By Cathy Moore
Be sure to read this paragraph. It tells you that in this post, you’ll learn how to manage stakeholders who want to treat learners like idiots. If you have trouble reading the paragraph, click the speaker icon located in the bottom right-hand corner of this screen and a professional narrator will read the text to you in a soothing voice that slides like oil over any functioning brain cells and gently smothers them.
Now read the next paragraph.
“Assume intelligence,” Jerry Weissman tells us in Presentations in Action. “Your audience has been there, done that, and they get it.”
Contrast Weissman’s advice with what your stakeholders might be telling you, or what a small voice might be saying in your head.
- “We should tell them how to navigate the course.”
- “We should define ‘safety’ to make sure everyone knows what we mean.”
- “We should explain that they’re about to be shown a story in which a character will have to make a decision, and they’re going to make the decision for that character.”
We’re all adults here
If you’re designing for the corporate world, which is what I focus on in this blog, your learners have decades of experience figuring out what buttons do, reading text on a screen, and interpreting what’s happening to them as it happens.
Unfortunately, stakeholders might focus on the possible exception, the one person who can’t figure out that a button pointing to the right will move them forward and who will sit staring at the first screen until the lights get turned off.
A common solution is to provide optional help: a tab called “How to navigate this course,” links to definitions, and optional popup explanations like, “This is a fictional activity. You will pretend to be a person who is facing a challenge…”
A sign of a deeper problem
Unfortunately, stakeholders or small voices saying that you need to guide learners by the nose are symptoms of a deeper issue that can poison your materials, regardless of your optional help tabs.
Thanks to our experience in school, when we’re put in a “teaching” role, we make these assumptions:
Learners know nothing. Our job is to insert knowledge into their brains without considering any knowledge that might already be there.
Learners can’t be trusted. They can’t be allowed to skip what they already know, and they must be told explicitly what’s right and wrong because they can’t draw conclusions from experience or stories.
These assumptions deny the adulthood of our learners. When these assumptions shape instruction, we create boring materials that sound like a patronizing parent.
Under the weight of such disrespect, any motivation the learners might have had squirms briefly and dies.
What to do
Remind stakeholders that learners are adults: Send them to the excellent rebuttals that Geeta Bose provides in IDiot: “I’m not an idiot!”
Get everyone on your team to agree that you’re designing an experience, not information. Visit the linked page to find posts that will help you design so your learners learn from experience.
Let learners place out. Start with simulations or scenarios that require learners to make the kinds of decisions they need to make in real life. If a learner proves that they can consistently make the right decisions, let them go.
Show, don’t tell. When a learner makes a poor decision, use the feedback to show them the results of their decision so they can conclude on their own that what they did was sub-optimal. Then, if necessary, show them what they need to know — or, better, put them in an easier scenario with more help and ratchet up the difficulty more slowly.
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44 comments on “Are learners idiots?”
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Great article! The biggest obstacle I run into is when stakeholders have no real connection to the learners and just assume that they need remedial instruction, comfort and assurance to get through the course. Insulting learners’ intelligence, even if just in the navigation (“Click help to learn how the back button works” etc.) is a big turn-off for learners of all ages and levels of experience.
Jennie, thanks for your comment. I’ve also seen stakeholders make unfortunate assumptions about learners. Too often, people who make decisions about training don’t do the job that’s being trained and don’t have any contact with the people who do.
Thank you Cathy for yours comments,
The major problem is when wrong assumptions come from professionals of learning department … when I conceive e-learnings I have no other choice than designing an introduction part recalling navigation rules … I find it useless, boring, but it’s a company rule … How can we change it ?
Pierre, thanks for your question, and I’m sorry it slipped past me until now. If your company requires you to include an introduction that explains how to navigate the course, you might ask if that introduction could be made optional. You could also consider running a small usability test to show that the instructions are unnecessary. For example, you could find 4 or 5 people who have never taken elearning at your company and have them try to navigate a course without the instructions. They’ll probably have no problem, and you could use that fact to argue for making the instructions optional, at least.
What do you suggest be done in regards to your statement of “Too often, people who make decisions about training don’t do the job that’s being trained and don’t have any contact with the people who do.” Because I agree with you and I believe selecting the right participants for training is key to the implementation of the training.
Steve, I was referring to people on the training development team, such as SMEs, who don’t actually do the job and might not even know what the job is like these days. Also, unfortunately, it’s common for the instructional designer to have no contact with the actual learners, which makes understanding their interests and motivations a lot harder.
To solve these problems, I’d recommend that instructional designers more clearly request and, if possible, insist on being able to interview learners and people who are actually doing the job. If that isn’t allowed, then the designers should push hard to include on the design team a good performer or other type of SME who is actually doing the job right now and can help us understand its challenges and quirks.
I just noticed that I wrote, “If a learner proves that they can consistently make the right decisions, let them go.” That seems to be the layoff policy at some companies.
It’s true of stakeholders but unfortunately also of some learning designers too – the people who should know better.
Great article and I’m going to use it to make the case not to do narration on a project I’m working on. However, while I agree with everything you say I’m wondering if there isn’t one exception. If I am really going to have to endure a webinar or training that is just an “information dump” then I’d rather have an audio option so I can clean my desk or do something else instead of having to spend even more time at my computer sitting and reading.
Simone, I’m not saying narration is 100% bad. I was using one type as an example of poor design (reading text on the screen to a literate adult). There are many ways to use narration that make sense, such as using it to describe a complex graphic, or providing a passive information dump as a podcast, as you point out.
“Thanks to our experience in school, when we’re put in a “teaching” role, we make these assumptions:
Learners know nothing. Our job is to insert knowledge into their brains without considering any knowledge that might already be there.
Learners can’t be trusted. They can’t be allowed to skip what they already know, and they must be told explicitly what’s right and wrong because they can’t draw conclusions from experience or stories.”
This just isn’t true. It isn’t how teachers in the UK at least are trained. It sounds like an assumption made by an untrained teacher. Are you mixing up training with education?
Otherwise excellent blog.
My point is that it’s very common and incorrect to mix up training with education. In the US, at least, students usually aren’t allowed to learn from experience and draw their own conclusions. They’re told what they supposedly need to know, and their most important experience is a multiple-choice standardized assessment. For lots more on that, see Roger Schank.
actually, it IS the experience I had at an UK university. I was hired as a senior lecturer there, moving from the US, and I had to attend these “teaching and learning” courses delivered by the lecturers there. It was the most awful and boring learning experience I have ever endured. At least in the US, we have to learn public speaking in school. These teachers were just reading from a really packed powerpoint slides. So that was how those material got transferred/translated into e-learning.
I’m not totally sold on this view, as a learning instructor / developer I’ve created interactions that I thought were as clear as pie for learners to understand; after doing some user testing they didn’t seem to understand the simplest of things. From experience I design assuming the user is a dumb, that being the lowest common denominator, these people cannot be ignored and they will exist! My ultimate goal is to create pieces that are well conceptualised and designed that there is no need for instructions. Thorough user testing is the key, the decision shouldn’t be left to the designer or the client as they are not the audience, and I often find that I overlook things when I’ve been working on them for so long.
Simon, it sounds like your real assumption isn’t that the learner is dumb but that as a designer, like all designers, you have blind spots that are revealed only through user testing. None of us can put ourselves in our learners’ shoes and see exactly as they see. As you say, “thorough user testing is key.”
In the early days we always put up a screencast showing people how to navigate the course. When I went back to the admin site to see how many people viewed the video it was maybe 1%, yet the vast majority got through the course just fine! We no longer use the navigation video. Lesson learned easily and quickly for us, no so easy and quick for clients, but we’re getting there and posts like this help to make the point!
An enlightening article as always. It rang true throughout except for the point that dickyadams raised. I have to agree with him. I’d also add that education from K-12 to college to University varies enormously according to social class, i.e. the emphasis for underprivileged learners is on compliance and conformity while the privileged few have their analytical, critical and creative thinking skills nurtured and developed.
I think the condescending attitudes you’ve highlighted in your article are indicative of an unpleasantly elitist attitude that many individuals in positions of authority hold towards “their unwashed minions”. In my opinion, business and education practices are in desperate need of reform and democratisation.
It’s good to hear that my experience of school (especially university) being a one-way information dump isn’t everyone’s experience. I agree that the underlying cause is the very common need to feel somehow superior to others.
I wonder if part of the stakeholders’ motivation is that, at some point along their managerial journey, they encountered an employee who was like a guy I used to work with (I am not making this up).
His response to everything was, “No one ever told me … I wasn’t here that day … I was never inserviced on that … I didn’t get the memo … ” etc.
His expressed attitude (yes, he said this out loud) was, “The less I do, the less I can get in trouble for doing wrong.”
The best option is not to hire these people to begin with but, once you do, they are so good at working the system that they are difficult to terminiate.
In response, those in leadership strive to set up systems where the demotivated have no excuse for not complying.
And the cycle goes on, feeding itself.
You’d only need to face this once in your career for it to potentially color every training choice you ever make.
Just makes me wonder, is all I’m saying.
I have consistently found a frustrating trend… the stakeholders review the course and tell me there’s a problem because I didn’t instruct them where they should click. I asked if they had trouble figuring it out. They said it took them 2 sec to figure it out. So? They were worried that’s unacceptable. Unacceptable that their mind had to think for a whole 2 sec instead of listening to me for 30 sec telling them what was obvious in the first 2 sec?! Consistently, they argue the point.
I often find myself saying “Let’s not assume it will take our customers longer than it took you to figure it out. If the actual learners report a problem, then we can look at redesigning it.”
Thanks for your post. I think a lot of us have already reached similar conclusions after working the system and stakeholders across the years. Your posts really help because they remind me about stuff I had decided on, and give me the push I need to fight for the ‘right’ thing a little more, rather than take the easy way out and go with”Fine. It’s no big deal to add an instruction on the first screen to click Next. It’s their course after all!” when I’m dealing with a difficult stakeholder.
I really like your point about showing not telling, and using feedback to show the results of learner decisions. In my case, I write software training for a varied audience, everyone uses the software differently in different occupations, yet we are only able to provide one version of the software training. This training, and the related assessments, does not really lend itself to the “design an experience, not information” model, since a scenario that works in one industry would be completely irrelevant to another, thus we tend to focus our instruction mostly on the button pushes and lower level learning. Do you have any suggestions for “designing information” (without scenarios) in a way that touches higher levels of learning?
Cicely, thanks for your question. It sounds like you’re expected to address everyone who might ever use the software for any purpose.
It might be possible to create a fictional business that you can use to demonstrate the most common uses of the software and that people could extrapolate from. For example, people use Excel for all sorts of things in all sorts of industries. However, one of the most common uses is for financial reporting. So on Lynda.com, you’ll find tutorials showing how to use Excel for a fictional flower-selling business. The principles used in the tutorial apply to any business of any size selling anything, and someone going through the tutorials will be able to see how it applies to them.
Great post, it is time that stakeholders realize that learners are not idiots who have to be spoon fed and narrated everything. The e-learning scenarios need to be designed keeping the audience in mind, and not only exceptions. I like how you have written the post.
I design courses for a global audience and while I do agree that too many instructions can interrupt , here are some observations:
1. A Click Next instruction is not required on a simple text-image page with no other type of clicking involved, but where the user has something to do either in an interactivity or a simple Click to reveal text/image, etc. a”Click Next” instruction can be useful to signal the end of the activity . So if I view a video and select some answers and then read feedback on the same page; the cick next instruction at the end, tells me that it’s time to move on.
2. Whether an instruction is relevant or not, really depends on the overall design (instructional, graphic, and others) of the activity, page and the entire course. In a page where a Next enables after a completion of an activity, the visual design of the enabled and disabled state may not be clear enough to all, an instruction lets me know what to do.
3. Global audience means that what is clear in one market may not be so obvious in another, especially where English is the second language. If I’m used to thinking “Next” in a local language, I’ll be slower to go and click that button. Obvious instructions in such cases don’t distract, they make the learning environment a bit more friendly.
4. In some cases, like the assessment, it is useful to to have a Click Next instruction, esp where the Next button is the same one that was used to navigate the rest of the course. It really does not communicate “You’re an idiot, you can’t figure out you need to click next to go to the next question”, it actually says, “the Next button in this case is the next question, not the next page”
5. To me the best experience is to provide all the instructions even for the lowest common denominator , but make them available on call and on choice, and keep it easy and direct to access . So “i” icons with detailed instructions for complex pages for each activity and/or a single navigation instruction page, available on call at any point on the course, are useful.
6. Where the instruction text is on the page, it helps to keep it distinct, say, in a different colour. Users automatically know it’s there, they will not be forced to read them (as a continuation) of the body text and most of them will choose to read the first two words to decode the instructon or by page 4 or so of the course have visual memory of the instruction. So by then I won’t spend my two seconds reading anything.
7. Having said all this, I also think, but this is me as a learner, don’t know if it’s universal enough. I like only the basic instructions, and then to have every button to be obvious enough, rather than reading the instruction, reading the button instead of an instruction and then clicking on it is far more engaging than reading an instruction and clicking on the same button.
Appreciate all your views on these observations.
I read my post once more, and I realised, it all boils down to “designing the experience” – if the experience uses all the multimedia tools- instructional, graphical and functional, effectively, you should be able to create something that requires only signposts- not text directions. That being the case – too many instructions is not the ‘problem’, it is the ‘symptom’ of “poor” (worst case) or “less than the most effective” design. Perhaps, our first step, then should be to reconsider the design first instead of shooting the messengers (stakeholders).
Thank you for sharing an important consideration when designing content for audience consiumption. It has often been said, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.”. And when that first impression is a droning monologue or a module of stating the obvious, a tone is set which takes careful crafting by the instructional designer to overcome. A parallel outside of the virtual world can be found when flying. We have all heard and seen the pre-flight directions… and yet we are not able to test out to prove we do not need to hear them again. So we sit back in our seats and read a book, close our eyes, look out the window, etc. Our savvy elearners do the same thing in our course, they realize that this is the part they must get through because someone out there may need it. As many have shared in previous comments, I too must include sections on direction for those who may not know how to navigate the session. What I am going to aim for is to make those directions an exciting extension of the content, similar to when I fly on Southwest Airlines. They give the same information, but in a fun and interesting way that let’s you know you are in for a different kind of ride.
There is nothing that bothers me more than when I sit down in a meeting and a presenter puts up a PowerPoint slide with a lot of words on it. Not that I cannot read, mind you. In fact, I enjoy reading quite a bit and I have become quite proficient at it over my 45 years on this planet. When I see that kind of slide, I know the presenter will end up reading it to me. Not only do I lose attention as a person can read faster silently than out loud, but I also feel like I am being treated as a child. I read to my son to help him learn the language and to give him story time. I do not need that now. Slides are meant to serve as notes for your discussion and to trigger talking points, not to be the talking.
Online training also has some disturbing trends that have cropped up over the years. One in particular is when viewing an online presentation; the next button is grayed out until the slide has been visible for a certain time. Do we, as instructional designers not trust our students from actually taking the class on their own or is it something deeper? After reading a post from Geeta Bose (2011) and some responses on the matter, I tend to agree that too many times, course designers fear the loss of control and lock the next button during online training. As Archana Narayan (2011) states, to simply click though to finish the course is probably a sign of a poor product. As instructional designers, we not only need to trust our students to properly use the course material, but also create something that is easy to navigate and provide the correct motivation to the pupil to make them want to take the course.
Teaching adults is not unlike teaching children. You still have to not bore them with facts they already know. Trainers need to be aware of the knowledge possessed by their students and provide new information that they can build upon and depends on the knowledge already in their mind to make the mental connections stronger.
Thank you for providing great information on stakeholders and how they influence the development of training. Adult learners need to feel like they can identify with the content being presented to them without feeling they are in elementary school. Certain icebreakers or exercises can facilitate the learning and make it more interactive for the participants. I have found that the more interactive the class, the more engaged the learners will be. This can be accomplished by asking pointed questions such as “Tell me a time when you experienced an irate customer.” Adult learners love to share their past experiences and as someone mentioned earlier, most adults have “been there, and done that”.
