How to make mandatory training relevant

Compliance training sheep“How can we make mandatory training more than a tick box exercise?”

That’s the top topic voted by blog readers, so here’s my take.

For “mandatory training,” I’m picturing any material that says some version of “Follow these rules.”

It’s sheep-dip training. Everyone must be “exposed” to it, and a checkmark records that they have been exposed.

How can we make it more relevant?

1. Disobey

A client who says “Everyone must be trained on X” needs our resistance, not our obedience.

Help the client by asking questions, such as:

  • What problems are you seeing? Has something happened? Has someone sued?
  • Was this problem caused by one rogue employee, or is it a bigger issue? Is it limited to a group of employees, or is it really a problem that all employees are causing equally?
  • What are we currently measuring that will improve when everyone is “trained?”

If there’s really no problem, we shouldn’t create a solution. We need to focus on improving performance, not guarding against problems that experience has shown aren’t likely to occur.

2. Set a goal

If it’s clear there really is a need for “training,” or some force far outside your control insists on “training,” then put on your action mapping hat and push for a measurable goal. Here’s one model to follow.

action mapping goal template

For details, see How to create a training goal in 2 quick steps.

3. Narrow your focus

Make sure your audience is specific. “All employees” is not specific.

If you’re required by forces beyond your control to create something for all employees, you can at least break down the audience by major job roles as described next.

4. Do the analysis. Really. DON’T SKIP THIS.

Focus on one job role in your audience. Ask your client and SME what these people need to do, in specific, observable terms, to meet the goal.

“Follow the data security policy” isn’t specific. This is specific:

  • When you must physically transfer data to another location, put the data on a BrandZ thumb drive using HakrPruf encryption and chain it to your left ankle.

Prioritize the actions. Choose a high-priority one, and ask, “What makes this one thing hard to do?” Use the flowchart.

Again, you’re doing this for a specific group of people in a specific job, and you’re focusing on specific, observable behaviors. You’re not asking this once for the entire “course,” and you’re not talking about all employees in every job everywhere.

If those forces far beyond your control insist on applying the same solution to everyone, do this analysis for the major job roles. You probably won’t have a ton of time to do this, but even two hours can save you and everyone else from a much bigger waste of time in the form of irrelevant and ignored materials.

Then, if training is part of the solution, you can have people use only the activities that apply to their job.

Don’t skip this.

If you skip this analysis, what do you have to work with? Generic rules that are guaranteed to become an information dump.

Instead, if you look closely at what people need to do and why they aren’t doing it, you get:

  • Ways to fix the problem that don’t require “training”
  • Ideas for ways to help people practice the tricky parts
  • Respect for the intelligence and experience of the people currently doing the job (notably lacking from most compliance training)

5. Base your design on job tasks, not information

Yes, people need to know stuff. But they need to know stuff in order to do stuff. Design first for what they need to do.

Provide the need-to-know information in the format it’s used on the job. Let people pull the information just like they will on the job.

Here’s a fictional example. Extraterrestrials have landed and are being incorporated into earthling families. As a result, employers have created alien leave policies. Here’s a mini-scenario for managers.

Mini-scenario for alien leave

To answer this question, what information does the manager need? The alien leave policy. How should we provide it?

The traditional approach would be to first present a bunch of slides about the policy. Then we’d give people a chance to “apply” what they’ve “learned” by having them use their short-term memory to answer the question.

Lots of slides followed by activity

But why design slides to present information that’s already in a policy on the intranet?

Instead, we can plunge people into the activity and let them use the policy just like they will on the job.

Instead of presentation, just an activity that links to info

Same activity with link to policy

And now that we aren’t developing lots of information slides, we can create more activities. Since they aren’t trapped inside an information presentation, they can travel alone. For example, we can provide them individually over time (spaced practice) as described in this post.

6. Sell it with a prototype

Create a prototype of one typical activity and show it to the stakeholders. Make clear that people will see only the activities that apply to their job. They’ll pull information rather than recognizing what they saw three slides ago, and they’ll learn from the consequences of their choices.

You’re letting the stakeholders see for themselves how you plan to provide the “training,” because then you’ll be in a good position to respond to the following common concerns.

“But everyone must be exposed to all the information!”

Give each option unique feedback. In that feedback, first show the consequence of the choice — continue the story.

Then show the snippet of information they should have looked at, as described in How to really involve learners. Do this for all consequences, not just the poor ones.

See more ideas and examples in Scenario mistakes to avoid: Eager-beaver feedback.

If you have a stakeholder who’s determined to expose everyone, you can point out that they are now exposed. They’re just exposed after making a relevant decision, rather than in a forgettable presentation.

By not presenting information first, you’re helping people see their own knowledge gaps. They’re not pulling stuff out of short-term memory, because you haven’t put anything there. They have to rummage around in their existing knowledge, look at the policy just like they would in real life, make a choice, and learn from the consequences. They get deeper learning, plus they’re dutifully “exposed” to the correct information.

“But they have to prove that they know it!”

Which approach is more likely to avoid lawsuits about misuse of the alien leave policy?

A. Present the policy over several slides. Then require a knowledge test to see if people can recognize a bit of information that they saw 5 minutes ago. If they can, they “pass.” If they can’t, they must put those same slides back in their short-term memory and try again.

B. Present challenges in which people need to make the same decisions they make on the job. Provide the information in the same format that people will have it on the job. Start with easy-ish decisions and increase the challenge. If people make good decisions in enough activities, they’re free to go. If they make not-good decisions, they get more activities and optional help until they make good decisions.

My point

Don’t design for “They should know the rules.” Design for “They should correctly apply the rules on the job.”

For lots more, see my book and just about everything in this blog, especially the following posts.

Credits

Photo of Jorge: David Boyle in DC via Compfight cc

All other images: Cathy Moore

How to design software training, part 1: Do everything except “train”

Software training really required?“How can I design good training for new software? What’s the right balance between help screens, job aids, and training?”

That’s the top question in our idea collector, so let’s go at it.

Here’s part 1, in which I say, “Try everything but training.” We’ll cover needs analysis, job aids, help screens, and the radical idea of making the software easier to use.

Later, I’ll publish part 2. In that part, we’ll look at how to design practice activities for times when the everything-but-training approach isn’t enough.

 

1. Justify your work with a measurable goal

Action mapping begins with identifying how the organization will benefit from the project. The goal justifies the existence of the “training” (and of your job).

Here’s a template:
action mapping goal template

To identify the measure for new software, you might ask, “Why did we buy this software? What problem will it solve? How will we know it worked?”

For example, if the organization is installing a new customer relationship manager, why? Have potential new customers been slipping through the cracks? If so, maybe your goal is this:

Sales to new customers will increase 5% by [date] as all sales reps correctly use NewCRM to identify new prospects and build relationships with them.

If your stakeholders refuse to commit to a business-performance goal, you might try a weaker but still useful type. For example, you could measure the strain that new software can put on productivity. For example, if the new software is already in place and causing confusion, you can try to reduce the number of calls to the help desk.

If you doubt the usefulness of this kind of goal, imagine the alternative. A too-common “goal” is “All sales reps will be trained on NewCRM by [date].” This says, “We don’t care if the training actually works. We’ll just take attendance. Now give us money.”

For more on setting goals, see:

 

2. Ask, “What do they use the software to DO?”

List the most common tasks that people will use the software to complete. Also consider what might make each task difficult.

For example, is it obvious how to complete the task in the software? Are people working under time constraints?

This flowchart helps you consider all the angles.

For more on this, see the discussion in “Technical training: What do they need to DO?

 

3. View training with suspicion

Many people assume that every new system must be introduced with formal training. But is that always necessary?

“New” doesn’t mean “requires training”

Just because the software is new doesn’t mean that people need to be trained on it. The likelihood that training will be necessary depends on a lot of things, such as:

  • How different is the software from what they’re using now?
  • How tech savvy are the users?
  • How complex are the tasks that the software is used to complete?
  • How horrible is the outcome if someone screws up when using the software?
  • How clumsy is the software interface?
  • How much help is built into the software?

“Hard to use” doesn’t mean “requires training”

If the software is clumsy and its help system is unhelpful, that doesn’t mean that you have to develop training. It means the software should be made easier to use.

L&D staff are often surprised to discover that they can request changes to software — but they have to ask. Don’t assume that it’s too late to change anything.

If the software is from a third party, making it easier to use would help their sales. If the software was developed internally, there’s no excuse for refusing to make it easier. Clumsy software hurts performance.

Make a list of changes that will reduce the need for training. Take screenshots and scribble on them. Write the help blurbs that are missing. Point out where there are too many steps.

“They won’t change it” doesn’t mean “requires training”

If the software is hard to use and the developers have rejected your requested changes, that still doesn’t mean that formal training is your only hope. How about some job aids?

 

4. Try some job aids

A job aid is a reference that gives you just enough information. It can be a piece of paper, a page on the intranet, a short how-to video, a help screen, or anything else.

We can use Moore’s Machete of Awkward Oversimplification to divide software job aids into two groups.

Type 1: Task-based job aids

These are handy guides that quickly tell you how to complete job tasks using the software. Some examples:

  • A short article in a knowledgebase shows you how to record a partial refund in the accounting software.
  • A quick video shows you how to create a template for your marketing emails.
  • The built-in help system highlights the commands you need to use to escalate a customer complaint in the CRM.
  • An extensive, structured document helps you install WordPress, as deconstructed by Dave Ferguson in his handy site about job aids.

These are all aids that help you complete tasks. They aren’t the painfully ubiquitous tour of the menus or alphabetical list of all commands.

Type 2: Code and command references

If users need to type in codes or non-intuitive commands, group the most common ones in a quick reference. As above, try to group the commands by what they achieve. Don’t just list them alphabetically. Some examples:

Let people choose how much information they need

Don’t force-feed everyone with information in your job aids. Let experts skip ahead while novices read deeply. Here’s an example from Dave Ferguson of a job aid designed to satisfy both groups.

Help screen or job aid?

A common practice is to use a help screen to give a quick overview of how to complete a small task. For longer tasks or more detail, the help screen could contain a link to a video, knowledgebase article, or other reference.

People should be able to use the software and view the reference at the same time. For example, a reference that opens to the side is way more useful than one that opens in the same window as the software and blocks it.

For a lot more about job aids from real job aid experts, see Job Aids and Performance Support by Allison Rossett and Lisa Schafer.

 

5. Test your job aids before designing training

Test your job aids on a sample of future users and tweak them as necessary.

If it looks like the job aids alone will get people up to speed, release them into the wild. Tell everyone where they are, make them super-easy to find for the people who missed the memo, and provide a quick feedback mechanism so users can tell you how to improve them.

Let the job aids do their thing for awhile, and then check the measurement in your goal. Has it improved? Also, have managers reported better use of the software? Has the help desk seen a decrease in the number of calls? If so, you might be done. You can make sure you’re done by using Robert Brinkerhoff’s Success Case Method.

In part 2, we’ll look at what you might consider if you decide formal training is necessary.


 

Listen to me rant

Upcoming talks and interviews

Podcasts about instructional designMarch 7, online: Join the discussion about action mapping, scenarios, and who knows what else at TLDCast. 11 AM US Eastern time / 4 PM GMT.

May 16-18, Auckland, New Zealand: I’ll be presenting at the NZATD Conference along with many interesting colleagues. In an informal post-conference session, we’ll discuss ninja mind tricks that will help us understand and change our clients’ mindsets and move us out of the order-taking role.

Listen to the recording

Interview: Jo Cook recently asked me good questions in this five-part interview. I ranted a bit about instructional design degree programs and pointed out that spaced learning gives advantages to trainers as well as learners, in addition to covering some action mapping concepts.

Interview: Connie Malamed also asked good questions about action mapping and the state of the instructional design world for her podcast. We considered whether instructional designers should be responsible for “solving all workplace problems,” the advantages of branching scenarios, the many ways to deliver stand-alone activities, and when action mapping isn’t appropriate.

Webinar with lively chat: Many blog readers and I recently talked about three ways to motivate learners in a chat-filled webinar. View the recording and try some sample activities.

New action mapping job aids available

Action mapping job aidNew, prettier job aids for action mapping are now available for free download. They include:

  • Overviews of action mapping
  • The “Will Training Help?” flowchart, new and improved
  • A “Job Aid or Memorization?” mini-flowchart to help your SME see that people don’t need to memorize everything

The job aids are designed to accompany my new book, which is now available on Kindle. The print version will be available in mid-October through Amazon in many countries.

Finally, there are still some seats available in the scenario design course that starts October 4. In four weeks of sessions, you’ll apply action mapping and scenario design to a project from your job.

There are online sessions for time zones in the Americas as well as Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Check them out!

How to respond to “Make one course for everyone”

“I’ve got a great idea!” says the new employee at Acme Tea Company. “Some people like iced tea. Other people like hot tea. Let’s make everyone happy by selling room-temperature tea!”

The L&D equivalent sounds like this:

  • “Everyone needs to be aware of this, so put a course on the LMS and assign it to all employees.”
  • “Make a course about the new product features for the repair people, help desk, and sales staff.”
  • “Everyone should treat patients with respect, so let’s create a workshop for all staff.”

The result? A bland, room-temperature information dump that everyone quickly forgets. Here’s how to get your client to take a more effective approach.

1. Solve a problem. Don’t just deliver information.

Group of iconic people being subjected to an information dumpOur clients often expect us to install information in people’s heads. Instead, we need to ask the right questions to uncover the problem that the information will supposedly solve.

Take charge of the conversation from the first contact with the client. What problem are they trying to solve? What do they need people to do? Why aren’t people doing it?

You might discover that information alone really would solve the problem. In that case, you probably don’t need a course or workshop. How about some easy-to-use job aids and some motivating messages from leadership?

If the client wants everyone to be “aware,” try these tips.

2. Segment the audience by what they do on the job.

Repair staff need to troubleshoot misbehaving widgets. Sales staff need to match the right widget to the customer’s needs. Giving them both a generic presentation on new widget features will help neither of them.

Consider creating at least one persona to represent each segment. A persona is a fictional but realistic character with a name, age, interests, and everything else that makes a person real. Consider what that person needs as you design solutions.

Does Betty the widget salesperson need to reassure people about the heat generated by the new widget? How can we help her do that?

