Image by Milad B. Fakurian

Putting the principles of learning design into practice

April 21st 2021 | By Stephanie Karaolis

Earlier this month, Nick Shackleton-Jones shared a one-page summary of the principles of learning design explored in his book How People Learn. Here’s how to start putting them into practice.

Start with the end result in mind

Nick starts by defining what learning design is, and you might struggle to see the difference between this and instructional design. The key terms in Nick’s definitions are ‘experiences,’ ‘resources’ and ‘change in behaviour.’ Conventional instructional design tends to start with the knowledge provided by experts, transferred to users via the delivery of content. Learning design, though, is about creating context (experiences) and performance support that can be accessed at point of need (resources). So instead of starting with the information, start with the end result - the behaviour change needed - and work backwards from there.

Enquire about the audience, not the content

Nick’s Affective Context Model is the general theory of learning explaining the relationship between memory and learning. Instructional design talks a lot about making something relevant or engaging, but learning design understands that whether something is encoded into memory depends on its affective impact on the individual. So rather than asking ‘how can we highlight the relevance of the content to the audience’s day-to-day work?’, ask ‘how can we understand what the individuals we’re targeting care about?’

Questions and comments for a stakeholder who wants a solution tomorrow

  • “What already exists that you might be able to use as a ‘stop-gap’ whilst we do the research?”

  • “What’s driving this deadline?”

  • “How quickly can you provide us with details of individuals we can speak to in the target audience?”

  • “Do you have any Personas we can test our design with?”

  • “We really want to help but we don’t have the resource to support you at the moment. Is there a way we can support a member of your team to deliver this?”

  • “Are you comfortable if we deliver a Minimum Viable Product next week and then go back to the target audience afterward?”

Avoid a one-size-fits-all mentality

We know that individuals can be in the same situation, yet experience and remember it very differently: anything from readers taking different messages from a book, to eye witnesses recalling different versions of an accident. The things we pay attention to, the associations we make, and how we store things as memories are all shaped by what we care about. It’s impossible to design learning that will have the same affective impact on everyone, and it’s also impossible to know how a solution will be received until it’s been deployed. So rather than spending a lot of time trying to design a square peg to fit into many differently-shaped holes, use the 5Di process to roll out a prototype as soon as you can, and then test and iterate.

You can buy Nick's groundbreaking book 'How People Learn' from Amazon via this link.

How people learn.jpg

Uncover patterns and common concerns

In a corporate setting with a large audience or broad user groups, understanding what matters to each individual isn’t feasible. But well-designed audience discovery interviews reveal individual insights that can be analysed to highlight recurring themes and common concerns. You can then use this data to group individuals based on what matters to them (creating representative personas), as opposed to simply grouping people by job title or department, for example.

Determine what’s needed: resources or experiences?


As mentioned above, instructional design focuses on how to deliver content that the business has determined as useful or necessary. Unfortunately, if that content has no affective impact on the audience, it won’t make any difference. Discovery interviews are an opportunity to interrogate further. Does the business problem already concern individuals in the target audience? If so, ‘pull’ resources will likely be the solution. Or is the real challenge that the business problem simply doesn’t matter to them? In this case, resources won’t be enough and what Nick calls ‘learning design proper’ is needed, creating an experience that draws on what does already matter to the audience and creating new concerns that will drive behaviour change. The answer may be different for the distinct groups and personas you’ve identified.

Identify when and how resources need to be accessed

Nick highlights experience design as true learning design because, generally speaking, a well-designed resource achieves the behaviour change without the individual needing to retain knowledge or develop capability. It eliminates learning, offering instead practical support in the moment. This can only be true if the resource is the first and most useful thing they turn to at the point of need. Alongside discovery interviews, spend time observing the audience ‘in action’ if you can. Where are the recurring blockers in a process? Where do people turn for support or answers at the moment, and how could this be more efficient? How can you ensure your resource is not just useful but accessible?

Consider every aspect of the experience

A learning experience should be as similar as possible, in affective terms, to the situation in which the learning will be applied. But don’t overlook the details. Everything, from the choice of facilitator to the frequency of coffee breaks to the quality of venue and catering, will have an effect on how individuals feel and respond to the overall experience. This is another distinction between experience design and instructional design. Traditional instructional design focuses on the curriculum that stakeholders want delivered. Experience design takes a more holistic and human-centred approach, considering not just the content and activities, but also the context around them. 

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