So how do we avoid treating the learners like idiots? In addition to your suggestions, I would focus on the tone or delivery of the content. I have been in many training sessions where the trainer was very condescending to the participants, and it was evident that the trainer did not consider the participants’ feelings. This could be due to previous experiences with other classes, however, it is important to treat each class with a high level of respect, and avoid treating the participants like “idiots”.
Great post. I had almost forgotten about the ‘I’m not an idiot’ post of last year, but it kept lingering in my head. So I thought to create a ‘idiot-proof elearning checklist’. What are some of the questions you’ll put in such a list? Feel free to contribute.
Bert, I like your list. Everyone, head over to Bert’s blog and add to his list of what not to do. It’s a good way to start the new year and reinforce our resolutions.
Thank you for a very interesting article. It really makes us think about the type of solutions we are putting together and how to make their implementation most efficient. I did want to share with you relevant experience I’ve had with this issue and get your feedback.
For almost ten years, I worked as a learning program manager for a major computer company. I was in charge of putting together learning solutions for a worldwide sales team. I found it interesting and in many cases frustrating that the higher the level of management I was designing for the more help they needed in basic navigation of the learning solution. They were so used to giving orders and being in charge of strategy that they had very little practical & technical skills. In some cases, they really needed to be treated as children. This fact, coupled with the regular impatience that comes from a sales person taken out of the field and into a training environment, would make it rather difficult and frustrating for them to move forward. As this was becoming a pattern, I always made sure that my solutions contained a section which explained the basics of the solution. They always had the option to skip it if it was not necessary, but they always had it available to them. Personally, I don’t feel safe assuming that learners are always adults. Particularly those in management and sales may be so focused on their functions that may actually lack what should be considered typical knowledge for someone at their level. This is why I usually include a “how to section” on my solutions and give them the option to skip it if not required. Do you think this is a good practice?
Jorge, I think it’s a good practice to include *optional* “How to use this course” information, especially if the audience doesn’t have much elearning experience. And while it’s tempting to think that a busy or inexperienced learner needs to be guided like a child, I’d suggest that they need more to be shown how the material will improve their ability to do something that’s important to them. Sales training is one of the most challenging types because salespeople are often go-getters who want to be out in the field making sales, not sitting at a computer clicking through screens. These challenges underscore the importance of making sure the training is actually relevant to their jobs and of making clear how they personally will benefit.
I enjoyed your article. As designers many times we tend to forget that the learners in the corporation we are designing the training for have been at the job for a long time. They are not new employees without any experience within the corporation. So often we tend to focus too much on the navigation of a training session instead of getting down to the real objectives. In my experience when a trainer has made a session too “simple” I have felt insulted. The designer must not forget that the learners are intelligent professionals who can follow what the trainer is putting across. I too am also a strong believer in learner feedback and letting the learners conclude what actions to take. They should feel that they are involved in the training experience and not feel as if they are being talked to like school children. As you stated in the article we are designing an experience, not information.
While teaching, I cannot tell you how many professional development inservices that made me want to inflict bodily harm upon myself just so that I could be excused. I distinctly remember our superintendent falling alseep during one such training session.
I’m currently pursuing a graduate studies in Instructional Design and Technology, so I don’t have any real experience in the field as yet. As a graduate student, I find your articles insightful and thought-provoking.
Though I haven’t gone through the paces of actually designing e-learning tools, I am very much concerned about the disconnect that seems to exist between the training environment and the stakeholders. What, would you say, is the most challenging part of gaining buy-in from stakeholders in the corporate arena as it concerns teaching or training?
Michele, thanks for your question. I think the most challenging aspect is the very widespread assumption that a stakeholder who says their team “needs training” has accurately diagnosed the problem. Often this assumption is wrong, and unfortunately it even extends to giving the stakeholder the power to identify what type of training is “necessary” and what it should include. In this environment, learning and development staff are reduced to being order-takers.
The best solution is a cultural change in which the L&D people change how they’re perceived. This can happen in two broad ways: They can proactively identify problems and propose solutions that support their organization’s strategy, and when they’re treated like order-takers, they can ask thoughtful questions and explore the problem to help the stakeholder see that the training he or she is envisioning might not be the only or best solution.
