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When the Ideal Isn't: Designing for Real Learners with 4 Simple Questions

Updated: Aug 18, 2020

Imagine this: you have a group of 10 people. You take a helicopter ride over a huge forest, and you drop each of them off in a random spot. They have no map and no tools, but you tell them that their final destination is at the top of the mountain, which can be seen from every point in the forest.

How many of those people are going to make it to the summit?

An exceptional tiny percentage may be able to succeed-- either due to sheer luck or some past unrelated history of survival training-- but most folks would never make it. They need a pathway and directions, not to mention tools and supplies, to have a realistic chance. The same is true for effective learning. You can't just plop people down wherever you'd like to them to start and expect them to make it to the end goal.

But this happens all the time. Trainers and leaders design for the folks they wish they had and the training environments they wish existed instead of the real people and the real places they are dealing with.

I started my profession in the learning field as a university writing center consultant and continued working in writing centers for nearly 6 years. During my time there, I heard countless instructors from a wide range of disciplines lament that their students were unprepared for college, couldn't write, were lazy, etc. Many of these professors were unwilling to acknowledge that students weren't going to get better simply by having a higher bar to meet. They continued to assign the same assignments and give the same red scribble rubber stamp feedback ("awk" or "wrong" were some of my favorites), semester after semester, and their students suffered as a result.

This same problem happens in L&D. Here are just a few examples of what that might look like for workplace learning:

  • Our people are just lazy. If it's not immediately relevant to them, they don't want to do it. Just create the training, and we'll track who does it and who doesn't.

  • Our CEO really wants to focus on this area, so we're going to skip that other stuff for now.

  • We just need to teach them the processes again, even though they say they know them.

  • They're managers. They should know how to manage already.

  • The people we traditionally hired in this role were usually X so that's how our training was designed, even though that's not really the hiring profile anymore.

In the writing center, I learned many valuable lessons. One of the most valuable was this:

meet the learner where they are and build from there.

Whether you're dealing with academic students or professionals, learners need pathways that help them move forward. To best do that, you really need to understand your learner and their relationship to the learning environment. While creating an entire learning persona is a great strategy, you can also start by asking four very simple questions:

  • What does my learner know?

  • What doesn't my learner know?

  • If my learner knows it, why aren't they applying it?

  • If my learner isn't interested in learning it, why are they resistant?

These four questions will help you figure out the right starting point and the necessary checkpoints along the way. To answer them, you may be asking potential learners directly or observing.

If resistance is the main issue, try some of the strategies from this earlier post.

Once you've collected the data, use it to engage stakeholders, as they may be resistant to a shift in strategy at first. Remember to focus on performance. For example:

  • This is what it will take if you want to see improved customer reviews on Google.

  • This is what it will take if you want to improve retention of students year over year.

Remember, it really doesn't matter what knowledge learners began with, as long as they end up where they need to be within the designated time frame. That is the goal.


Need help reaching apathetic learners? Contact us to learn more about instructional design consulting and content development.

Want to learn how to assess the learning context yourself? Check out Needs Analysis 101.

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