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.

3 ways to save gobs of time when designing training

Everyone wants it yesterday. So how can we deliver on time? Here are three possibly bizarre ideas.

1. Don’t design training

This hamster would like you to read the policy.Does the client just want everyone to be “aware” of the hamster sharing policy? If so, your best bet might be to send everyone a link to the policy with the message, “Read this policy, and share hamsters according to its rules.”

If you have the marketing department send the email, they can track how many people opened it and clicked the link to the policy. If they know what they’re doing, they can even tell you who clicked the link and who didn’t, and who read all three pages of the policy and who wandered off after page 1.

In fact, the marketing department can help you write an email that will make people want to read the hamster-sharing policy. They’re experts in this stuff.

2. Design super-targeted training

Most people who say “My team needs training” are making a ton of assumptions. They jump to conclusions about the problem (“They need to understand!”) and the solution (“They need training!”).

If you let their assumptions drive what you do, you’ll waste time creating more training than is useful or effective.

Your secret goal is to find non-training solutions to the problem. To do that, you invite the client to a quick needs analysis discussion, which you’ll disguise as a meeting to “help me understand the problem.”

Then you’ll run this type of kickoff meeting, walking your client through the first few steps of action mapping.

The meeting will help your client see how changes to tools, new job aids, and other non-training interventions can solve the problem.

If still you end up designing training, it will probably be shorter and more targeted.

3. Focus on challenge, not bling

In elearning we’re tempted to make up for the lack of human contact with an avalanche of irrelevant stock photos, narration, and flying bullet points.

I harp on this constantly, but I’ll say it again: An intriguing, challenging activity often works perfectly well as text. In fact, once you start adding media, you can actually damage an activity, as participants in my upcoming scenario design workshops will see.

Think text can’t hack it? Learn some handy phrases in the imaginary language Zeko in an activity that relies 99% on text. Or see if you can guide the AutoLoon L&D department to the best solution to their performance problem, undistracted by cheesy stock photos or narration.

I can already hear people saying, “But what about learning styles?!” to which I say, “Learning styles are bunk.”

Wind turbine breakaway view

An actually useful image

Obviously in many situations more time-consuming media like video, animation, and audio are absolutely necessary. Try understanding how a wind turbine generates electricity without seeing at least a breakaway illustration of its innards. Even better, the right image can eliminate the need for text.

But what I see far more often is pointless, time-wasting bling applied to a boring presentation.

If we’re expected to produce “content,” we have a choice:

  • We could spend a couple of hours writing challenging, bling-free decision-making activities that help people learn through experience, or
  • We could build a bunch of slides to present the content, and then spend several more hours searching for non-gag-inducing stock photos to add “eye candy,” creating slick transitions to “keep the learner’s interest,” recording unnecessary narration because we can’t expect people to read, and fussing interminably with the timeline to make the narration track properly with the flying bullet points.

Unfortunately, our employers often expect bling. One way to win them over to a more powerful but less bling-infested approach is to show them several examples of challenging, thought-provoking materials designed the way we think would work best.

What do you think? What has helped you create powerful training in a short time? Let us know in the comments.

Tips for webinars or virtual training

“What works for webinars?” People have asked this a lot lately, so here’s my opinionated answer.

I do a lot of online workshops, such as the scenario design course that starts soon. I’ve ditched many of the conventional webinar techniques. Here’s what’s left on my list.

My main recommendation:

  • Include many, many thought-provoking questions for people to answer in the chat.

These aren’t polls or multiple-choice questions. They’re more like, “Here’s a problem. How do you think we should solve it?” or “Here’s a draft of a solution. What’s wrong with it?”

Dialogue bubblesI try to ask a question like this every couple of minutes. In my personal notes for the presentation, I highlight in blue every question I plan to make and then scroll through the file to make sure there are blue blobs sprinkled everywhere.

