, a tight time limit on responses can create time pressure, which can approximate the emotional context of other types of pressure.
Invest in high-quality stories, acting, and performance. If it’s critical material, get good actors or voice actors, and establish a strong emotional setup. (102 – 103)
- In Chapter 4, we looked at how it’s more difficult to recall something as opposed to just recognizing it. We may think we can recall, when all we can do is recognize.
One of the criteria she looks at is whether the course shows or tells:
…feedback that shows learners what happens as a result of their choice; learn- ers draw conclusions from the result.
…feedback that explicitly tells learners “correct” or “incorrect;” learners aren’t allowed to draw conclusions. (167)
Have them do actual tasks, not just “activities based on the content.” If learners see some demonstrable evidence that they can actually do something with what they are learning, they’ll be more likely to feel that way when they are trying to apply the knowledge later.
- Make sure they have some early successes. It’s tempting to want to show them all the tricky, weird exceptions right off the bat, but it’s good to start with tasks that will give learners early wins.
- Let them work on their own problems. Make sure that learners have the opportunity to take what they are learning and can apply it to real challenges in their own work or lives.
- Let them drive themselves. We talked about it above, but it bears repeating: Wherever possible, let learners drive themselves, rather than have them be passengers in your car. (184)
When I’m determining the context, I usually ask four questions:
- What is the general context for the task? For example, where does it come in the workflow, what is the purpose, and how often is it used?
- What is the emotional context for the task? For example, is the learner going to be under pressure or stress when they are using the knowledge? Are they going to be bored, or disrupted?
- What are the triggers that alert the learner that they will need to retrieve and use this knowledge? What’s happening in their environment to let them know they need to do something? (186)
- What is the physical context? Where are they, what objects are around them, and what or who are they interacting with?
- Technology Acceptance Model: It’s not a complicated idea—if you want someone to use something, they need to believe that it’s actually useful, and that it won’t be a major pain in the ass to use. (219)
- Improving the environment is about clearing out as much of the stuff that learners don’t really need to carry around in their heads, and instead letting them focus on the things that only they are able to do. (236)
- Can we make the process simpler?
- Can we make the system better?
- What barriers are keeping people from succeeding?
You want to walk through the process step by step looking for problems. You particularly want to keep an eye peeled for frustration points, because the more you can do to smooth out the journey, the more likely your learners are to succeed. (246)