Stop Vilifying the Tool

At first, the LMS was dead.

Then, e-learning was gone forever.

Next, it was PowerPoint’s turn to be ‘officially’ declared the worst productivity tool ever.

As an industry, we seem to have this penchant for making sweeping statements about tools, platforms and terms in general. (See the irony here? I’m making a sweeping statement about our industry 😊.)

While I understand where these accusations come from, it’s hard to imagine a tool or platform being solely responsible for the outcome, either good or bad.

Granted, a typical LMS does facilitate a top-down approach to hosting and managing content, while disregarding learning in any other form. And unfortunately for many, e-learning has become synonymous with ‘boring’.

PowerPoint makes it easy to slap together slides full of bulleted lists. And animated graphs and bar charts. And cookie cutter templates. And irrelevant transitions.

Having said that, PowerPoint is but a tool. A blank canvas. The onus is on us to use it as we wish.

Want to make the presentation more effective? The answer lies in understanding the principles of persuasion and presentation science. Not in the tool we use.

As the saying goes, “A bad artist blames his brush.” Let’s not be bad artists.

Better Than Learner Personas


Personas are great. They help us ‘get into the minds’ of learners and empathize with them, paving the way for us to create something that the audience will find useful.

But I’ve found that there is a drawback to this approach. No matter how detailed you make the personas, they are but character profiles, and it’s really difficult to identify with a fictional entity. Yes, I’m aware of Yoda. What’s not to love about this wise old Jedi master? But I’m not talking about such strong fictional characters… the ones we tend to create are shallow and superficial, even if we happen to describe the color of their eyes and what they like for breakfast.

The answer? Find a real person who closely matches the learner profile. This could be (if possible) someone you know personally, a friend, a colleague, or even an acquaintance. If not, find one or more people from the learner group to shadow for a period of time. The advantage is that you get the full package – strengths, weaknesses, struggles, idiosyncrasies, and all.

Once you have a live person to inspire your solution, there’s no stopping you from coming up with something remarkable.


My Learning Circle


I love taking part in Twitter chats. There are three of them (#chat2lrn, #lrnchat, and #guildchat) that I usually track, and try to attend at least one of them every week. (If you don’t know what a Twitter chat1 is, check out the mini-section at the end of this post.)

Of the three, my personal favorite is #lrnchat, primarily because of the eagerly anticipated but dreaded question that I’ve learned to both love and hate: “What did you learn today? If not today, then this week?”

I know this question is coming every Friday morning (India time), but still I often struggle, and cast about looking for an answer. It’s not that I don’t learn… I read a lot, but passive reading can only take you so far. This question puts things in perspective, forcing you to make meaning out of an endless stream of information.

Last week, I missed attending #lrnchat. But the question has been lingering in my head, as has become an unconscious quasi-habit of late, and I had my answer ready.

But then, why not make it an actual habit? And, why not make it a more substantial weekly reflection? So I’ve identified three questions that I think are critical for me.

The three questions, along with my reasoning for choosing each, are:

1. What did you learn? The all-important question that helps me squeeze one or two important points from all that I experience throughout the week.

2. What mistake(s) did you make? We all make mistakes. This question puts a spotlight on identifying them so I’m conscious about not repeating the same ones. It also helps to glean valuable lessons from these mistakes.

3. What are you proud of? This one is more aspirational. Just like the question from #lrnchat forced me to think about what I learned during the week, this one, I hope, will nudge me to work towards doing things I’m proud of, so I can brag about it ;-).

Together, these questions complete a circle, and hence the title – My Learning Circle.

So, here’s my reflection for the past week:

1. What did you learn?
Answer: I learned about Google Trends from Brent Schlenker’s blog post. Check out to track the popularity of a concept, idea, tool or technology.

2. What mistake(s) did you make?
Answer: While estimating for a large project using an estimation template, I almost shared it while it was still missing a key component. I caught it in time and it all ended well, but the important lesson is to run a micro lens through any estimate, especially while using templates.