Additional approaches include making recommendations that are supported by learning or audience research, insisting whenever possible on effective evaluation (not just smile sheets), and questioning the need for training that doesn’t tie into business strategy.
Your post and responding comments were both very informative. I think you have touched on a valid area with most Gen Y’s growing up in a digital world. I however work with a bit older crowd with about 60% being well educated, intelligent “boomers.” I am finding that this group often relies on others to handle their tech needs and as a result some things may not be as obvious as one would expect. While my target market is in the U.S. or U.S. territories I think Maya’s comments regarding a global market has application to cultural differences within the United States. i.e. the experience of a native New Yorker is significantly different than that of a native Iowan just as the experience of a boomer is different from Gen Y.
I agree that we should assume an intelligent audience, but intelligent does not necessarily translate to tech savvy, so keep the helps and hints in place.
You highlight a wonderful point about audience analysis, this is a very important activity, that many stakeholders overlook in their belief that “they know what’s needed and what’s best” for the target audience, and ofcourse to cut costs. A course we designed recently purely on the basis of the views of the designated SME ended up dead on arrival on the actual shop floor. We have since included end-users in the panel and greatly modified the design of this course…some of the changes were things like simplifying everything to make the Help unnecessary, moving chunks of content (that target audience felt was totally irrelevant to their day to day work) out to a downloadable attachments, and replacing text instructions with the bold visual design and timing their apperance so that users would know what to do, and exactly when to do them, replacing vague, theoritical, “know” concepts, with practical,experienced-based “do” exercises/content bytes…the revamped course is so much more idiot proof. It really underscores the importance of having users in your panel and incorporating their insights and experiences into the course. Thanks for starting this wonderful post and Bert, I love your idea of an idiot-proof checklist.
Thanks for so clearly articulating an significant issue in corporate training. Unfortunately, we’ve all had the experience of sitting through training courses that condescend, are repetitive, plodding in their presentation, or sometimes just plain silly. (I once had to watch a fellow participant do a role play in which he pretended to be an infant in a high chair–no, I’m not kidding.)
Learners who are treated with respect and have the autonomy to make decisions about their own training will not only be more engaged in the learning process, they will also have higher retention of information and better application of key learning.
Thanks for keeping us honest. We can never forget that we are teaching adults who are, in every way, our peers.
I try and make my courses so the learner doesn’t feel like an idiot. I am currently working for a computer software company. Much of the training that I develop includes processes and step-by-step procedures. How detailed should the step-by-step instructions be? For example, if everything on a screen is filled out and the next step is to click the “Next” button, would including an obvious “Click Next” step be treating the learner like an idiot?
I think every elearning sites or software must always be easily to navigate and easily to find the next links for the next topic, sometimes students are easily get frustrated when they could not easily navigate there elearning module software. Back on those days when I make elearning softwares I often make changes on my Front End GUI to make it more easily understood and easily navigability by the end users.
Keeping adult learners “entertained” is surely a challenge. We have an elearning system which is almost entirely in Flash static pages and find students would prefer workbooks instead. Engaging the learner is paramount. This is very important for adult students who have little time, and are studying after work.
As a classroom teacher who has attended numerous professional development (PD) courses which have at times felt like a waste of time, I like your point of not guiding us by the nose, but rather assuming the learner has prior knowledge and building on that. We have recently been given options on courses we wish to enroll in during PD days and this is a considerable advancement as we all have different interests, strengths and weaknesses.
To make these days even more effective, accommodating both the learner with more prior knowledge and the learner who may need an introductory course is an option that I might suggest to those involved in developing PD days. Henry Jenkins discusses something similar in his blog ‘Designing with Teachers: Participatory Approaches to Professional Development in Education’ and has a similar view which he describes as participation, not indoctrination. he states that “Participatory learning relies on a model of “distributed expertise”, which assumes that knowledge, including in an educational context, is distributed across a diffuse network of people and tools”. Perhaps the same topic offered at different levels may help accommodate the needs of all learners,