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Lessons for L&D: How we've forgotten the essentials pt2

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27th Mar 2013
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Andrew Jackson concludes his feature about organisational and instructional design.

I’ve seen inside the learning and development function of many organisations of varying sizes. And if I’m honest, I don’t think there are anywhere near enough of them creating really excellent, high-quality learning. Lots are just average. There are some where the quality is poor, bordering on the terrible. And there’s a minority where it’s so appallingly bad, I would feel embarrassed to even admit to involvement in learning and development.

In the first part of this article, I considered two key reasons for this lack of excellence. Too much focus on the systems and tools needed to deliver learning options. Too little attention paid to raising the quality of actual learning events, through the application of solid instructional design techniques and guidelines.

In this second and final part of the article, I’d like to focus on three key areas of instructional design. If you work intensively on these aspects of your learning design, you’re almost guaranteed a significant difference in learner engagement, satisfaction with learning and (most important) measurable performance improvements.

Lick subject matter experts and their content into shape

Analysing content has to be the Cinderella of designing learning events. Some even argue it’s not part of instructional design at all. This goes some way to explaining why most people spend very little time analysing it, stripping out the unnecessary stuff and matching what’s left precisely with learning needs and objectives.

It can be tedious and time-consuming. If you’re working outside your normal area of subject matter expertise, you need your brain completely in gear and you need to work hard to lick your subject matter experts and their respective brain dumps into shape.

But doing so pays huge dividends. And here’s why. If you know your instructional design already, you should know about cognitive load (or more specifically intrinsic load). Put simply, this is the effort expended by your learners’ brains just to process something new or unfamiliar. Pile too much on your learners all at once and their brains simply won’t cope.

This is why careful analysis and scoping of the content for a learning event is so, so important. Extra stuff that learners simply don’t need to know just slows down their ability to process everything. It’s a bit like sending a runner out on to the track with weights attached to his legs – and then wondering why he comes last in his race.

"Pile too much on your learners all at once and their brains simply won’t cope."

If you want to get smart about analysing your subject matter content and keeping it under control for the benefit of your learners, I know no better tool for this than Robert Horn’s six information types. Check out the Wikipedia entry on information mapping to find out more about this.

Match your course design to the brain’s learning process

When we are learning something new, our brain goes through a series of predictable steps to make the learning happen. The simple view of this? Our brain is like a sponge. Pour stuff in there and it will stick. Lots of learning is still designed around this thinking: lectures, presentations, deathly dull elearning packages are just several examples.

In reality, this is one of the least effective ways of learning. Our brains are far more than just sponges. Once they start receiving new stuff, they need to first assimilate it and then store it somewhere. This second step is akin to a classification process, filing away something new in a logical, easy-to-find place.

Even more important than the assimilation and storage? A few opportunities to retrieve this new stuff from its storage place, to make sure everything functions smoothly. A basic course design needs to take this process into account. We know already that overloading your learners is problematic. So start by breaking your learning event into manageable chunks.

And within each chunk, you need to think about a sequence of segments. The first segment should be short and brief, to introduce new stuff. Subsequent, slightly longer segments should allow for practice of what's just been introduced. For beginners, these practice segments can start off easy and build in difficulty. For learners with existing expertise, you can usually start the practice segments at a much higher level of difficulty.

On the road to performance improvement, practice is everything

One of the inspiring things about the London Olympics was seeing athletes finally being rewarded for all their hard work. Most had dedicated years of their lives to achieving perfection. It also struck me that this was a fantastic reminder for all of us in learning and development about the power of practice. I’m not suggesting organisational learning events need to aim for medal-winning levels of perfection. But in most cases, learning events could definitely benefit from many more opportunities for practice than is typical. Because on the road to performance improvement, practice is what really makes the difference.

"...once you’ve established specific instructional design success factors for your learners and learning events, you can scale up their application across all your learning."

The conventional view of practice is that you introduce something new, let your learners have a go and then move on to introducing the next new thing. Exactly the kind of sequence just described in the previous section. Nothing wrong with that, for sure. But here’s when just a little bit of instructional design can go a long way. Quite a body of evidence has built up in recent years to show that what’s called spaced or distributed practice is significantly more effective than using only the conventional approach, just described.

Spaced practice is about doing some initial practice in something and then returning to it a little while later and practising it again. In the first part of this article, I noted that instructional design doesn’t give us all the answers. This is a case in point. No-one can say for certain why this approach makes such a difference. We can only speculate. But the important thing to know when you are designing a learning event is that this works. Space practice throughout the event and your learners will retain more of what they’ve learnt.

Raising the quality and effectiveness of your learning isn’t scary or difficult. It will certainly take more time in the early stages. Some of it will be frustrating, as you discover which specific techniques and guidelines work and which ones don’t. But, once you’ve established specific instructional design success factors for your learners and learning events, you can scale up their application across all your learning.

And the best bit? When you are next planning to introduce new systems, tools or processes, you can be confident they’ll be there to deliver top-quality learning events, not just expand the reach of mediocre ones.

Andrew Jackson is co-founder of Pacific Blue Solutions. Pacific Blue works with individuals and organisations to create more effective, results-driven learning – with a special focus on the intelligent application of instructional design principles. Create more effective learning events with our free Essential Step-by-Step Guide to Instructional Design.

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