3. What are you proud of?
Answer: I’m proud of my new system for tracking the amount of time that I spend in ‘flow’. I’m loosely referring to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of ‘flow’ (which he defined as the time that one spends totally involved in a task). Though in this case, I’m trying to track the amount of time I spend on deliberate reflection, either through blogging or connecting with the community in some way or the other.


Here are what my reflections look like on my learning circle.


1 Twitter Chats

Twitter chats are conversations that happen around specific topics, using unique Twitter hashtags. They typically last an hour, and a moderator asks a series of questions spaced about 10 minutes apart. For each question, participants (other Twitter users who are interested in the conversation) tweet replies using the hashtag. My favorite Twitter chats, along with their timings, are:

#chat2lrn: 8:00 am ET, every alternate Thursday
#lrnchat: 8:30 pm ET every Friday
#guildchat: 2:00 pm ET every Friday

7 Questions to Ask to Create Effective E-Learning


We’ve all heard this before. I have, at least a few hundred times. A new client reaching out, saying: “We are looking to create an engaging course. Please make it as interactive as possible.”

And every time I hear this, I go “Hey wait! What about effectiveness?” I ruminate over why no one is talking about the effectiveness of a course, when that is the first thing we should be focusing on.

And then, one fine Sunday morning, it struck me. A light bulb moment!

We were talking to an interior designer for doing up our apartment, and before we met him, I had made a PowerPoint presentation, and as is typical of me, detailed every little corner that we wanted shelving in, including the length, width and height of each shelf inside the cupboards. And I had convinced my husband to not think about the style or the colors until we got this, the basics, right.

After all, form should follow function. And to me, this was the right way to do things, the focus on the effectiveness (the ‘livability’ of the house) before the engagement (the colors and the aesthetics).

When we met the designer with the presentation, he was not only stumped and taken aback, he told me he’d never seen anyone do this before.

People don’t necessarily go by effectiveness. They don’t say “I want my home to be functionally well-designed”. Instead they say something to the effect of, “I like contemporary, but I also like art deco, and I want my home to have elements of both.”, or “I love orange, and I want it in my living room”. And beyond outlining a few requirements, they leave it to the designer to figure out the rest.

That got me thinking. Just because the client (or the business head or SME) throws around a few terms, it doesn’t mean they are aware of what makes an effective course. That’s for us learning designers to think about and come up with.

Of course, we know engagement is really important. Only if the learner is engaged does their mind open up, and they become attentive and receptive to what the course is saying. And no matter how well we design the course, if the learner is not going to pay attention, then all our efforts are wasted.

But engagement alone is not enough. Movies, books and games have taught us that. Audiences take up adventures, go on journeys, and laugh and cry with characters, and once done, go back to being the same person they were before they went through the experience. Nothing changes. While this is okay for a work of fiction, it is not okay for a learning experience, because what we ultimately want is behavior change. We want to build the skill or ability for a person to do something they were not able to do before.

So how do we bring effectiveness to a course without having to lecture the client or other stakeholders about it? For starters, we can ask a few questions:

– What can they do after the training that they can’t do now?
– Why aren’t they doing it (or doing it well) now?
– What barriers do they face?
– What mistakes do they make?
– Are there some people in the learner group who are able to do this well now? If so, what are they doing differently?
– How will we know that our course is successful?
– Once they have completed the course, what can we do to:

  • Support them to do the task well
  • Motivate them to do the task well, and continue to do so

Once we’ve asked all of the above questions (and don’t for a moment think that we’ll get all the answers!), here are a few things we can do to nudge the course towards making it effective:

– Drop learners in a realistic setting, and have them ‘do’ the job they would have to do in real life. This could, depending on what the course is about, mean that they:

  • Make split-second decisions on the floor of a bustling hospital
  • Write code in a new program they are just learning
  • Talk to a customer, overcoming objections and trying to sell them a product or service

… perform any other job that the course is teaching them to perform

– For each action, show them the consequences of their action, and provide detailed feedback on why that action is right or wrong. And, when they have invested cognitive effort in working out the answer to a tough question, they are truly open to learning from the consequence, as well as the feedback. This is where real learning takes place.

