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.
Want to know if action mapping will work for your project? Answer a few short questions to find out. You'll get custom feedback and recommendations for your situation.
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.
The principles would be the same as using action mapping to design any other type of training. Basically, you'll want to:
1. Identify how you'll measure success. How will training people on the software improve the performance of the business? A classic goal is to reduce calls to the help desk about the software.
2. Identify what people do with the software -- what are the most common tasks? If necessary, group your audience members by job role or tasks.
3. Remove any barriers you can and make sure training is actually necessary. A barrier can include a clunky interface, menu options that aren't self-explanatory, missing help files, time pressure, inefficient processes, and other challenges with the tool or work environment. The goal is to fix these rather than train around them. A classic example is creating a cheat sheet summarizing how to complete a common task. You might decide that the cheat sheet is enough and no training is required.
4. If training is necessary, design activities that help people practice completing the common tasks, with optional help always available. For an example, see how Allen Interactions handled training for medical records software.
This is one of several action mapping FAQs.
Action mapping is designed to be used when you want to change what people do. It requires you to analyze what people are doing now and why they find it hard to change. In contrast, "convert this content" projects are focused entirely on the content. You're expected to begin and end with the content you're provided. Action mapping isn't intended to be used in that situation.
However, if you're allowed to do some task analysis in addition to "converting content," action mapping could help you add new, more effective activities. For example, if you're supposed to convert face-to-face material into self-paced elearning, and you're allowed to talk to SMEs and learners to find out what people actually do on the job, you could replace the old information presentation with more effective activities.
For example, instead of presenting a bunch of slides, you could create activities that challenge people to make the same decisions they need to make on the job while they optionally pull the information as they need it.
You could also use the "convert this content" project to expand the formats used. For example, if you're converting from face-to-face to elearning, you could question the assumption that the elearning should be packaged as one standalone course. Maybe it would be better if you created a bank of activities that learners could try right before they need to do the task in the real world, or maybe you could deliver a few activities at a time so people get spaced practice. There's often no good argument for converting from one shot-in-the-arm format to another.
This is one of several action mapping FAQs.
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.
You might check out this blog post: What to do if they just want "awareness"
Action mapping is intended to be used when you want people to do things differently. If the certification is based on observing learners' performance on the job, action mapping could help. If the certification is based on a knowledge test, action mapping is less appropriate.
You could use the model to create more engaging, realistic activities. However, if the test just requires knowledge regurgitation, you would probably help learners best by having them practice the same knowledge regurgitation. For more on why action mapping doesn't work in education or mere knowledge delivery, see Does action mapping work in education?
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.
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.
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 want to check out the following blog post: Do we really need narration?
Here's a quick summary of what I learned in my career, which led me to a major change in mindset that I think we all need to make. A lot of training designers have taken a similar path. Maybe you’re one of them.
Technical training: Job aids rule!
I started out in the early 1980s as a technical trainer, introducing people to the newfangled IBM PC. It was also my job to provide tech support. If people didn't learn something well, they called me with questions, so I quickly learned which training techniques worked.
Creating job aids and practice activities became my favorite way to help new PC users become independent.
Education: Stuff knowledge into their heads, but don't let them think
Next, I got a university job creating "distance learning" materials, which turned out to be written lectures. Then I got a job designing elearning for US schoolchildren, and then I wrote activities for standardized tests.
Each activity I wrote for children had to cover an item in a long list that specified what kids should know at each age. School systems in the US use such a list to design their lessons. Standardized tests determine whether the kids have "learned" each item.
The items were so specific that each activity presented one bit of knowledge divorced from other knowledge. The student spent ten minutes on chlorophyll and then ten minutes on magma. We delivered snippets of information with no connecting concepts because our goal was for kids to pass test questions about each snippet.
Emotionally charged, pseudoscientific claims about how children learn dominated the scene. Feelings seemed more important than clear thinking, and clear thinking seemed impossible thanks to the stream of disconnected bits of knowledge we created.
In 2001, I switched to the corporate elearning market.
Corporate elearning: Stuff knowledge into their heads, part 2
I happily worked for award-winning elearning development firms and then independently, with clients who ranged from consultants to global corporations.
I loved my work, but as I looked at the larger field of corporate training, I began to see barriers to good design. They reminded me of issues I had seen when I worked in education.
Often, the client saw a performance problem and assumed that a course was the solution. Like in education, the course designer's job was to cover the information that someone else had specified and then test learners' ability to recall it.
As slide-based elearning took hold, the information was increasingly delivered as unrelated bits of content, a few bullet points per slide, just like the disconnected bits of knowledge I had helped deliver in my education jobs.
Finally, the pseudoscientific beliefs I had seen in the education world were increasingly used as rules for training design. For example, redundant narration became popular out of a misguided belief that "auditory" learners couldn't learn from pictures or text.
The practical job aids from the beginning of my career had almost completely disappeared. The prevailing belief was that a course would inject people with what they needed to know.
As I looked around our field, I saw only well-intentioned people who were trying to improve performance or improve the world. But the “knowledge transfer” mindset meant that we created materials that weren't very different from the materials I had created in education, and they seemed likely to fail.
It was hard to tell if they actually failed, because usually no one checked. Like in education, often the only measurement was the final test, which just checked to see if bits of knowledge survived in people's short-term memory five minutes after the training was done.
Trying to deprogram myself
I no longer agreed with what we designers were supposed to do, and I wanted to propose alternatives. However, I had trouble imagining any alternatives until I read Michael Allen's Guide to Elearning in about 2004. He pointed out that we need to move from "tell, then test" to "test, then tell."
I also learned from a client who wanted to use a simulation to help people practice using his sales model. Working with him showed me how we can let people learn by doing, even in self-paced elearning.
When I moonlighted with marketing firms, I saw that marketers have the same goal as trainers, to change people's behavior. However, good marketers create business goals to justify the expense of a project, and they measure (in a million ways!) whether people actually change their behavior.
Finally, I still remembered my early days, when I gave new PC users practice activities and created help screens and job aids. I had seen those work well, so I couldn't agree that a course was always the best solution.
I developed action mapping to give designers a ladder down from the clouds of knowledge to the real world. The model is intended to help everyone involved in a project clearly see the real-world change they need to create, identify the barriers to that change, and, when appropriate, to design practice activities, not just information, to create that change.
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