Have a question about action mapping? Maybe it’s answered here.
Action mapping is a process I created that you can use to analyze a performance problem, identify the solutions, and, if training is part of the solution, design challenging activities instead of a boring presentation. Start with this quick overview of the model.
Action mapping helps you design activities, not courses. These activities might be packaged in a traditional course, but if you do the analysis, you'll probably find that a one-shot "course" isn't the best solution.
If your analysis shows that people need formally designed practice activities, that practice might best be done on the job. For example, it might be good to practice right before doing the real world task, maybe pulling the activity from a bank of online activities.
And if you're trying to change habits or help people learn a complex skill, you'll want spaced practice -- activities spaced out over time, not all bunched in a one-time, do-it-and-forget-it course.
A course is rarely the best solution. If you're absolutely required to produce a course so people can be tracked, consider proposing a collection of trackable activities instead. Those can be offered through an LMS and tracked, too. You can offer them on demand, or distribute a link to one each week, or find some other way to sneak them into the workflow rather than isolating them in a one-time course.
So it doesn't matter if you're picturing an online course, a face-to-face session, or a virtual workshop, they're all a one-time event, and they're not the goal of action mapping. The goal of action mapping is a suite of activities that can be provided in any number of formats, such as provided on demand from a bank of activities, delivered each week through email, played by small groups during a monthly lunch session, or in any number of other ways and in any format, not just packaged in a course.
This is one of several action mapping FAQs.
Action mapping is designed to support all types of performance improvement. The process helps you decide which training format (if any!) would be best, and if training is part of the solution, you'll focus on designing activities.
You might decide to use these activities in face-to-face or online sessions, but they could easily be made available in other formats. You'll also consider job aids and other references, video, discussion forums, self-paced practice activities, or any other type of solution, alone or in combination.
The short answer
My blog, book, and courses are intended for designers who help adults change what they do in the workplace. Action mapping isn't intended to apply to education.
If you're in education (elementary, university, or vocational), my materials could be a bad fit for you. The courses in particular have a strong business perspective, and participants from academic settings often struggle to set a business goal or do the needs analysis, which can be a big part of the course. They also have trouble getting details for scenario activities because they have no workplace to examine, and they can struggle to shift their focus from knowledge to behavior when their employers require them to measure everything with a knowledge test.
To benefit from action mapping, you need to have a performance problem (not a learning goal like certification) and a specific audience comprised of working adults who need to perform specific on-the-job tasks (not "our audience is everyone who wants to know more about X").
The long answer
The goal of training design and therefore action mapping is to solve business problems by helping people change what they do. We want to change specific behaviors, not just transfer knowledge. Our learners are adults with widely varying knowledge and experience working in complex situations that require analysis and customized solutions.
I've worked as an instructional designer in both education and business and disagree with people who say that design is the same for both worlds. I developed action mapping because I was tired of trying to apply academic models to business problems.
Because action mapping is so focused on business, it's hard to apply it to K-12 or higher education. There are five big problems:
1. The education and business worlds have different instructional goals. The goal in education is to put knowledge into brains. The goal in business is to change behavior -- at least, that SHOULD be the goal, and it's the goal of action mapping.
2. At the heart of the process is the business goal: a measurable improvement in the performance of the organization (sales, employee turnover, etc.). This kind of goal rarely exists in educational settings. Defining a goal in terms of scores on a test is completely different and shifts the focus from behavior to knowledge, defeating the point of the model. I created action mapping to make us look beyond knowledge and change complex, real-world behavior.
3. Action mapping requires you to identify specific behaviors that people need to perform on the job. In education, it’s common to have no specific, real-world behaviors, unless students are applying the content now in observable ways, such as in labs. You could try to guess how students might someday use the content in the real world, but the possibilities will be infinite. As a result, instead of listing real-world behaviors, people who adapt action mapping to education often describe how someone taking a test could show that they understand something (e.g., "Identify..." or "Describe..."). Again, this goes against the goal of action mapping, which is to change real-world behavior, not to transfer knowledge as displayed on tests.
