4 Design Imperatives for Effective Learning Design

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As learning designers, we strive to provide our learners the best experience we can. Often, we think innovation is the answer. We become enamored with the new tools and technology—implementing them for the sake of innovation.

So how do professional learning designers know what’s really effective and helpful? They know four very powerful truths and apply them to every bit of learning they create. At LEO Learning, we call them design imperatives. Whether you’re creating a single course or a strategic, enterprise-wide program, following these design imperatives ensures that the learning will be effective, enjoyable, and lead to behavior change:

  1. Give learners their own learning journey
  2. Connect learners with each other so they can learn together
  3. Captivate and challenge learners
  4. Realize value and use measurement to improve the journey and outcomes

These design imperatives are not trends. They’re proven approaches that tap into how people actually learn.

1) Give Learners Their Own Learning Journey

4 Design Imperatives for Effective Learning Design

As a learning designer, you can enable learners to make their own journey or you can develop a personalized journey for them. Either way, it is imperative to give learners their own journey. Simply put, personalize the learning experience any way you can.

There are two reasons why you personalize learning: to make it more focused on exactly what the learner and business need, spending your time, but also unnecessarily spending the learner’s time.

                                    Personalized Learning Journeys for Courses

There are a lot of ways you can build exploration and personalization into your course so that learners have the power to choose their own journey. In a single course or bit of learning, you can do this by eliminating gating. You can also stop forcing learners to go through the course in a specific order or making them touch everything on a screen before progressing. Try designing a course that learners can explore. For example, instead of forcing them through all of the content, let them try optional practice activities, take a pre-assessment, or use a diagnostic that guides them to relevant topics. Find ways to give learners the option of exploring scenarios or case studies whenever they want. 

Personalized Learning Journeys for Programs

If you’re designing a program—a set of learning experiences that together meet learning objectives and change performance over time—giving your learners their own journey is absolutely critical. First and most importantly, consider a blended program that uses different types of learning, media, live and asynchronous learning. Providing choices for how to learn about a topic or practice new behaviors is key here. 

Try using a resource-led, blended approach. Some of LEO Learning’s best (award-winning) programs start with a diagnostic that suggests a path through the learning, but still lets learners explore content in the order that makes sense for them. We nearly always give multiple ways to learn about concepts and practice. A course, video-based stories and examples, PDF resources, and practice scenarios can work together quite nicely. Alternatively, allow the learners to select which resource is going to help them the most and which content they can safely skip. Some learners want to see examples before learning a new process, for example. Some learners may prefer to learn concepts first and practice later, while others may approach it the other way around.

We’ve even seen learners skip to the very end, then work backwards based on what they did or didn’t understand. You may recall a similar phenomenon from your college days: some students find hearing the lecture first makes the book chapter easier to follow, where others feel more comfortable reading the chapter first to better absorb the professor’s points. 

2) Connect Learners With Each Other so They Can Learn Together

4 Design Imperatives for Effective Learning Design

All learning is social and so it is imperative that we connect learners with each other in order to learn together, share insights and expertise, and support one another. There is a pervasive idea that social learning is a thing we can buy—a platform or tool. In reality, you don’t need to buy into anything, you just need to acknowledge and design for social learning.

This design imperative is about giving your learners ownership and engagement with the learning story, providing space for shared sense-making, letting/asking learners to support each other, letting learners bring their own contexts and practice together,                                                                        and acknowledging and giving space for local interpretation of the content.

Connecting Learners in Your Courses

If you’re working on a single course or piece of learning, you can connect learners with each other by sharing real stories using text, video, and other mixed media. The connection doesn’t have to be real time. Sharing stories and hearing insights from others who have engaged with the content is powerful even if pre-recorded. It’s the social element that’s critical, hearing real stories from real people with whom you share some common ground (context, role, expected behavior, emotional connection, etc.) gives learners a model and a chance to learn by observing and imitating.

You can also embed social activities into courses, such as a list of suggested questions to ask colleagues or coaches, or a discussion guide to use in a regularly-scheduled team meeting. Another amazing design we’ve seen is creating a digital course that was intended to be taken by two or more people sharing a device. There are a lot of ways to connect learners to each other, and it is imperative to acknowledge that all learning is social, even if it’s asynchronous.

Connecting Learners in Your Programs

In programs, you may find that you have a lot more space—and demand—for this design imperative. Consider building in social learning events along the way. For example, use cohorts who go through the program together and meet at regular intervals to actually apply the content. This could mean having them create their own set of values, record their own stories for other cohorts, or interact via a forum or email to do action learning (remember, you don’t need a specific social tool).

You can go beyond forums, comments, and posts, too. You can ask learners to imagine a new product together or ask learners in different departments or schools to try a new process together to see how it affects everyone. 