Will David the widget repair person be tempted to misdiagnose a wobble in the new widget because the feet are designed differently? How can we help him avoid that mistake?

Some people use “persona” to mean “weird-looking avatar character that annoys the heck out of me in elearning” (or maybe that’s my own definition). I’m using “persona” in the marketing and usability sense. I’m not saying, “Put Betty and David in your materials.”

3. Focus on designing activities, not information.

Now that you’ve segmented people by what they need to do, help them practice doing it.

Create unique activities that let people pull the information they need to solve a realistic problem that’s specific to their job. These activities will be different because your segments have different jobs with different challenges.

For example, a technician drawing blood has one type of interaction with a patient, while a nutritionist providing advice has a different type. What does “respect” look like in each case? How can each person practice saying and doing respectful things?

If you’re packaging your activities as one online course, you can have each person choose their job role and send them on different paths. However, a one-shot course is rarely the best solution to a problem. For example, you could consider offering a bank of activities so people can practice on demand, over time — and that’s just one example of many possibilities.

Here’s one fictional example of the activity-first approach that avoids a generic information dump.

The core problem: “Training is knowledge transfer”

Our learners aren’t in school, preparing for a test. They’re in jobs that require them to do things. They often need practice, not just information.

However, many clients (and too often, our bosses and instructional design professors) assume that our job is to install information into people’s heads. We’re supposed to get the information in there and then test to make sure it survived a few minutes in short-term memory.

We can change that perspective by politely but relentlessly turning the conversation to the performance problem that needs to be solved, not the information that people supposedly need. Here’s an interaction that summarizes the action mapping workflow.

Get more tips from my mini-expert system

This interactive tool asks you five questions about your training project and provides custom advice, thanks to the power of variables in Twine.

If you have a performance problem that could be improved with information and advice, you might use Twine or a similar tool to answer the common questions.


Scenario design course starts in October

To apply this approach to a project from your job, consider signing up for my live scenario design course, which starts in October.

5 ways to become an L&D hero

It’s time for New Year’s resolutions! How about this one?

“I vow to become a hero to my learners and clients. I’ll save them from boring information dumps and wasted money. I’ll help them enjoy their jobs and see real-world improvement. I’ll save the world from boring training!”

Office worker opens shirt to reveal Superman logoWithout clear steps, our “Become a hero!” resolution could end up on the same dusty shelf as “Lose weight.” So here are some steps to take you to heroic status. (As always, I’m talking to training designers in the business world, not education.)

1. Redefine your job in your head. Our job is to change what people do, not just what they know. We need to design experiences, not information. Design practice, not a quiz.

2. Redefine your job in the real world. Make clear that your goal is new behavior, not a score on a knowledge test. Posts that might help:

Since many clients think at first that they want a score on a test, you also have to make clear that you’re a problem solver, not an order taker. You might get ideas from these posts:

If you’re a freelancer, take a critical look at your marketing. Is your overall message “I create courses for you,” or is it “I solve your performance problems?” Attracting the right clients makes being a hero a lot easier.

If you’re an employee, does your organization treat you as a developer, or as a consultant? If you’re in the “developer” slot, is there a more consultative role you can move into? If no one is doing any analysis of performance problems(!), can you sneak some analysis into your next project to show how it improves results?

It's not in my job description - yet.

3. Challenge yourself. It’s easy to deliver an order. It’s harder to politely resist a band-aid solution and ask the kinds of questions that could really bring results. Like any superhero, sometimes you’ll have to do uncomfortable things, like change clothes in a phone booth, but you’re saving the world, so it’s worth it.

4. Challenge your audience. You’re supposed to make training “engaging.” But what’s engaging? A presentation followed by “Can you remember what you were told 3 minutes ago?” Or an intriguing problem like the ones you have to solve on the job, but that has optional help and shows you better ways to find solutions?

For more on this, you might check out my scenario design course, and see the posts in the scenarios section of this blog.

5. Celebrate your wins, even the little ones. Did you persuade a client to let you analyze the problem? Did a stakeholder agree to start with a realistic challenge instead of an information dump? Did you talk a client out of adding redundant narration for debunked learning styles? Celebrate!

We’re trying to change a deeply embedded belief that claims our job is to stuff knowledge into brains. Even small wins are steps in the right direction. Celebrate them!

For more motivation, you might like my decidedly non-serious L&D Manifesto.


Scenario design courses open for registration

Get the most from action mapping and design challenging activities in my live, online course. You’ll build skills that will help you create challenging, realistic mini-scenarios and branching scenarios, and you’ll immediately apply what you’re learning to a real project on your job.

Sessions are scheduled for many time zones, including Australia and New Zealand. The course tends to sell out, so you might check it out now so you don’t miss out.

Photo by tom_bullock, Flickr via Compfight cc

Scenario example: Chainsaw training!