This results in slides that tend to be activities instead of information presentations. For example, I’ll display a slide that has a draft of a scenario question and ask what should be done to make it better. Information that might have spawned a series of bullet-heavy slides called “97 rules of scenario design” goes in the handout, where text belongs.

You could also repurpose a self-paced elearning activity. For example, you could run a scenario in the session. Display the first decision point and ask everyone what they want to do and why. As the debate goes on, one choice will probably surface as the preferred one, so click that and continue the scenario.

Again, I’m suggesting you do this as a discussion, not a poll. It’s harder on you, because you have to read a lot of chat comments, but the learning is far deeper and the issues raised will be surprising.

The chat is where it’s at!

This one change — your commitment to ask a ton of thought-provoking, open-ended questions — means that you’ll design a series of mini-activities instead of an information dump. Your participants will stay with you, thinking and participating, instead of clicking away to plan their Bali trip while you talk to an empty room.

This one change will require a few more changes:

  • You’ll need a webinar platform with a big, public chat window. For now, I’m using WebEx. I hope to use FuzeBox in the future when I’m sure that it plays well with the extreme firewalls some of my customers have. GotoMeeting is out for me because the chat window can’t be resized on my Mac.
  • You’ll need to stop talking and listen. I periodically say, “Hang on, I need to catch up with the chat.” I’m silent while I read what has happened in the chat, and then I respond to it.
  • If you’re recording the session and the chat won’t be recorded, you’ll want to read chat items aloud so the recording makes sense to someone who wasn’t there. Just as you do when presenting to a big group, repeat the question aloud before you answer it. It’s often impossible to read everything; I just hit the major points.
  • If the chat is super-busy, some participants might hide it so they can focus on you. That’s another reason to pause periodically and read aloud the major points being made.
  • As soon as people realize that you want them to use the chat, they will definitely use the chat. This might happen in ways you might not have intended, such as answering each other’s questions or literally chatting. Don’t try to control them. At least they’re in the room with you instead of pricing hotels in Bali.

Yes, you can handle the chat! It can help to have a second person, but I’ve flown solo with up to 400 people typing furiously away. They realize you can’t read and respond to everything. All you need to do is pause occasionally to catch up with the major points or questions.

Everything else

Some more tips:

  • Avoid headaches and reduce development time by creating a presentation without animations or transitions — PDF is usually safe.
  • Use a headset with a decent mic, not the computer’s default mic.
  • Limit sessions to 90 minutes at most.
  • If you’re providing a handout, make it useful, not just a copy of the slide deck. You might create a handout that includes the main slides with additional text.
  • Make the handout available at the beginning or shortly before the presentation, so participants can use it to take notes. If it’s in Word or another easily edited format, they can take notes right in the handout.
  • Practice giving your presentation, of course, timing yourself and allowing lots of time for the chat.

Finally, here are some common webinar techniques that I avoid. Maybe you can convince me that they’re great — leave a comment!

  • Not allowing public chat. This is Mortal Webinar Sin #1 for me. Probably 90% of the sessions that I’ve attended have no chat. You’re only allowed to send questions in secret, and they go only to the presenter. I rarely stick around.
  • Adding “interactivity” by using polls to vote on non-questions, such as “How many people here have seen a boring PowerPoint presentation?”
  • Sending people to breakout rooms. Maybe I just haven’t seen this done well. When I’ve been a participant, breakout rooms have meant five minutes of technological confusion followed by several minutes of “Is anyone else here?” and then “What are we supposed to be doing?” followed by me quietly disappearing to watch the Shiba Inu puppycam.

How about you? What are your favorite techniques for live virtual sessions? What do you recommend avoiding? Let us know in the comments!


Scenario design online course open for January and February

Become a scenario design master with “Scenario design: In-depth and hands-on,” a live online course (with lots of chat!). There’s still room in two of the sessions that start in January and February.

People who have signed up for the course alert list learn about new courses before they’re announced in the blog. Sign up and you’ll be among the first to know when the next sessions are scheduled. The US session sold out quickly after the last mailing — sign up so you don’t miss out next time!

My current very tentative plans are to have an on-demand version of the course available in April and to give another live version in July.

Image credit: iStockPhoto ©petekarici

12 cool ways to use scenarios

Desperate woman wants to know what happens next in scenarioDecision-making scenarios aren’t just for elearning. Here are 12 ideas for other ways you can use branched scenarios to help people practice solving problems.

First, some vocabulary. Each “decision point” in a branching scenario contains the following:

  • The result of the previous decision, such as, “The forklift continues to speed toward the plate glass window.”
  • The stem and options for a new decision, such as, “What should you do?” followed by three or four actions.

Face-to-face training

One of the great benefits of a challenging branched scenario is that it provokes discussion. No more glassy-eyed stares! Some ideas:

  1. Go through an online scenario together: Project the scenario on a screen and as a group decide what option to take at each point.
  2. Act it out: Assign roles in the story and have participants read and act their lines once the group has decided what they should do.
  3. Go through the scenario in small groups: Divide participants into groups of four or so. Have them work through the scenario as a group, then report back to the larger group why they think they got the result they did.
  4. Require someone to defend each option: To bring the discussion to a deeper level, assign each option to a participant: “Bob, you’ll argue for option B every time, whether you agree with it or not. Give it your best shot!” You can do this in large or small groups. If you have four options at each decision point, you might create groups of four and, before they start the scenario, have each person choose an option to always defend.
  5. Ask the group to improve the scenario. Ideally, you tested an earlier version of the scenario on a sample of your audience and improved it based on their suggestions. Now do it again, but as a learning exercise. You could ask what options participants wanted to have but didn’t, how the plot could be made more realistic, and how failure and success should be measured.
  6. Have groups design their own scenarios. After going through and discussing a scenario you wrote, form small groups and have them each design a branching scenario for their colleagues. You might offer a list of story ideas for them to choose from, each offering the opportunity to closely examine the complex decisions that happen on the job. The design project should probably take place over a couple of weeks rather than in one intensive session, and each group’s deliverable could be a simple, text-only PowerPoint or Twine scenario that’s run at another gathering of the full group. You’ll need to win the participation of managers and subject matter experts, but considering how deeply we have to examine every decision to write a good scenario, this exercise could be really powerful.
Sample from a paper-based branching scenario

A branching scenario can be as simple as a printout, with one decision point on each page.
This low-tech scenario inspired intense discussion in a class at West Point.

Email and mobile

Keep your audience engaged by feeding them one scene a day. It’s an email soap opera!

  1. Send an email episode each day to participants showing the results of their last decision and presenting them with another decision in the story. Have them click an HTML link in the email to register their choice — and make them wait until the next day to see how it turns out. You could set this up with an email auto-responder, which your marketing staff should be familiar with, although the branching could be more complex than they’re used to. The email could be plain text or use HTML and images.
  2. Use text messages to deliver one decision point a day to a mobile audience. Participants can make their choice by sending the appropriate code from their phone. Entire novels have been delivered through text message!
  3. Encourage discussion throughout the run of the soap opera. For example, you could set up a discussion forum, assign some people to add posts to keep it lively, and include links to it in the emails or text messages.
  4. Have the scenario play out in real time: If you want people to practice making decisions in a process that plays out over weeks, and the lapse of time is important, you could insert realistic delays between the decision points. You could send emails from scenario characters or other messages that provide the same kind of information that people would receive if this were a real situation, or remind them to perform the same monitoring that they would need to do in real life so they can make a good decision at the next point.

Audio and video

Are podcasts popular in your organization? Are you allowed to use YouTube? Go for it! You might also set up a discussion forum as described above or otherwise encourage people to talk about the scenario as it unfolds.

  1. Record an audio file of each decision point and its options. When participants click a link to choose an option, they receive the file for the next decision point, either immediately or after a realistic lapse of time. You might use participants’ colleagues as actors in the scenario to increase its appeal.
  2. Create a branched video story: Create a separate video for each decision point, and then use YouTube’s annotations feature to link to each option at the end of the video. Here’s an example. If you can’t use YouTube, this tool designed for marketers might work for you.

