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"Assume the Learner Knows Nothing" is Bad Advice

Start by assuming the learner knows nothing. How many of you have gotten this advice when designing training or online courses?

Well, it's bad advice, and here's why.

Treating your learner like a know-nothing, particularly an adult learner in a professional setting, is bound to lead to boredom and disengagement. It can even come across as tone-deaf and insulting.

Let me tell you a real story about just how badly this can go...

I oversaw an instructional design department. At the start of training for each new hire, we went through the design process extensively, reviewed projects, and got folks working pretty quickly. Leadership decided everyone should be getting more training because it was part of their new culture of learning idea-- good idea on the surface.

In reality, our department wasn't asked about the training we wanted. It was prescribed without input. A consultant was brought in, who was very nice and delivered a nice-looking presentation, as they were asked to. The problem is that leadership-- ignoring the real issues with the system-- decided to prescribe introductory instructional design training. My department was light years ahead of that. They had been doing the job for months or years already. The consultant was upset because folks were disengaged, and my team was insulted. They asked me at a follow up meeting if I thought they needed that kind of training, and I was so embarrassed, and I was angry for them. It was a waste of their time and, frankly, sent the message that management did not value their expertise.

This happens all the time. Training is prescribed without taking stock of what the learners know and why there are failures to use that knowledge, when they occur.

Ok, Nicole, I hear you. So what do I do instead?

Before you design learning, you must get to know your audience and the learning context. If you learn nothing else from me, this is it. While you may not have time to run 60 focus groups, 800 surveys, 50 learning assessments, and 20 on-the-job observations, you should make it a priority to learn as much as you can about the people you're supposed to be helping. Use every resource available to you to do this.

If your assessment tells you that people know things, but then they don't do them, then you need to ask yourself what's wrong with your assessment. Perhaps, you're asking for a vote of confidence when you should be testing the learning. Perhaps, you've done nothing wrong, but there is a system failure that prevents employees from doing what they've learned. Either way, the learning designer or trainer needs to figure this out. Guessing is not the same as analyzing.

Now, if you find your group is a mixed bag, you'll have to find ways to make the experience more adaptive and/or personalized. In this case, one-size-fits-all is not the most effective learning strategy. Simple things like roll-over definitions or glossary handout can be way more practical than putting every definition into formal training. You can also have microlearning that is delivered differently for each learner, depending on their aptitude.

The Exception to the Rule

There is one time when the "assume the learner knows nothing" comes into play, and that is when describing technical processes after you have determined learners really don't know them and want/need to know them. When there is no room for error, then you have to walk through each step thoroughly.

Of course, that doesn't have to be by telling. You can do that through scenarios, games, and all kinds of interactive models that aren't just "here is the step by step process." You can also offer job aids rather than just train. People aren't likely to remember all of those steps on the job anyway.


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90 views2 comments


Unknown member
Mar 16, 2020

Yes, Mary! You nailed it. Thank you for sharing your insights and Ertmer and Newby's work.


Mar 15, 2020

This is great advice. There are many reasons that it is detrimental to train people on skills they already know. If training includes a lot of unnecessary information and some new information, the new information will be much harder to remember if learners are overloaded with nonessential information. To avoid this, instructional designers should conduct performance analysis to determine whether there is a training gap and to identify the exact knowledge and skills that the learners are currently lacking.

According to Ertmer and Newby, it is important to connect new information to knowledge that learners already have in order to build cognitive connections that help them recall the new information and apply it (2013). However, it’s best to help learners…

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