What’s the best way to teach people to cut down a tree? Probably the best way isn’t the approach recommended in this scenario. However, the scenario isn’t supposed to be realistic. I wrote it to make a point.

Try the scenario below. Do you agree with my point?

(The scenario is embedded in the blog post. If you’re reading this in email or a feed reader and don’t see a clickable interaction, go to the blog post to play it.)


Photo by Stewart Black cc. Scenario was developed in Twine.

Spoiler alert! Play the scenario before you read on.

If you’re familiar with action mapping, you probably saw what I was trying to do. The best ending to the scenario required you to do some (extremely quick) analysis of why it’s hard to cut down a tree without squashing your house or car.

The analysis asks, “What decisions do people have to make? Why are those decisions tricky? How can we help people practice making the decisions in a safe place?”

Then your design focused on helping people practice the tricky things that would directly support the goal of reduced property damage. You didn’t push information into their heads and then see if they could recognize it on a test.

Of course, it’s important for customers to know the obvious stuff, like how to hold the saw when you’re cutting into a tree. We’d certainly cover that in the videos. Unfortunately, it’s tempting to focus only on that obvious stuff. The result would be “How to Use a Chainsaw” and not what we really need, which is “How to Use a Chainsaw without Destroying Your House.”

I learned to cut down trees the way most people probably should: A more experienced person went into my woods with me. He helped me analyze each tree, set up the winch and rope, plan the cut, and adjust when things began to veer horribly out of control. But if that weren’t possible, I’d look for training that let me practice the decisions in a safe place.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

More scenario examples

I’ve set up a scenario design headquarters on my site. In that section, you’ll find more scenario examples, along with a research summary, a link to all scenario posts, and some tips on using Twine, the free editor I used to create the scenario in this post.

Related posts

For more on letting people learn from their mistakes, you might check out these posts:

Do you work in a course factory? Do you care?

Are you a cog in the course factory, or are you a performance consultant? Where do you or your clients fall on the following spectrum, and where do you want to be?

(Feed readers, there’s a table here! It might appear at the end of the post in your feed reader.)

Course factory

————–

Performance consultancy

My job is to create training. ————– My job is to improve the performance of the organization.
I shouldn’t question the client’s decision to provide training. ————– Since my job is to help the client solve their performance problem, I need to determine if training really is part of the solution and identify what else might help.
The only thing I ever design is training. ————– I might design job aids, create help screens, identify ways to streamline processes, encourage managers to provide stretch assignments, push for better communication tools…
My goal is to transfer knowledge. ————– My goal is to solve a performance problem, and the best way to do that isn’t clear until I analyze the problem. Maybe it has nothing to do with knowledge.
The best way to transfer knowledge is to push information at people so they’re all equally exposed. ————– If information really will help solve the problem, I look for ways to let people pull it when they need it. Training might not be necessary at all.
Training is an event, like a one-time course or workshop. ————– If I decide a practice activity will help, it might be just that — an activity, not a course, delivered in any format, maybe in a live session, maybe as part of a “try it when you want” collection of online challenges, and preferably as part of a series of activities spaced over time.
Once the training has been delivered, I’m done. ————– If the performance measure has improved, I’m happy, but I’m not done. I need to talk to the people affected by the project to find out what’s working and what isn’t.
When I finish one project, I wait for the next request to come in. ————– I notice problems and suggest solutions before someone asks me for help, because I know what my organization is trying to accomplish.

 

Two opposing sides?

Industry gurus have been pointing out for some time that L&D needs to stop being a course factory and become more of a performance consultancy. Sometimes they express their opinions with such zeal that it can feel like they’ve divided us into two irreconcilable groups: We’re either marching onto the bright consulting field waving the flag of the latest workplace learning model, or we’re stubbornly hiding in the basement, cranking out irrelevant courses.

Cranking out the courses in the basement factoryI agree we need to become more of a performance consultancy. In fact, I think some new models of workplace learning don’t go far enough, at least as I understand them. They correctly and importantly remind us that people learn in a million ways, regardless of our “help.” They give less attention to making sure that learning will actually solve the problem.

If we’re going to be performance consultants, we need to identify all barriers to performance. We can’t assume that knowledge and skills will help.

I also don’t think we’re divided into two opposing groups. Instead, I see a spectrum.

I’ve talked to many people who want to leave the course factory behind but have trouble seeing how they could actually do it. Some have to fight their organization to take just one step because their job title is literally “Course Producer.” To climb out of the basement, they have to drag the dead weight of their department with them.

In the title of this post, I asked, “Do you care?” Most people I’ve heard from care. They know that cranking out courses on demand doesn’t meet the real needs of the organization. They just need help finding a way out of the basement.