Make it controversial, and don’t forget the debrief!

One of the strengths of scenarios is that they inspire discussion. Encourage that discussion by intentionally making your scenario not only challenging but also a little controversial, such as by failing to include a popular option or by making a common mistake so appealing that a lot of people fall for it.

Finally, I don’t recommend using scenarios alone, no matter what setting you put them in. Learners need a debrief, some structured way to discuss, draw conclusions, build a model, and identify how they’re going to change what they do.

What did I miss? What’s another way to use scenarios to get people thinking and talking? Let us know in the comments!

“Learning should be fun!” But what’s “fun?”

We hear it all the time: “Learning should be fun!” Here’s how it’s often interpreted:

  • “Let’s use a Jeopardy-style game for the quiz.”
  • “Let’s have them explore a haunted museum, clicking on silly things to learn about data privacy.”
  • “We should have a funny-looking wizard explain how the inventory control system works, and he could use his wand to make the data appear on the screen.”
  • “How about a talking frog to explain the supply chain?”

You want me to listen to a talking frog?All of the above are examples of smearing “fun” lipstick on the pig of an information presentation. We’re not challenging the learners in any meaningful way, and we’re probably not motivating them, either.

Then why do we do it? Many people will say that exploring the museum to reveal all the bullet points about data privacy is gamelike and therefore “fun.” However, according to this well-researched post by game researcher Ben Lewis-Evans, it’s not that simple.

The post looks at how games (and in my opinion elearning) might affect dopamine, often presented as the “I like it!” hormone.

The upshot of the research Lewis-Evans examined “is that it appears that dopamine is not directly about pleasure (or learning) but rather it is about motivation or, if you want to be more sinister, compulsion.”

What’s really motivating?

Motivation doesn’t come from clicking a spider web to reveal a couple of sentences and move the progress bar one millimeter. According to Lewis-Evans’ review of the research, many other elements are better at motivating us. Here are the ones that caught my eye:

  • “Rewards should be meaningful.”
  • “Learning to get and want a certain reward is enhanced by immediate feedback about what behavioral response produced that reward.”
  • “People tend to dislike rewards that are delivered in a way that is perceived to be controlling.”
  • “Feelings of mastery, self-achievement, and effortless high performance appear to be quite rewarding.”

Feelings of mastery should be our goal. Clicking a messy desk to reveal preachy warnings about filing forms builds zero mastery. Successfully making increasingly difficult choices in a realistic scenario is far more likely to build a sense of mastery.

If a stakeholder wants you to add alien spacecraft, treasure hunts, or talking animals, they mean well. However, you might respond that building mastery provides the real fun. So rather than spending time drawing the spacecraft, we should use that time to design challenging, realistic activities that give people a sense of accomplishment.

Have you had to talk someone out of a “fun” way to present information? Let us know how it went in the comments.

3 powerful ideas you should steal from marketing

Marketers and trainers have the same goals: They want people to do something. But they achieve those goals in vastly different ways, and I think marketers often do it better. Let’s look at some techniques we can steal from a successful marketing video.

This post includes two embeds that probably won’t appear if you’re reading it through email or an RSS reader. I recommend you view this post in the blog.

Here’s our role model, the immensely popular commercial for the Dollar Shave Club. Not allowed to watch YouTube? Watch the same video here on Vimeo.

Put on your headphones — inappropriate language is bleeped out but could still offend.

The video was so effective that the influx of traffic knocked the Dollar Shave Club site offline. The commercial has been featured in several publications as an example of highly effective, low-budget marketing.

Now for the “training” version

What does the Dollar Shave Club guy want us to do? He wants us to go to his site and sign up for his service. Let’s look at how an instructional designer might try to inspire the same action.

Here’s the training version, without audio. Many elearning developers would have a narrator read the screen to you, but I couldn’t make myself do it.