4. In action mapping, you examine each high-priority behavior and identify the barriers to good performance. In a workplace, these would be very specific issues like an unwieldy database or an outdated process. We remove the barriers or address them in our training design, leading to highly tailored activities. In academia, there's no way to know in what environment students will eventually apply the knowledge and which barriers they'll face. You can only know what barriers students are facing now, and the easiest barrier to focus on is their ignorance, for which the solution is assumed to be knowledge. Action mapping again becomes just a way to organize course content.
5. Some people in project-based or vocational education use action mapping as it's intended. This can work if the tests that students have to pass involve actually doing the work of the job. For example, if the assessment requires students to demonstrate to an observer that they can correctly wrangle a widget, then you might try action mapping for your next project. Unfortunately, it will be hard for you to identify specific challenges that students will face in their future workplaces, which could make it hard to write realistic activities.
But I want to use action mapping!
That's fine. People who adapt action mapping to an academic setting say it helps them think of more realistic learning activities and cut unnecessary information. However, if you were to sign up for one of my courses or buy my book, you might be dismayed by the business focus or find that large portions don't apply to you.
This is one of several action mapping FAQs.
If you're looking for research support for using scenarios, you'll find it here.
If you’re wondering about research into whether action mapping “works,” that would be like doing research into whether ADDIE “works.” They’re both processes that are subject to vastly different interpretations and applications. I have lots of anecdotal reports of success from my own experience and from clients and readers, but I’ve also seen the process misapplied. I don’t know of any research into the model and don’t see how such research could be rigorously designed.
For a short history of the model and for some important clarifications of common misconceptions, please see this overview.
In my experience, a two-hour meeting with the client and subject matter expert(s) can create the heart of the map. You should be able to determine a goal, identify the major actions needed to reach that goal, and begin to determine why people aren't performing those actions.
After the meeting, you'll continue to work with the SME to analyze what people need to do and what solutions can help them do it. How long this takes depends on the complexity of the problem and any institutional barriers to solving it.
The approach to scenario design that I suggest in my book and courses borrows ideas from problem-based learning, guided discovery, productive failure, and similar approaches. Here's some research support for these ideas.
Give them an activity, not a presentation
One of the major concerns I've heard from clients is that it's "unfair" to plunge people into a well-designed problem, such as sending them directly into a scenario without first telling them everything they might need to know. Another common argument is, "They'll make mistakes and only remember the mistakes, so then they'll do it wrong on the job." As a result, clients want to present everything first and hold people's hands. So first here's some research about that.
A good first place to look is Make It Stick, a book that summarizes learning research. Some quotes with their Kindle locations:
"Trying to solve a problem before being taught the solution leads to better learning, even when errors are made in the attempt." p. 4 location 107
"When learners commit errors and are given corrective feedback, the errors are not learned. Even strategies that are highly likely to result in errors, like asking someone to try to solve a problem before being shown how to do it, produce stronger learning and retention of the correct information than more passive learning strategies, provided there is corrective feedback." p 90 loc 1265
"It's not the failure that's desirable, it's the dauntless effort despite the risks, the discovery of what works and what doesn't that sometimes only failure can reveal. It's trusting that trying to solve a puzzle serves us better than being spoon-fed the solution, even if we fall short in our first attempts at an answer." p 94 loc 1311
"Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, who coined the phrase 'desirable difficulties,' write that difficulties are desirable because 'they trigger encoding and retrieval processes that support learning, comprehension, and remembering." p 96 loc 1373
"To be desirable, a difficulty must be something learners can overcome through increased effort." p 99 loc 1381
There's a lot more in the book, including citations.
This blog post links to research that supports productive failure as a way to support transfer, not just quick regurgitation.
A lot of the research focuses just on whether people remember the stuff they learned, but (like the study above) some look at whether people can apply it in a new situation, which is what we want.
Scenarios and transfer
Ruth Clark also cites research in her book Scenario-based e-Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning, especially in chapter 10. She includes suggestions for when productive failure is probably most effective (basically, for people with some pre-existing knowledge and well-structured problems) and argues for scaffolding and guided discovery, which I've translated into giving links to supporting information in the activity and organizing activities so they progressively build and reinforce skills. She also highlights how scenario-based learning appears to help people transfer what they learned to a new task and points out that problem-based learning seems to be more motivating.
Clark Quinn also describes research that suggests that problem-based learning is better for long-term retention and skill development.
Here's another meta-analysis that also seems to support the use of PBL in medical training.