For a lot more about why we need to move toward performance consulting, see The Business of Corporate Learning by Shlomo Ben-Hur. Jane Hart has a recent series of blog posts on what she sees as a stark division in L&D, starting with this post. In this interview, Donald Taylor sees the L&D world as divided not into two sides but four regions on a quadrant.

Looking for feedback on my book

If you’ve read this far, you might be interested in giving me feedback on my upcoming book. Map it: The hands-on guide to strategic training design offers a step-by-step process to help training designers leave boring courses behind and instead find the best solutions to performance problems. It’s action mapping all grown up. I’m looking for 30 people to read a PDF version and complete a survey about it, so I can make the book as useful as possible.

Map It helps you find non-training solutions to problems. And when training is part of the solution, it helps you design challenging practice activities that can be provided in any format, not just in courses or training events. It shows you one way to start climbing out of the basement and to bring your client or boss with you.

I’ve been using it with my scenario design courses and plan to publish it in early 2016.

I’m looking for a cross-section of my intended audience to be beta readers. If you’re interested in participating, please fill out this quick demographic survey. From the responses, I’ll pick 30 people to receive a PDF version of the book. The first survey requires your email address so I can send you the book if you’re chosen; the second feedback survey will be anonymous.

If you just want to know when the book is published, sign up for the announcement list. You’ll get an email when the book is available, which should be in early 2016.

Finally, before we go back to our places on the course assembly line, let us sing in solidarity with our fellow workers who are hauling out the data on the Xerox line.

Factory worker photo by Howard R. Hollem. Public domain; US Library of Congress.

How to respond to learning-style believers

“What do you mean, I shouldn’t accommodate people’s learning styles? You can’t tell me people don’t learn differently! I see it in the classroom all the time!”

Maybe you’ve heard that from a classroom presenter (I have). Or maybe you’ve heard this from a client:

“Be sure to include narration for the audio learners! And add lots of drag-and-drops for the kinesthetic people.”

The rare and neglected accordion learnerLearning styles have been popularized by well-intentioned people, including possibly your professor of instructional design. However, the claim that we have to adapt our design to accommodate different learning styles has been repeatedly debunked by research.

Then why do people cling to the belief? Let’s look at one reason why learning styles are so appealing and how we can respond to the believers on our team.

First, the research

These resources link to or summarize research that debunks learning styles:

Debunk carefully — morals are at stake!

The myths that put people into special categories, such “visual learners” or “digital natives,” have a powerful emotional appeal. As a result, questioning them can backfire. I’ve certainly received some impassioned responses, and I know that some of you have, too.

In Urban Myths about Learning and Education, the authors suggest that these myths could be a type of moral panic. In a moral panic, believers claim that there are stark differences between groups of people and that only moral people care about these differences.

Emotions can run high thanks to the believer’s moral commitment. For example, imagine that I believe in learning styles and I’m a member of a team on an elearning project. I notice that no one is planning any narration, so I say earnestly, “Don’t forget the auditory learners!” Someone else says, “Oh, that’s all been debunked.”

I’ve never heard that before. How might I respond?

“Are they saying I’m an idiot?” I think. “I’m not! I care about the learners! The team is just finding excuses to take shortcuts. They don’t care about the learners like I do!” So I fight back, maybe by debating learning styles or just resisting others’ ideas.

This is the “worldview backfire effect,” according to the authors of The Debunking Handbook, available for free from SkepticalScience.com.

How can we respond?

One way to avoid the backfire effect could be to frame your disagreement in a way that doesn’t threaten the believer’s moral position. That way, you can keep their emotions from rising and clouding their thinking.

For example, you might first acknowledge the believer’s compassion and then offer alternatives that meet even more important needs, so agreeing with you won’t harm their position as someone who cares about the learners.

You can also offer an alternative explanation for the situation that the myth is intended to explain, or suggest that the people who originally promoted the myth did so for their own profit, both techniques recommended by research cited in The Debunking Handbook.

For example, if you have a learning-style believer who wants redundant elearning narration “for the auditory learners,” you might say the following:

“That’s an important point. We need to consider how people’s preferences might affect their learning.”

  • This acknowledges the believer’s compassion while reframing learning styles as preferences.

“For example, research shows that people learn best when they can control the pacing, which is actually hard to do if we use a narrator for everything. So if we added a narrator for the subset of people who prefer narration, we’d take away the control over pacing that everyone needs. If we made the narration optional, we’d still have to spend a lot of the budget on it, which reduces our ability to use techniques that everyone needs.”

  • We’re suggesting that the believer’s compassion can be extended to even more people by letting go of the focus on one group.

“Unfortunately, much of the research that seems to support learning styles was done by people who sell the learning style inventories or otherwise profit from them. Independent research doesn’t support the idea of changing our approach to accommodate learning styles, but it does say we should give everyone lots of practice over time. Since there’s more research support for spaced practice, it would be most effective to use our budget to design more practice for everyone instead of hiring a narrator for a few.”

