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  • Writer's pictureNicole Papaioannou Lugara

Novice vs Expert Instructional Designer: Defining the Learning Problem

I'm going back to my academic roots on this one. Stay with me here!

In Linda Flowers and John Hayes' essay "The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem," they talk about the concept of a rhetorical problem, which is the meeting of two things that the writer has to respond to:

  1. The rhetorical situation - exigency or assignment + audience

  2. The writer's own goals - (effect on the) reader, persona (relationship to reader), meaning, and conventional features

Flowers and Hayes argue that expert writers, in contrast to novice ones, have a sophisticated, complex view of the rhetorical problem, which is further refined by continuously reflecting back on their goals as they look to address the rhetorical situation. Ultimately, successful writers define rhetorical problems in greater breadth and depth and reflect on them often as they work.

The same is true for novice versus expert instructional designers (IDs). There is a tendency to consider IDs in terms of the fanciest visual design or the widest knowledge of technology these days or even their ability to quickly learn new information, but at the heart of what makes a great ID is their ability to define the rhetorical problem, or rather the learning problem, simply trading "reader" for "user." We also have a few more elements to consider in the assignment, such as project budgets, the occasional regulatory compliance standards, and technology needs. Like the best writers, the best instructional designers respond to ALL of the parts of the learning problem.


Let's see what that might look like.

The Novice

Jamie is a first-time ID. Their manager assigns them an eLearning project. Super Awesome Business Co. wants to design leadership training that will be delivered through videos that will be made available in their learning experience platform (LXP).

Jamie thinks:

  • Assignment = Leadership training through video on LXP

  • Audience = Company leaders

  • User = Motivate them to lead effectively

  • Persona = Guide

  • Meaning = Be a good leader

  • Conventional Features = Language of leadership (e.g., organizational culture)

They put together a series of Powerpoint-based videos with narration that talk about different aspects of positive corporate leadership.

Ok, not a bad solution. On paper, it looks like Jamie completed the assignment.

But could it have been better? Yes.

Jamie only considered the rhetorical situation in the most obvious terms provided through the assignment. There wasn't much refining. There wasn't a great deal to deep thinking about the effect they wanted to create or how those the goals responded to the assignment or the audience.

The Expert

Cameron is in their 5th year as an ID. They receive the same assignment-- an eLearning-based leadership training-- for Most Excellent Company Inc. Video is the preferred medium.

Cameron starts out by defining the problem as:

  • Assignment = Leadership training through video

  • Audience = Company leaders

  • User = Motivated to lead effectively

  • Persona = Guide

  • Meaning = Be a good leader

  • Conventional Features = Language of leadership (e.g., organizational culture)

Yes, the same as Jamie.

But then, as they work, Cameron refines the problem. They start to ask questions about organizational goals and learner goals. They think about what it really means to perform exceptionally as a leader.

In doing so, Cameron comes to a new definition:

  • Assignment = Create a more positive company culture through improved leadership, focusing on transparent and timely two-way feedback

  • Audience = Company leaders, company leader hopefuls, project stakeholders

  • User = Empowered

  • Persona = Trustworthy coach

  • Meaning = Challenges can be overcome with thoughtful approaches to communication and leading by example

  • Conventional Features = Language of leadership + language of the organization + language of the industry + Chicago Manual of Style for all issues related to grammar and style

Cameron realizes from this definition that a simple PPT-based training with narration that discusses key concepts won't do. In order to empower leaders, they need to feel capable and confident, which is usually the result of modeling and practice.

Cameron decides to leverage storytelling, interviewing some of the most-respected leaders in the organization about the challenges they faced as leaders and how they over came them to make a powerful collection of case studies responding to Most Excellent Business Co's needs and culture. Other videos could work through more interactive scenarios, where leaders could observe a situation, decide how they would respond, and get instant feedback by hearing how others would have handled it.

Same assignment. Two very different ways of considering the problem.

Now, yes, you might be thinking "well, what if I thought video was a poor choice." I'd say, maybe you're thinking even more deeply about that rhetorical problem. But in this case, Jamie and Cameron couldn't get out of the video-based learning, and so they solved the problem the best they could.

The Power of the Problem-Defining Model

The beauty of Flowers and Hayes "rhetorical problem" and problem-finding concepts is that, unlike the magic of muse-driven creativity, problem-finding can be taught. That means, all IDs are capable-- with thoughtful practice-- of creating meaningful learning that responds to the real needs in place.

Additionally, in this scenario, Jamie, even though it was their first job, could have just as easily been the expert as the more experienced Cameron. Using Flowers and Hayes' model, being a more successful instructional designer not about artificial measures, like years on the job. It's about the depth and complexity of thought.

Now, I ask you. Think about a time when your design fell flat. Did you consider the learning problem deeply?

What about a time when it really succeeded? How did you define that learning problem? Is there anything in your thinking that you could replicate next time?


Think more deeply about the learning problem by leveraging the information you get during a Discovery Call. Download our FREE Discovery Call Question List!

376 views3 comments


Nov 14, 2021

Hello Nicole,

After reading your reference, The Cognition of Discovery: Defining a Rhetorical Problem by Flower and Hayes (1980) and your post, there are a few thoughts that I have on how you relate the writer occupation with the instructional design field. You changed the rhetorical problem definition into a learning problem. From Flower and Hayes (1980) the rhetorical problem is created by the writer, but the learning problem is created by the task or situation. But I can see why you associate the two.

Discovery is not finding meaning but creating it (Flower & Hayes, 1980). When I look at analysis, discovery would be a proper way to look at addressing the process during the analysis phase o…


Sara Pehrsson
Sara Pehrsson
Sep 09, 2021

Another excellent post, Nicole. One thing I especially like is the comment about "they couldn't get out of the video requirement." So much of the time, we talk about ideal solutions to a training challenge, but this is the reality: you're constrained by things outside your control, so you come up with the best solution under the circumstances.

Nicole Papaioannou Lugara
Nicole Papaioannou Lugara
Sep 09, 2021
Replying to

Thanks for reading, Sara! You bring up such a great point. We all love-- especially in fictional scenarios-- to imagine the ideal, but so often, we aren't operating in ideal circumstances. That grey area is where expert IDs really shine.

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