In this summary of points made in a presentation, Karl Kapp links to research that suggests that people who used simulations feel more confident that they can do the thing in the real world. Of course, that doesn't mean they'll actually do it, but it's a start. He also references studies that seem to suggest that "active learning" in a simulation has better results than traditional presentation-driven learning.
Will Thalheimer has a PDF summary of research into the efficacy of scenarios, with a focus on how they appear to improve knowledge retention and retrieval.
Clients' concern about research might mask other concerns
Sometimes clients resist scenarios because they want everyone to be equally "exposed" to the same information. They might disguise this as a concern about whether research shows that scenarios work. If this appears to be the case, you could still argue for a scenario-based approach but make clear that in the feedback for each choice, you'll include the information that people must be "exposed" to. Whether they choose correctly or incorrectly, they all will be faithfully and accurately exposed. They'll also have a (probably) better chance of remembering and applying the information later, since their exposure took place in a problem-solving, realistic context, not in a passive presentation.
Unfortunately, a lot of the research into scenarios, simulations, and guided discovery has been done on people who are supposed to apply academic knowledge and not, say, change how they talk to customers. I consider this a drawback because we want to change behavior, not knowledge, but most of our clients are still focused on knowledge, so citing the research should actually help you include scenarios and see for yourself whether they change what your audience does.
Probably the best place to find support for using scenarios to improve on-the-job
behavior is in the research into problem-based learning as used in medical training, since that's been going on for some time, has been studied enough that there are meta-analyses, and it supports making good diagnoses in the real world, not just passing tests.
This is one of several action mapping FAQs.
I encourage you to focus first on what people need to do, not what they need to know. If you use action mapping, each behavior or action that you write could be called a performance objective. We aren't describing what people need to know, which is often how people interpret "learning objective," even if they avoid using "know" and use supposedly better terms like "identify" or "define."
Of course, for many actions people do need to know stuff, and if our analysis of the situation shows that they don't know it, we should provide the missing information for them. But our focus is on designing activities that help people practice making the decisions they need to make on the job.
Here's a blog post about the difference: Why you want to focus on actions, not learning objectives
If you're wondering whether you should list objectives at the beginning of a course, you might check this blog post: Makeover: Turn objectives into motivators
The approach I described in that (old!) post is still what I recommend -- to tell learners up front what's in it for them, rather than to list dry teacher-style objectives. If I were to write that post again, I'd emphasize that the motivating "objectives" should appear right away at the beginning of the material, followed by an interesting, challenging activitiy. This is in contrast to the conventional approach of welcome, introduction, objectives, more introduction, information presentation....and finally an activity.
You might check out this blog post: What to do if they just want "awareness"
You might check out this blog post: Technical training: What do they need to DO?
When they say, "We need an onboarding course," our stakeholders usually haven't identified what behaviors they want to see. As a result, the "course" is just a presentation of information that might be better put on the intranet or in a PDF.
You might consider using action mapping with your stakeholders to get them to identify what they want people to do differently as a result of the online induction. Some behaviors might be:
- Don't quit immediately (in other words, understand the culture, feel like part of the team)
- Choose your health plan or other benefits before the deadline
- Don't pester your coworkers with lots of basic questions--use the info on the intranet
- Commit to following our rules
- Take advantage of the training and other improvement opportunities we offer
Once you've identified the behaviors, you can identify possible barriers to each one and find ways to make doing the right thing easier. Is the health plan information easy to find and use? Can we make it easier? Are the common questions asked by new hires answered by a FAQ that's easy to find? Is it easy to see what training opportunities apply to a new hire?
You'll probably find that many solutions to the "new hire" problem don't require training. Instead, you might find yourself making online information easier to find and read, streamlining policies, or organizing a weekly lunch to help communicate the company's values and culture.
If you do decide that training is the solution for some behaviors, you can avoid an information dump by brainstorming practice activities (e.g. What's the best benefit package for Bob? How should Sarah log into the intranet? What should Harry do about his upcoming surgery?). The activities could link to the reference information that's already on the intranet (I hope!) instead of presenting it all.
I recommend using the chat extensively and creating a session that's a series of activities rather than an information presentation. There's a lot more in the blog post Tips for webinars or virtual training.
You might want to check out the following blog post: Do we really need narration?
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