  • We suggest that the myth was created by someone for their own purposes, sucking all the compassion out of it, and then build up the believer again by giving them a different way to show their compassion for the learners. Of course, the alternative approach could be anything supported by research, not just spaced practice.

I’m saying that all learners are exactly the same. Not.

Some learning-style believers say that science fans like me just want to turn learners into robots, denying their individuality.

I say that the best way to honor people’s individuality isn’t to shove them into simplistic categories so we can pour information into them, but to provide them with the respectful support they need to drive their own learning, at their pace. And if we use techniques that independent studies show actually work, we’re respecting learners’ time and showing true compassion for their needs.

I’ve focused here on just the “moral panic” appeal of learning styles. I think they’re appealing for other reasons as well, including:

  • They’re fun like a Facebook quiz is fun. “I’m a visual learner!” Or maybe you’re the rare and neglected nasal learner.
  • They make intuitive sense. Of course we all have different strengths and learning preferences. What’s not supported is the claim that we need to adjust instruction to match learning styles.
  • It’s currently popular to put people into categories of all types, so learning styles fit into a larger trend — says I, the high-D INTJ “overachieving” myopic height-advantaged asparagus avoider and bad singer.
  • They’re easy. Simple rules like “Add pictures for the visual learner” are easy to apply. It’s “hard” to use more effective design approaches, such as designing realistic practice activities or helping learners gauge their own progress.
  • A belief in learning styles encourages people to use a wider variety of media in their instruction, which when done well is a good thing. However, pointing out the invalidity of learning styles doesn’t mean, “All instruction must be text!” That’s a false alternative. The content and nature of the task should determine the media. The authors of Make It Stick sum it up this way: “When instructional style matches the nature of the content, all learners learn better, regardless of their differing preferences for how the material is taught.”
  • Learning styles are still being taught by some instructional design programs.

What has been your experience? Why do you think learning styles are still popular? What works for you when you’re faced with a colleague or client who wants to accommodate learning styles? Let us know in the comments.

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Write a strong goal: Sell it to Scrooge

A pile of Euro coinsWhen a client says, “My team needs training,” they might not realize it yet, but they have a bigger goal in mind. That goal is the real reason the project has to happen.

Unfortunately, it’s common to develop training with the wrong type of goal. Below are some typical goals. They all have a big blind spot. What are they missing?

  • Salespeople will know all the product features.
  • Managers will handle difficult conversations better.
  • Everyone will use the new software.
  • People will be aware of the dangers of the internet.
  • Leaders will help people adjust to big changes.

If you had $40,000 and someone asked you to spend that money on any of the above goals, what would you say?

Here’s what I’d say: “What will I get in return?”

A business goal is the “What’s in it for me?” for the organization. It justifies the existence of the project in business terms. None of the goals above clearly shows what’s in it for the organization.

Let’s see how it works with the first goal, “Salespeople will know all the product features.”

Sell it to Scrooge

Imagine that I’m a C-level type in a widget company and I’m sitting behind a tidy pile of $40,000.

A training person, let’s call him Bob, comes to me and says, “Give me that $40k, and in return, salespeople will know all the product features.”

“What, can’t they read the product brochure?” I say, wrapping my arms around the money.

“Well, yes, but they’re not selling our widgets as well as they could,” Bob says. “Our mystery shoppers say that the salespeople just sell the micro widget. They ignore the mega and mongo widgets even when they’re the best widgets for the customer. We have a reputation as cheap widget-pushers.”

“So tell them to sell more mega and mongo widgets,” I say.

“But we don’t want them to sell the mega or mongo if it’s the wrong widget for the customer,” Bob says. “That goes against our mission and will hurt our brand.”

“You want this money,” I say, “so you can help salespeople identify the best widget for the customer?”

“Yes, that’s it,” Bob says. “I guess just knowing the features isn’t enough. They have to develop the skills to identify the customer’s needs and then match the features to those needs.”

“And then what will happen?” I say. “How will I get my $40k back?”

“Sales of mega and mongo widgets will go up,” Bob says. “Since we make more profit from those than from the micro widgets, we’ll make more money.”

“And…?” I say in my most annoying tone, still gripping the money.

“And our reputation will improve, helping our brand,” Bob says. “Overall sales could go up and we could gain market share, because we’ll become the widget company that really listens. Everyone else just pushes widgets.”

“All right,” I say, reluctantly peeling $20k off the pile. “Here’s some money. Let’s see if you can show a 5% increase in mega and mongo widget sales by fourth quarter. If so, we’ll use the rest of the money to expand what you’re doing and see if we can gain market share.”

What changed during the conversation?

Bob’s goal started as this:

  • Salespeople will know all the product features

It ended as this:

  • Mega and mongo widget sales will increase 5% by Q4 as salespeople identify the best widget for each customer

Bob now has a way to measure the success of his project, at least in the short term, and it’s a measure that benefits the business as a whole. His new goal justifies the expense of the project.