One critical caution for some social learning: don’t stifle the conversation. We regularly come up against a client or stakeholder who wants to over-moderate the conversation to make sure that it’s the “right one” or at least so that no one is saying the “wrong thing.” As soon as someone is trying to ensure the conversation goes a certain way, you’ve taken away the open interaction, discourse, and sharing of interpretations that leads to real learning. Once learners feel stifled, they’ll stop participating and will lose trust in the organization.

3) Captivate and Challenge Learners

4 Design Imperatives for Effective Learning Design

We know that learning can’t happen without engaging learners’ attention, and in light of a lot of fun and shiny trends (alternate reality, virtual reality, the metaverse, and dozens more), we often forget the basics. People want to be captivated and challenged. They don’t want to be spoken down to or bored. And learning designers don’t want to design boring learning! It’s a win-win between the designer and the learner. Basically, we need to create compelling experiences.

For the other design imperatives, we gave suggestions for how to apply them to courses and to larger programs. For this imperative, we believe it will be helpful to share two techniques that can be applied to any learning you might be designing.

Using Scenarios to Captivate and Challenge Learners

Scenarios are really good for practicing decision-making, assimilating information, and showing consequences (especially when decisions aren’t clearly right or wrong). You can use scenarios to add context (relevance), give perspective, and get at the human problems and gray areas that happen in real life. Even scenario-based learning can be misused, with poor storytelling and banal or obvious answer choices. To really captivate and challenge learners using scenarios, learning designers have to get at the real issues and lean on the real conflict and challenges learners face. 

One of the best examples of a scenario-based question came from a game we created for learners in a contact center. The learners got a phone call from a flustered customer who kept saying that they were in a hurry and explaining how busy and flustered they were with kids running around in the background. Once you got to the question, you had the option of commiserating with the customer and acknowledging their frustration or focusing right in on solving the problem since they said they were so busy. In this case, it was about the judgment call and what happened because of it—there was no clear right or wrong answer.

How Gamification Can Captivate and Challenge Learners

Gamification is woefully misused in our industry. All too often someone will want to add a scoreboard, thinking that learners will be more engaged if they can gain points Or they may insist on putting a timer on practice activities to make it feel like a game. Adding game mechanics to learning must be done with a purpose. These two examples (scoreboards and timers) have no learning purpose. Game mechanics should support the learning.

For example, if learners really only have a few seconds to make a decision in real life, then adding a timer to the practice might make sense. If there really is a qualitative score learners will be held against (say, a sales target), then adding a scoring mechanic might make sense. You can definitely use game mechanics or gamification to captivate and challenge your learners, but they absolutely must fit the learning objectives and support the behaviors you’re trying to change.

4) Realize Value and Use Measurement to Improve the Journey and Outcomes

4 Design Imperatives for Effective Learning Design

Like the three other design imperatives, this one isn’t new. The learning design industry has come a long way and made a lot of progress in measurement and data gathering in the last 20 years. While we’re big advocates of tying our work to outcomes—measuring the business impact of learning—it is important to not lose sight of the basics. Specifically, every designer needs to use measurement and data as an input to their designs and to drive improvement of those designs over time.

Using Measurement in Your Initial Design

When designing any learning, all good designers know to “start with the objectives.” That’s learning designer talk for “design with the end in mind.”. You may have heard this called backwards design and it can sound like, “We need better customer experience ratings,” or “we need to make sure our curriculum prepares students for amazing job placements.” There is some initial measure that either needs to improve, be changed, or sustain itself.

The best designers know to start with this end in mind. Once they have objectives for the learning, they immediately design how it will be measured and/or evaluated. In doing so, they ensure the content and design is as aligned with the desired outcome as possible.

Using Measurement to Improve Designs

Far too many organizations refresh or improve their learning simply because it’s more than a few years old or because someone has imagined the learning can be “sexier.” These are the worst reasons to put time and money into an existing piece of learning. 

Instead, use measurement to determine how well the learning is working and how much the learners are showing the right outcomes (behavior/performance). If a survey reveals that an old piece of learning is actually really effective, does it truly need to be changed? What about a recent course that simply isn’t getting results (learners are not passing the assessment or managers aren’t seeing behavior change)? In these cases, you have real measurements that truly indicate whether or not a course needs to be improved and—most importantly—indicators as to what needs to change.

Key Takeaways

It is our sincere hope that you can use these four design imperatives like we have at LEO Learning, to create and improve learning experiences that will achieve true behavior change.

Ideally, you’ll leave this article with one or two suggestions that you’ll want to try in your next learning design.

Remember that good learning design isn’t about using the newest or trending tools or techniques. Good learning is, simply put, evidence-based practice on what works applied in the right context for the right reasons. These four design imperatives help you create good learning every time:

  • Give learners their own learning journey
  • Connect learners with each other so they can learn together
  • Captivate and challenge learners
  • Realize value and use measurement to improve the journey and outcomes

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