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  • Writer's pictureRuss Powell

10 Tips from Industry Thought-Leaders on How to Build Better Learning Programs

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

[This is an encore post, first written when I was working w/ Peregrine Performance Group a few years back.]

Earlier this week, I flipped through a copy of The eLearning Guild’s 58 Tips for Breakthrough eLearning Instructional Design. Frankly, I found a lot of the “breakthrough tips” were not that useful (at least not to me), but I did uncover a few useful nuggets.

Thought I’d layout some of the gold I panned from it here with a few nuggets of our own. These recommendations fall into four buckets: the front-end, design, development, and project management.

On the Front-End (Research, Analysis, Planning, Preparation)

(1) Play Plants vs. Zombies (from Julie Dirksen):

"Play Plants vs. Zombies. Seriously, play the video game Plants vs. Zombies, (or some equivalent video game) and look at how the game does a few things. It:

  • Provides feedback to help players adapt their performance

  • Uses scaffolding to gradually develop skills

  • Balances the challenge to match the learner’s ability

  • Uses incremental increases in complexity to teach highly complicated tasks"

I love this! I have played PvZ. And she’s right! It does a nice job of helping players learn how to learn the game and then how to play better (how to perform more complex tasks). I remember thinking something similar when I first played Angry Birds too.

(2) Reward Learners for Relevant Contributions (from Inge de Waard):

"Provide informal credits or bonuses for learners who offer substantially relevant information. All organizations have employees that, from time to time, have great ideas on improving efficiency or saving costs. Create a workplace environment where employees can share these ideas with the training department. When you use such an idea, make sure you give that employee credit or a bonus for promoting knowledge sharing. To avoid misunderstandings, make sure you’re clear up front on what is 'substantially relevant.'"

Yes, yes, yes!! Thanks, Inga. Have the students contribute to the content. You can’t make the content any more relevant than that. Great way to get the learner involved!

(3) Use Accomplished Performers Instead of Subject Matter Experts

This is one of ours. Something we picked up from the inimitable Joe Harless many moons ago…

"Do everything possible to get access to the accomplished performer—the person in the field who’s doing the work successfully everyday. Use the SME, certainly, but don’t build procedural material without the aid of an accomplished performer. It’ll be a waste of time."

The accomplished performer (AP) is a worker who routinely produces accomplishments (i.e., work outputs) at or above standard. He or she may be referred to as the best performer now on the job. The subject matter expert (SME) is a person who knows the “whys” of the performance being analyzed in a project. They’re often a policy expert — they have the theories in their heads, but may not have current day-to-day field expertise. Sometimes they are also the AP.

On Design

(4) Let the Inmates Run the Asylum

Another great one from Inge de Waard:

"Stimulate your learners to share their information. Trust their expertise. When building courses, leave room for learner input. Learners are on the work floor or in the field, so they know what is really happening and havent information to share from their experiences. Add a 'real-life cases' section for each learning topic and ask learners to upload videos or pictures right from the field. This has a double benefit: you get relevant examples you can use in future courses and the learners feel respected in their work."

Our friend and strategic partner, Thiagi, likes to call this "let the inmates run the asylum."

(5) Make it Relevant, Include Opportunities for Feedback (from Dick Handshaw)

"Tony O’Driscoll says, 'Content may be king, but context is the kingdom.' Don’t just dispense information; use simulations, case studies, scenarios, and anything else you can to make the learning relevant to the job task your learners need to perform. Allow immediate opportunities for learners to practice their new skills on the job with coaching and feedback. A learning program without coaching usually doesn’t work."

Nice. Thanks, Dick. We’ve seen this fail too. If your design (or the task you’re teaching) is not supported by coaching in the field (i.e., clear, specific feedback to the learner from a supervisor or manager) you’re not going to see any significant behavior change. The learning won’t stick.

(6) Chunkify

Here’s one we picked up from Brandon Carson:

"Break your content into meaningful, learnable chunks."

This may seem overly simplistic, but you’d be surprised how many bad—I mean really, truly awful—learning programs we find out there. Especially training that’s just tons of information, slapped together with no meaningful organization to it. Death-by-PowerPoint all over again. You don’t have to do everything for the learner, but putting content together in meaningful chunks—"chunkifying," as Brandon puts it—is immensely useful. And… I just like saying chunkify. There, said it again. Try it. We’ll wait. =) Chunk-i-fy.

On Development

(7) Get Feedback on Your Prototype from Sample Learners

Here’s another great one from Dick Handshaw:

"Test a prototype with sample learners and solicit their design advice. No one knows better than your learners what they need in order to learn. Just ask four to six sample learners to use a prototype module that embodies most of your instructional strategy. In two-to-three hours they can determine whether your instructional strategy will be successful or not. If it isn’t working, they can probably tell you what to do to fix it."

Again, get the learners involved. And trust their feedback. Don’t work in a vacuum. (It’s too dark. (In a vacuum cleaner. Get it?))

(8) When Working with Audio, Less is More

David Metcalf and AJ Ripin on cognitive load theory applied to audio:

"On using audio and podcasts to deliver instructional materials: While we have all heard of cognitive load theory (7±2 items is what the human brain can hold at one time), when it comes to audio content it may be better to use a rule of thumb of 5±2. When someone hears information, five and seven items may be the logical limit on information clumping. Keep this in mind, especially when delivering audio content over mobile devices. Shorter bursts of information may be appropriate."

Personally, I have trouble remembering something when I only hear it. (Ask my girlfriend.) It’s easier for me to see it; so, I have a natural bias toward less audio and more visual in my designs.

On Project Management

(9) Plan to Fail

One of my favorites on project management comes from Judy Unrein:

"Plan to fail. One of the best ways to keep tools from dictating your designs is to be an experienced, skillful, and confident designer. That takes practice, knowledge, and time; failure can be one of the best teachers. Make sure your project plans aren’t so tight that you can’t try new things and discard them along the way."

Well said, Judy. I don’t like to think of failing. So, I might say plan for errors or leave some buffer room for mistakes. Regardless of your terminology, Judy’s point about leaving room for trying new things is well worth paying attention to.

I also like the way Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, put it:

"Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep."

(Possible fail: I’m not confident that this originally came from Scott Adams.)

(10) Find Champions. And Use Them.

And, finally, here’s one from my friend and former business partner, Joe Halpin:

"When planning a project, it’s essential to find a champion on the client team and use them. He or she is usually a senior manager/leader, has relationships with upper management/key decision makers/stakeholders and is invested in project outcomes. S/he can help you (1) ensure that resources are available for the project, (2) keep key stakeholders informed, and (3) get what you need when your influence has no effect. The champion is critical to the success of most projects."

One of the things I find I use our champions for the most: securing time with accomplished performers and SMEs. Projects can grind to a halt without good champions.

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