Bob’s new goal also shows everyone involved in the project that he’s serious and is going to measure results. It shows that “training people” like Bob play vital roles in the success of the organization.

Imagine the training that results

A good business goal helps you sell your project to Scrooges like me, but it also has a profound effect on the type of training you develop.

Bob’s original goal was “Salespeople will know all the product features.” What would have happened if I were out of the office and someone gave Bob all the money without challenging his goal? What kind of training would he create?

Bob’s revised goal aims to increase sales of specific products by having salespeople identify the best widget for each customer. How did the new goal change Bob’s approach to his design?

See what happens next

I’ve continued the story on a separate page to keep this post short.

If this seems like something out of a book, that’s because it is. I’m writing a book on action mapping, and it should be available in the next couple of months. I’ll be sure to announce it in the blog.


Scenario design course starts soon

My four-week, online scenario design class starts on April 21. I’ve added a second session scheduled for the Americas because the first is nearly full. Find out more.

Photo: aditza121 via Compfight cc

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How to be a learning mythbuster

“Wait, we can’t design the training that way, because Zeus will rain down fire as punishment!”

You might not hear that particular myth, but I’ll bet you’ve heard many others. Here are the most popular myths I’ve heard from learning designers and their clients.

Chart showing high percentage of people believing myths about learning

Oh, those numbers in the chart? They’re just an estimate based on my experience. They’re not real.

They’re like the numbers that someone tacked onto a graphic created by Edgar Dale, magically turning it into a “scientific” and unfortunately misleading “truth” about how much we remember, as Will Thalheimer thoroughly shows.

Putting science-y numbers on concepts is just one part of a larger problem we face: We let unfounded beliefs influence us.

It’s a cultural problem

Why do myths flourish in our supposedly science-based profession?

I like to use a flowchart to analyze performance problems. If we were to use the flowchart to answer “Why do training designers make decisions based on myths?” I think we’d find that the main problem is an environmental one:

We work in organizations that believe harmful myths. We’re pressured to work as if the myths are true, and we can’t or don’t take the time we need to keep our knowledge up to date and combat the myths.

Stand up to the client

We need to change this cultural problem, and one of the first steps is to politely stand up to the client who believes in the impending punishment of Zeus. “I understand your concern,” we might say. “Luckily, research shows that Zeus doesn’t actually exist and has no opinion about our training.” We back this up with a link to an easy-to-read summary of research showing the non-existence of Zeus.

For example, let’s say we have a client who believes in learning styles.

“Learning styles are real,” they say, “and we must design the training to accommodate them.” This has been debunked repeatedly yet stubbornly lives on. It’s one of the most common excuses for inflicting slow narration on elearning users. What can help us debunk this?

  • This PopSci article is a quick, entertaining read and could be a good one to send to the client.
  • Learning styles: Worth our time? links to two major debunking studies and highlights techniques that work better. It might appeal more to learning geeks.
  • Here’s an excellent roundup of opinions from L&D luminaries, from Guy Wallace. It might help convince people who need to see that many experts argue against learning styles.

It’s also helpful to dip into research compilations in our spare moments. For example, the extensive PDF report Learning to Think, Learning to Learn organizes research into specific, plain-English recommendations that are easy to read in short bursts. It’s aimed at people who teach remedial courses but applies to all types of adult learning design.

For research specific to elearning, I always recommend e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning by Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer.

Expose myths to the sun

Another way to weaken myths is to clearly state them, to bring them into the light and ask stakeholders, “Is this really true?”

For example, here are some beliefs that affect our ability to design effective training. What would happen if we had our stakeholders stop and consider whether they’re actually true?

  • If there’s a performance problem, training must be the solution.
  • Training is a one-time event or course.
  • Training means putting information into people’s heads.
  • Our job is to make this information easy to understand and remember.
  • We should first tell people what they need to know, and then give them an activity so they can check their knowledge.
  • We shouldn’t let learners make mistakes because that would demoralize them and they’ll only remember the mistakes.
  • We shouldn’t let people skip stuff they already know because they probably don’t really know it.
  • We should measure learning with an assessment right after the training.
  • If we’re designing elearning, it should look like a slide show. No one will learn from a normal web page with scrolling.
  • If we’re designing elearning, we should have a narrator talk through the slides because no one will read.

I could go on (and on!) but you get the idea. A lot of assumptions drive what we do, and we need to clearly identify and question them before they steer us in the wrong direction.

What are the most damaging or stubborn myths that you’ve seen? Have you been able to fight them effectively? Let us know in the comments!


Jan. 28, London: I’ll be giving a talk on writing effective scenario questions at the Learning Technologies conference.

I’m hard at work on a self-paced course on scenario design. Life intervened and delayed my work for awhile, but the material will be available early this year. You can sign up to be notified when the course is ready.

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