Designing learning experiences for elephants

In a world where information overload has become an issue, we’d be naive to think that the old ways of doing learning design still stand.

I constantly interact with learning designers. After a while, I came to the conclusion that as different as they are, they all face the same problems:

Learners lack motivation

We can’t tie training content to business/ role outcomes

Learners are not actively engaged with the training content

Learner’s attention span is decreasing

It’s hard to evaluate learning outcomes

Although it’s easy to blame learners, managers, the organization and life overall, looking in our own backyard might be a more efficient way of doing things.

Julie Dirksen gives some pretty cool tips and tricks on how to do that in Design for how people learn. This article covers some key takeaways I took from the book.

The elephant and the rider

Think about the elephant and the rider as two sides of the brain — but each pulling in a different direction.

The elephant and the rider

One is steady, rational and wants your learner to focus, the other one compulsively wants him to open Instagram and Facebook.

You’d think that the rational one, the rider is in control. But that’s only because we’re mostly aware of it but way less aware of the automatic things the elephant putts us through.

So the archenemy of a learning designer is the learner’s elephant. He’s the one to tame.

First, get to know the elephant’s owner

Getting to know your user is a leitmotiv in different industries nowadays — Product Management, Marketing or Sales. Is becoming a thing in HR too.

Whether you’re using personas, or design thinking to empathize with your learners, just do it!

What can you learn about them?

  • What do they want?
  • Why are they there?
  • What’s their motivation (intrinsic or extrinsic)?
  • What’s their current skill level (novice, proficient, experts)?
  • What are their issues regarding the topic at hand?
  • What problems are they having?
  • What could make it easier for them?

How can you learn these things?

  • Surveys.
  • Interviews with them. Interviews with their managers.
  • Follow your learners around. Be a bit of a stalker. Not much, just the safe amount.
  • Ask their stakeholders.
  • Test your ideas. Test concepts. Test exercises.

Doing all these things might take a while.

But following around and gathering info will help you design a journey that matters for your learner. If it matters for your learner, his elephant will be all eyes and ears.

If you don’t put in the effort, you might as well drop it. The elephant will not be in the room with you, and you’ll waste your time, his time, the company’s time. And you don’t want that.

What can you do with all the info you gather?

Understand their gaps

More often than usual, people don’t understand if they lack knowledge, skill, motivation or habit. Because they won’t be able to articulate exactly what they need, you’re in charge of digging deeper.

Having knowledge gaps is lacking the information needed to do your job.

The skill gap is when you have the information, but you just can’t use it.

If you don’t understand how something might help you or you’re simply resistant to change because you like the old way of doing things, that’s a motivation gap.

Not doing something regularly might be a lack o habit.

Set a destination and the length you’re willing to travel

Now that you better understand your learner, you know where he stands.

The question remains where you and him are heading.

Inbetween the current learner and the destination is the gap you have to fill.

Learning is a journey, not a one-time event. So when you’re designing the way to the destination think about:

  • What are your goals?
  • What are the events of the learning journey?
  • When are you going to follow-up?
  • What will you evaluate?
  • What evaluation criteria will you use?

What are your goals?

Your goals must be tied to the types of gaps you have to cover and must be as specific as possible.

To set a specific goal:

  • Break it down — it will help you be more specific in designing the steps towards your destination;
  • After breaking down the goal, see which are immediate, short-term, medium-term and long-term — it will give learners a clear understanding of their path, what and how they should know/ do after each step and what challenges will they undertake on the road.
  • Use words like “define”, “describe”, “explain”, “do”, “understand”, “list”, “create”, “identify” — it turns goals into observable actions;
  • Ask yourself if this is something your learner could do in the real world. If so, when? If you don’t know, let them tell you — you’ll know when to follow-up and give support.

What are the events of your learning journey?

The events and their design should also be aligned to the types of gaps you’re trying to bridge.

  • If a knowledge gap — chunk the information. The elephant is a creature of immediacy. If you show him the whole content at once, he will freak out and go back to that kitty video his friend uploaded on Facebook. Step by step, uncover the information and explain how it can be used.
  • If a skill gap — let the learner practice. Design real-world scenarios, games and exercises around social interaction, give frequent and variable feedback.
  • If a motivation gap — use the Technology acceptance model. Inquire the perceived usefulness and the perceived ease of use of the behavior. Is the new behavior useful? If it is useful, how will the learner know? Is the new behavior easy to use? If it’s not easy to use, is there anything I can do to help that?
  • If a habit gap — help learners create implementation intentions, introduce the habit and allow them to brainstorm solutions, create ways of tracking it, help them tie the habit to existing behavior.

Even after designing these interactions (be them in-class or e-learning), we still don’t have a journey. We have standalone events not tied up to each other yet.

When are you going to follow-up?

Sometimes the follow-up is wrongfully linked only to the end of a learning event. I’m not saying it’s not ok to get back to your learners after a day of in-person training, but don’t stop there.

As mentioned before, think about when will your learners be using what they’ve been acquiring and link your follow-ups to these events. Spacing out your follow-ups and linking them to meaningful events will keep the elephant engaged when the learner needs it more.

Some ways to follow-up:

  • Online groups — learners can report back with real-life experiences;
  • Microlearning;
  • Follow-up sessions (online or in-person, in groups or one to one).

Other ways to keep the elephant engaged

  • Tell him stories — stories create suspense, they’re not boring and you can make the learner the hero of it;
  • Surprise him— give him unexpected rewards; be consistent, but not so consistent it gets him bored;
  • Give him interesting dilemmas and let him solve them with other elephants;
  • Give him constraints of time or resources;
  • Show him consequences, not feedback.

For more examples and concepts, I strongly recommend you to read Design for how people learn. It uncovers meaningful ways to engage your learners, change behaviors, create impact and solve some of your struggles as a learning designer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *