Four ways to move your learners from clueless to confident

Even small challenges build our confidence. Let learners try and succeed on their own instead of spoon-feeding them everything. Read more.

Four ways to move your learners from clueless to confident

By Cathy Moore

I climbed onto the tram, folded my ticket, and with some trepidation stuck it into an unmarked metal box. A happy ding announced my success. I did it! I correctly rode a tram in Amsterdam!

Small victories like these make me love to travel. Every day I move from clueless to confident as I tackle questions like, “How do I peel and eat this hardboiled egg using only this tiny spoon?”

I find the answers through experimentation and observation—there’s no one telling me what to do at every step. And as a result I love the learning I’ve done and want to learn more.

How can we help our learners feel the same sense of achievement?

1. Let them figure some of it out

Often, we tell our learners everything they need to know, and then test them on it.

“Here’s the correct way to present our product to a cost-conscious prospect,” we say. “Now answer these simple multiple-choice questions to prove that you’ve been conscious for the last five minutes.”

Instead, we can give the learner a few pointers and then put them in a realistic, challenging scenario.

For example, we could have an experienced salesperson offer some recommendations for dealing with cost-conscious prospects. Then we could put the learner at a fictional lunch table next to a penny-pinching but valuable prospect.

A branching scenario lets the learner try various approaches. The prospect’s reactions and a sale progress bar show the learner if they’re moving toward a sale, and if necessary, feedback provides more pointers. And through it all, the learner knows that the prospect could get up and walk away.

2. Let them risk failure

Without the risk of failure, success doesn’t mean much. And our failures are memorable teachers.

If someone had told me before I went to Barcelona, “Don’t touch the produce,” I would have been spared one of my more memorable lessons, helpfully provided by a horrified shop owner.

Importantly, my lesson also reinforced a bigger, more useful rule: “Watch the locals before acting.” I made a mistake that proves the usefulness of the rule, so I’m more likely to follow the rule in the future.

A realistic scenario lets learners make the kinds of mistakes that prove the rule. The trick is to make sure learners don’t get frustrated or discouraged. One way is to offer optional, context-sensitive help.

Going from clueless to confident

3. To help, show instead of telling

My travel mantra is “Follow the locals.” If most of the locals turn left when they get off the train, I’ll turn left. In the same way, we can use models to guide learners to the right decisions.

For example, if the learner in our scenario makes a common mistake by criticizing our competitor’s product, we could have the sales progress bar show that the learner has lost ground. Then we could have a (real or fictional) experienced salesperson show in a flashback how they avoided that mistake with a similar prospect.

If the learner follows the model’s example, they get closer to the sale. If they continue to bash the competitor, the prospect walks. This is far more effective than simply telling learners, “Don’t criticize our competitors,” although we’ll want to include that point in a summary of the scenario.

4. Have them use real-world job aids

Another way to help learners succeed is to give them the job aids that they’ll have in real life. Every tourist needs a map, and every staff member needs a guide for a complex procedure, or a list of pointers to prepare for a challenge.

For example, the tips that we give the learner before their lunch with the prospect could be provided as the real “cheat sheet” that our sales people use in the field to prepare for challenging situations. This makes the scenario more realistic and encourages learners to continue using the aid in the real world.

No fancy software required

This kind of scenario could be produced using photos and a rapid development tool that supports branching. If your tool can’t keep track of a variable (the sales progress bar), you could instead display a simple positive, neutral, or negative indicator to show the learner how their decision has affected the likelihood of a sale.

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13 comments on “Four ways to move your learners from clueless to confident

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  1. Our e-learning design team has been experimenting with branching excercises, so this topic is especially timely. One thing we didn’t do is to include the “progress” indicator – what a great idea. The immediate feedback is a great visual tool – I can’t wait to discuss this with our team this morning!

  2. I love learning about elearning from learning about travel. And I think failure is the best teacher I ever had. As long as learners are in the safe environment of the elearning world we create, it makes sense to let them make mistakes and prove why wrong things are…wrong.

  3. We have created branching scenarios for several of our clients. But you are right, convincing a client is always a challenge. It is not that people (client side) do not understand the value of such an approach. But then it comes down to time and effort.

    I believe the way out is using the right/smart tools to author such content. It then gets easier to present our point when we say: “we may be taking a bit longer to write such content, but we know we can save on development time.”

  4. I think the success of this method comes down to weeding out the baggage that usually surrounds a course. I think in something that’s already 25 slides long and 25 minutes in user seat time will have a tough job fitting in a quality simulation. I’d always much rather make this sort of simulation the centerpiece of a 7-10 minute course, allowing the methods and exercise sink in, as opposed to having this great interaction get drowned out by additional pages of memorization and copy. I feel that shortening the other aspects would then leave room and budget to produce something of this quality.