– Create opportunities to support them and motivate them well after the training is over. Because after all, training is just the beginning of learning.

What do you think? What else can we do to make sure that our learning program turns out be not just engaging, but also effective?

The Role of Knowledge


For a few years now, the term *knowledge* has been getting a bad rap from across the spectrum. From a Learning Design perspective, we say: “In real life, no one will ask you to list the steps to perform first aid, what actually matters is that you’re able to administer first aid when the need arises.”

And even in general, we tend to discourage people from memorizing things. The thinking goes “Why do you need to know something that you can google and find out in a minute?”.

And so, while designing learning solutions, we focus all our energies on the application of knowledge, by designing plenty of practice activities.

This is not a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s very good.

But a lot of times, we fail to understand that knowledge, for knowledge’s sake, has a role to play as well.

There was a reason we learnt math tables by heart. These provide the foundational knowledge required for us to not have to rely on a calculator to perform simple math calculations.

Same is the case with alphabets and the fundamental vocabulary. Without it, we’d be unable to form sentences, unable to communicate our thoughts, and unable to express our feelings.

While these are rudimentary abilities meant for children, let’s look ahead to the kind of skill that we typically try to build for adults – for example, first aid.

Unless the first-aider knows the steps by heart, they wouldn’t be able to automatically administer first aid when the need arises. A good first-aider is one who has internalized the knowledge of the steps so well that they can perform without having to think about the steps.

In other words, their skill is built upon knowledge. And knowledge forms the key building block, or the foundation, on which application rests.

Therefore, while we focus on application and practice, let’s not forget what lies at the root of it all – knowledge.

2 Things to Consider When Defining Business Goals for a Course


Just like good learning outcomes answer the ‘What’s In It For Me’ (WIIFM) for the learner, a sound goal answers the WIIFM for business. It helps explain the need for a training intervention, and sets the direction for the project once it kicks off, course correcting and providing guidance as required.

Having established that (it’s important to have a clear business goal at the start of a project), we advocate for learning outcomes which read as follows:

  • Ask questions to probe the customer
  • Uncover the customer’s ‘real’ need
  • Explain the benefits (not features) to the customer
  • Lead the customer towards the sale

And, these learning outcomes contribute towards a larger business goal, which should read like this: “Sales will improve 5% by Q3”.

The understanding is that if learners are able to successfully demonstrate the desired behaviors on the job, then the business goal will take care of itself (considering other environmental factors, of course).

It should, but I have a couple of issues around this:

1. The above approach works well for outcomes that directly contribute to a business goal. It is not difficult to imagine similar learning-outcomes-leading-to-business-goal situations in other contexts, such as:

  • Better hand hygiene (learning outcome) results in fewer infections (business goal)
  • Tighter password security (learning outcome) results in lessened security threats (business goal)
  • Better call handling and resolution (learning outcomes) result in improved customer satisfaction ratings (business goal)
  • Greater use of personal protective equipment (learning outcome) results in fewer safety incidents (business goal)
  • However, let’s say we need to create a course on ‘E-mail Etiquette’.

The learning outcome would be to write effective e-mails (e-mails that are addressed and copied to the right people, and are clearly worded and structured).

(Aside: There was a real need for a course. E-mails that were poorly worded, as well as those without proper structure or call-to-action were part of the folklore at this organization.)

How do we equate this with a meaningful business goal, a metric that is important to business? We could say that effective e-mails lead to better clarity and lesser confusion within a team, and therefore this might enhance the overall effectiveness of the team.

So, the business goal would be to improve team effectiveness? The goal seems contrived at best to me, and I’m not convinced that effective e-mail alone will contribute significantly to the effectiveness of the team. There are so many factors at play – the culture of the organization, team size and dynamics, the goals and challenges faced by the team, not to mention other forms of communication.

I don’t think we need to force ourselves into that circle. While there is no excuse for poorly formed learning outcomes (actually, they should be performance outcomes; i.e., outcomes that lead to a change in behavior), a business goal is something that can be bypassed, if the outcome doesn’t directly impact a meaningful metric.

