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  • Writer's pictureNicole Papaioannou Lugara

The Grey Area: Designing Learning When There's No Clear Answer

Decision-making is at the heart of a great deal of workplace training. Often times when we hear vague objectives like "After this training, learners should be aware of XYZ," what stakeholders really want their people to be able to do is make informed decisions that lead to positive impacts.

The problem is that most assessments fail to support the true nature of the decision-making process. Learners' skills are tested by scenarios or multiple choice quizzes with clear responses.

In the real world, though, critical decision-making is not always a matter of choosing between what you know is right and what you know is wrong. It's about the wading through the grey area and making the best choice possible at that moment in time with the information you have in the context you're situated.

It's important to embrace the grey area in our workplace learning solutions. We need to give people the opportunity to work through and fail in a safe space before they go making decisions that impact real people.

For learning designers, it can be challenging, even uncomfortable to work with this grey area. Some of the questions that arise:

  • If the choices are not clear cut, how do I know what they will be to present them to the learner?

  • How do I avoid confusing the learner?

  • Won't the learner challenge the validity of the answer?

  • How can I assess an imperfect solution?

I'll do my best to answer each of these.

How do I know what choices to present?

Of all the questions on this list, this is the "easy" one to answer. The choices should come from your needs analysis and will depend on what you're trying to achieve. Here are some places you might look:

  • SME interviews

  • Incident reports

  • Customer service logs

  • Key Performance Indicator (KPI) dashboards

  • Work observations

  • Industry-related blogs (people talk about their problems and decisions in blogs all the time)

How do I avoid confusing the learner?

This one's a bit harder to answer, but... let me live in the grey area.

First, confusion isn't always a bad thing, as long as the learner has a chance to reflect on the sources of their confusion and the questions they should be asking themselves in order to resolve that confusion. They don't have to immediately come to conclusions.

That said, feedback loops are incredibly important when navigating grey areas. People need to sense and be able to make sense of the response to their choices.

Feedback doesn't always have to be presented like a quiz question response, though. It can also be:

  • a change in scenery

  • a change in the expression on a character's face

  • a change in a character's tone

  • peer review

  • a supervisor's review

  • points awarded / deducted

  • unlocking new pathways

  • a sound (thanks, Pavlov)

Sometimes, in life, we know we've done as good as we possibly can because someone says stays silent when they might have yelled. Sometimes, we know we've done good because nothing happens when things might have all come crashing down.

When people see/hear/read/sense feedback, they're able to start to reflecting on their choices.

The other part of avoiding confusion is making sure responses are relevant and plausible. If the learner is not likely to ever encounter a scenario, you're going to confuse them when you ask them to consider the "grey area." They're going to wonder if they missed something. They may think, "Is this a poorly designed training, or should I expect this scenario? Am I just unprepared?" This is, again, why needs analysis is so important.

Won't the learner challenge the validity of the answer?

Potentially. And there's nothing wrong with living in that grey area too.

Prompt them to reflect on why they feel the answer that's deemed "most correct" isn't. See what can be learned.

Encourage them to practice metacognition. Let them think about how they think about the decision making process.

At the same time, there are many times when a plausible choice results in a plausible response, and that usually makes sense to learners. In these cases, they may not push back.

Be prepared to discuss how the organization would frame up the decision making process and the criteria for successful outcomes.

How can I assess an imperfect solution?

Assessment depends on the end goals. There are several things you may look at instead of the traditional "correct/incorrect answer" path.

You may be assessing the ability to make decisions or their "navigation skills." For example, do they ask the right questions to try to get to the answer?

You may be assessing the degree to which they're successful in completing tasks. Did the customer leave happy without having to provide excessive concessions? We might assume the employee made good choices.

You may be assessing their confidence.

You may be assessing their speed.

It's very likely when dealing with "grey area" assessments that you aren't checking for the right answer. You're checking for the right process.

And remember, ASSESSMENT IS NOT SYNONOUS WITH TEST/QUIZ. And it's not always the thing that comes at the end. Assessment can happen as the learning is happening.


Want practice defining needs and designing impactful learning solutions? Check out From Data to Design.

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