    As it happens, the majority of our work is still bullets and photos – we’re definitely capable of producing at the top of the high end interactive work, but it looks like cost of development and ID still rule over everything else. Every once in a while you get a client that says “You know best, that’s why we hired you in the first place” – those are the ones that get the amazing results.

  5. Rebecca, I’m glad the post gave you an idea for a visual progress indicator. They can be fun to create.

    Eric, I agree that one of the great advantages of elearning is that we can create a safe place for learners to fail in. Games are another example of safe failure (hey, I still have three lives left!).

    Ghazala, you’ve made a great point about the tools. A branching scenario doesn’t need expensive development. Many of the quicker tools support it, which can help you persuade a client to choose more challenging interactivity.

    Eric, I heartily agree. Rather than making this kind of scenario an add-on to a larger piece, it should be the centerpiece, and it should inspire us to chop a lot of blather. Focusing on a realistic scenario can help us recognize that a lot of the information we were planning to dump on the learner either isn’t necessary at all or is better provided in a separate resource, such as a job aid. Elearning’s great power isn’t its ability to display screenfuls of text but its ability to let learners practice *doing* something in a safe place.

  6. Cathy,

    Thanks for the thoughts. I do especially like the thought of using branched scenarios with a progress bar. I think that for me personally, the more time consuming aspect of a project like this would be to brainstorm through the ideas and concepts that would fit together in a coherent set of mini stories .

    I’ve leaned more and more towards including job aids in E-learning courses and I like your examples relative to a travel scenario–great post.

  7. Along with “show instead of tell,” I think there’s “action rather than reaction.” That’s just another way to express your first two points. People don’t learn by listening; they learn by relating the known to the unknown.

    One insight I’ve gained as I’ve been plowing through Ten Steps to Complex Learning is that there are two kinds of information involved: the procedural kind, which you apply in the same way each time, and the non-recurrent kind (as authors van Merrienboer and Kirschner call it), which you apply differently for each task.

    So the bank officer, talking with a new customer, uses procedural knowledge to operate the banking system, take in customer date, open accounts, and so on. The officer uses non-recurrent skills in identifying the customer’s needs, responding to questions, and so forth.

    Often, in complex learning, there’s no single right answer. Rather, there’s a range of acceptable responses, a situation where a flexible approach will succeed much more often than a host of click-next-to-continue screens.

  8. Dave, that’s an important point. A lot of elearning emphasizes reaction–you’re supposed to simply recognize the correct answer. We often don’t require any synthesis or independent judgment, we don’t require the learner to respond to new situations, and we pretend that grey areas don’t exist.

    It’s easy to blame this on our tools (“I can only create multiple-choice questions, so of course there’s only one correct answer!”). But if we break out of the standard elearning mold, we can see more creative ways to use these tools that allow for ambiguity, complexity, and independent judgment.

    Branching scenarios are an obvious way to do this but are often considered too time-consuming to write. So instead of spending a few more hours of our time in the design phase, we waste the time of thousands of learners who passively click through a “course” and learn very little.

  9. Cathy, you mention two points which can’t be over-emphasised:
    1. the difference between recognition and synthesis
    2. relying on tools for interactivity

    It’s true also that SMEs and IDs get put off from branching scenarios for various reasons – mostly effort! but i do also think that a scenarios can be effective as a simple scene setter (“…a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) – relatively easy to write. The interactivity isn’t in the clicking, but the engagement with the real world, or of painting a picture.

  10. I have to agree that this is a great approach, the main roadblock lies with the customer. You need to convince them that the time and effort will pay off.

  11. Hi Cathy,

    I really always read and appreciate your ideas as they are very practical and simple to understand and apply. It is the simple things that make a better learning experience. I often don’t comment but let me tell you this has been my favorite post and I keep reading it over and over again, simply because it makes so much sense.

    I recently attended a very good classroom training session where I think i was a learner who had come in to gain whatever i could. I was low on confidence and afraid to try things even if i knew something lest I spoil something. The trainer was really excellent and the course actually boosted my confidence every time I understood why something was done the way it was and also when I was able to do a certain hands-on exercise on my own. Initially i was one of the slowest to get through an exercise, and by the end of the training I was competing to finish my assignment as fast as I could. This was a great boost. I relate to this post so much now because I think I’ve gone through the stages you describe. That added so much to my experience as an Instructional Designer that I recommend more ID attend good classroom sessions and go through the process a learner goes through.

    Thanks very much and keep sharing such good articles!


  12. Elearning can provide a safe place to fail and learn upon it. I’ve been using this technic to high school digital courses which engage young learner by the game like situations.