Action Mapping FAQs: All Your Action Mapping Questions Answered

Have a question about Action Mapping? Maybe it’s answered here. Welcome to our frequently asked questions page, where we address your most common queries about this dynamic instructional design approach.

Have a question about Action Mapping? Maybe it’s answered here.

Welcome to our frequently asked questions page, where we address your most common queries about this dynamic instructional design approach. We provide clear, concise answers to help you understand the essence of Action Mapping, how it can be implemented, and its benefits in various educational and training contexts. Let’s explore these frequently asked questions together and uncover the potential of Action Mapping in your learning initiatives:

What is Action Mapping?

Action Mapping is an instructional design model created by Cathy Moore. It focuses on improving performance by directly linking learning activities to the real-world tasks they prepare learners to perform. You can use Action Mapping to analyze a performance problem, identify the solutions, and, if training is part of the solution, design challenging activities instead of a boring presentation.

Instead of starting with traditional content-focused approaches, Action Mapping begins with identifying a business or organizational goal. Then, it works backward to determine the actions learners need to take to achieve that goal. The next step involves identifying the practice activities that will help learners perform these actions effectively.

Throughout this process, any content that doesn’t directly support the learners in performing the necessary actions is considered extraneous and is minimized or eliminated. This approach ensures that training is practical, engaging, and closely aligned with the specific needs of the organization and its learners.

Start with this quick overview of the Action Mapping model.

Will Action Mapping work for me?

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.

Is Action Mapping for designing courses?

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.

Does Action Mapping work for face-to-face training?

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.

Does Action Mapping work in education?

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.

How should I design software training?

Identify how you’ll measure success, identify what people need to do, look for alternatives to training, and if training is necessary, create realistic practice activities, not the dreaded tour of menus. See How to design software training, part 1 and part 2.

Will Action Mapping help me convert content from one format to another?

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.

How can I design a course for new hires?

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, etc.

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.

My client wants people to be “aware” of something. What can I do?

You might check out this blog post: What to do if they just want “awareness”

Does Action Mapping work for certification preparation?

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 the question on whether Action Mapping work in education.

What tips do you have for webinars?

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.

Where’s the research support for Action Mapping?

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.

How much time does Action Mapping take?

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.

You might find helpful information in this overview of the process or in this interactive workflow.

How should I write learning objectives?

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.

Should I use narration in my online course?

You might want to check out the following blog post: Do we really need narration?

How should we use learning styles?

Learning styles have been repeatedly disproven; see this post for a detailed look, or see this PopSci article for a quick overview.

If you have a stakeholder who wants you to design for learning styles, see How to respond to learning-style believers.

Where’s the research support for scenarios?

The approach to design that I suggest in my book and scenario design toolkit borrows ideas from problem-based learning, guided discovery, productive failure, and similar approaches. Here’s some research support for these ideas.

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 (as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases), 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.

Ruth Clark also cites research in her book Scenario-based e-Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning (as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases), 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.

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.

How did you get started? How did you develop Action Mapping?

Here’s the complete story of how Cathy Moore started Action Mapping.

Didn’t see your question? Try looking into the knowledge base.