 
What does the Dollar Shave Club guy do differently?

Here are just a few differences.

1. “I think you’re smart.”

The Dollar Shave Club guy uses a fast pace, he mocks other commercials because he knows we see them as dumb, and he lets us draw conclusions rather than telling us everything explicitly. He says, “I think you’re smart,” and that makes us like him.

The training version plods and spoon-feeds us predigested information. It doesn’t let us draw any conclusions on our own. It says, “I think you’re dumb, so dumb that I have to lead you by the nose through the most basic of information.” Who wants to be told they’re dumb?

2. “I’m an actual human being with a personality.”

The Dollar Shave Club guy really is the Dollar Shave Club guy. He’s talking about his business. He’s also an underdog in the world of shaving products, and we tend to root for underdogs.

Who’s the person behind the training version? There’s no one there. It’s the tiresome Omniscient One, the faceless, personality-free voice of the nobody who knows everything. It’s no underdog, it’s Big Brother.

Also, in the video we meet Alejandra, a person who’s real and therefore memorable. In the training version, she’s replaced by a forgettable abstraction, an “order fulfillment position.”

3. Surprise!

The Dollar Shave Club commercial is one huge surprise filled with many smaller surprises. Big surprise: “This can’t be a real ad! Wait, it is!” Smaller surprises: Everything else.

The training version, like most training materials, has zero surprises. It’s a dry, predictable conveyor belt of dry, predictable information.

Objections

You or your stakeholders might already be saying the following.

“We don’t have that kind of budget!” It’s not the budget, it’s the ideas. I’m not saying, “Produce a funny video commercial.” I’m saying, “Treat your audience like they’re smart,” “Use a real person with a personality,” and “Don’t be so predictable.”

“But we’re not selling anything. The comparison is unfair.” Marketers want to inspire a specific action. It can be “Buy the razor,” but it can also be “Sign up for our email list” or “Test drive our car.” Just like marketers, we want people to do something. We want them to encrypt emails, use the 5-step Difficult Conversations model, stop standing on chairs to reach high shelves… Marketing has tested a bajillion ways to get people to act, and we should steal the good ones.

“Obscenities are a low form of humor and we could never use them.” I’m not suggesting you use any obscenities. I’m suggesting you look at the larger picture, such as the three ideas listed above that separate lively marketing from conventional training.

What do you think? What ideas can we steal from marketing? Do you know of any elearning that applies any of these principles? Let us know in the comments!

If you thought the commercial was funny and would like to use humor in your materials, you might like my post How humor helps.

Learning styles: Worth our time?

If you had time to evaluate the research on learning styles, what would you conclude?

Here’s what four cognitive psychologists concluded: “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”

Learning styles argumentThat quote is from Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, an examination of learning style research. Some more quotes from the paper:

  • Studies are weak: “Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.” “Meshing” refers to changing your teaching style to match a learning style. (p. 105)
  • [Read more…]

Elearning example: Branching scenario

You’re a US Army sergeant in Afghanistan. Can you help a young lieutenant overcome cultural differences and make a good impression on a Pashtun leader?

That’s the challenge behind “Connect with Haji Kamal,” a decision-making scenario that my cool client Kinection and I developed for the US Army. The online scenario is the homework part of a lesson plan that includes in-class discussion about how to build rapport across cultures. It’s part of a much larger effort in the Army to strengthen soldiers’ cross-cultural and peacekeeping skills.

Turn on your speakers and give it a spin. If the site is down, the video below will give you a sense of how the activity works.

The goals

The activity is designed to be completed as homework before a culture class, and it includes a facilitator guide with debrief questions. Our goals were to model specific rapport-building behaviors and inspire class discussion.

To follow the “good” paths, you need to see things from Haji Kamal’s point of view, show respect and patience, and otherwise apply cross-cultural skills that will be discussed in class. You end up on less successful branches by making more ethnocentric choices. [Read more…]

Scenario design online course

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