By Cathy Moore
Creating an online course? I’ll bet the autopilot in your brain is saying this: “First, present the basic concepts. Next, tell them the details. Then, show them what to do. Finally, have them do it.”
Pull the plug on that autopilot and consider doing this instead.
- Create a challenging, realistic practice activity (not a knowledge check). The activity asks people to make the same decision that they need to make on the job. It’s probably a scenario.
- Identify the minimum that people need to know to complete that activity.
- Make that information available as an optional link in the activity. Let people pull the information when they need it.
- Plunge people into that activity with no presentation beforehand.
- Once people make their choice, consider showing the necessary information in the feedback. First show the consequence of the choice (continue the story). Then show the information that the learner should have looked at. This will satisfy the stakeholder who says, “But they all have to be exposed to the information!” Here’s a basic example.
- Repeat as needed.
The result is a stream of activities in which learners pull the information they need. It’s not a presentation occasionally interrupted by an activity.
Use scaffolding to ease them into the challenge
With careful design, this approach works with all types of information, including basic concepts, mental models, step-by-step procedures, and detailed product specifications. The trick is to start with an easy-ish but still interesting activity and increase the challenge.
For example, if you want people practice a procedure that requires some tricky judgment calls, your optional information could include the procedure itself, tips on how to complete each step, and worked examples of the trickier steps, such as showing what a fictional person thought as they made their decisions for that step.
However, you don’t dump all this information on people at once. The information available depends on the step that the learner is completing. Your first activity could have them complete an easier step with just the procedure document and some tips, and as the activities progress, the decisions become harder and the optional help focuses on the trickier steps, with worked examples.
Make sure you say clearly and often that no one is tracking what people click. Encourage them to try all sorts of options to see what happens.
This online chapter from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book Guided Instruction gives a helpful overview of the technique, although the classroom example at the end isn’t the type of scaffolding that I’m describing.
Use the real-world job aid
If people can look at a reference on the job, have them use the same reference in your practice activities. Their learning is more likely to transfer to the job, and you save yourself the hassle of recreating the job aid.
If people need to memorize some information, ask yourself, “If they apply the information in several activities, will they end up memorizing it?” If the answer is “no,” this is probably the only argument for drills that I’ll ever make: You might link to a gamelike drill to get the information into their memory, and be sure to provide spaced practice.
Give them spaced practice
Instead of packaging all the activities as a take-it-and-forget-it course, consider delivering them spaced over time, such as one activity every few days. Research shows we learn better when we practice over time.
You can space your activities because each activity is self-contained — it links to the information needed to complete it, rather than being embedded in the middle of a presentation.
If you’ve made the activities get progressively more complex, you’ll want to maintain their sequence during the spacing. Consider ending the sequence with a live discussion to help people synthesize what they’ve learned.
Another option is to make the activities available for people to try whenever they want, probably with a recommended order of completion.
You will be a hero
Letting people pull the information they need has these happy results:
- They’re grateful that you respect them as adults with life experience, instead of assuming they’re all equally ignorant.
- You help them develop a motivating sense of mastery.
- No one will have to sit through information that they don’t need. The only people who will look at the information will be the ones who need to see it.
- Research into productive failure suggests people learn better when they struggle a bit, which is why we should jettison the genies and let people think for themselves.
You’ll find several more reasons in this post.
“Turn this information into a course” is not your job
Finally, you’re designing activities because you analyzed the performance problem and saw that practice will help.
If you involved your stakeholders in this analysis (as you should!), they’ll no longer obsess over presenting and testing knowledge. Instead, they’ll commit to changing what people do.
I write about this a lot because it goes against “the way we’ve always done it,” which still dominates our field. Here’s a walkthrough showing how to do this in more detail for people who diagnose squealing widgets. This example shows how you might do this for soft skills. If you’re doing technical training, focus on what they need to do. Finally, here’s an interactive workflow of the entire process.