2. The second issue that I have relates to the measurability of the business goal. “Sales will improve 5% by Q3”.

Sales will absolutely improve if learners are able to implement the actions they learned in the course. But what about “5%” and “Q3”? Let’s look at a scenario and see where this goes.

Say the sales division has a team of 100. The course is rolled out in January, and all 100 go through the course within a month’s time. If the course is designed well, with plenty of practice, spaced repetition, and post-training performance support, we can reasonably expect that at least 60 will be able to demonstrate the stated behaviors. And given a time gap of four months (March – June) in which to practice and hone their newly learnt skills, they will be more effective, and successful, salespeople than they were before the training.

So, if the team was selling 500 units a month in January, they should ideally be selling at least 560 (60 salespeople selling one unit more each) in July (Q3) – an increase of 12%. Now, we know there are other factors to consider – product pricing, market conditions, competition, etc. – which probably haven’t changed much in the last two quarters.

Looking at the above, a conservative estimate of “5% by Q3” does seem achievable.

However, my discomfort with assigning such numbers to our lofty business goal stems from the fact that there are too many variables unrelated to the design of the course. The course must be rolled out in January, people should finish taking the course in February, and market conditions, competition, etc. should not have changed. All of which are well beyond the control and influence of instructional designers. Considering these factors, I believe that assigning such targets seems arbitrary, and a bit frivolous, to me.

Cathy Moore has some good advice for us here. She says “Consider this only a goal, not a guarantee.”

However, I still feel that we would do well to focus on what we can influence (change in behavior), rather than chasing a target which we have no control over. Of course, we want to prove that we are valuable to business. So, the goal can read “Sales will improve as learners are able to…”. If it leads to a 5% improvement, great. If the improvement is 10%, why not?

What am I missing here? How can we improve our business goals in a way that they are meaningful, realistic and achievable?

Duolingo Gets Both Gamification and Learning Design Right


We were collecting examples for a gamification webinar we conducted last September, and I was intrigued to know about Duolingo, the gamified language learning app. I downloaded the app immediately, but though it listed over 20 languages, there was none that I specifically wanted to learn. The intrigue intensified as I read about its features and rave reviews, but at that point, I had no time to experience the app by learning a new language, so I went ahead and delivered the webinar, citing Duolingo as an example of gamification done right. I gathered this much from users and gamification experts alike.

But Duolingo remained at the back of my mind. Recently I came across an article which cited a research finding that the “brain networks [of those who learned a new language] had become better integrated, which means they’re more flexible and allows for faster and more efficient learning”. This caught my attention. Who doesn’t like to become smarter, better integrated etc. ;-)? So I decided to check it out.

I wasn’t particularly interested in any of the languages on offer (by the way, did I mention that Duolingo is entirely free?), so I randomly chose Spanish. English, of course, remained my source language, the language through which I would be learning Spanish.

And here’s what I experienced:

When you start, you get to decide on your goals – the amount of work you want to put in everyday; choosing from:
– Casual (10 XP per day)
– Regular (20 XP per day)
– Serious (30 XP per day)
– Insane (50 XP per day)

(XP, or experience points, are awarded to you for completing lessons.) I chose casual, which meant I would have to spend 5-10 minutes a day, completing a single lesson each day.

When you reach your goal a few days in a row, you get a streak, which you have to work to maintain. For example, if you miss a couple of days’ lessons, your streak goes down. Streak basically refers to your knowledge of words in that lesson, and if you don’t keep up, it means you are forgetting those words, therefore your streak weakens to indicate that. Makes perfect sense. Did I hear someone say forgetting curve :-)?

Duolingo sends regular reminders to meet your daily goal, encouraging you to reach longer learning streaks. These reminders are fun and personalized, suggesting what you will be learning next, and motivating you to keep practicing.


As you complete lessons and gain XP, you level up, earning lingots. Lingot is a virtual currency that allows you to buy various things from a store, right from dressing up your owl (the Duolingo mascot), to power ups and extra lessons. Currently none of these ‘items on display’ sound interesting to me, so I haven’t ventured into any shopping as yet.


Progress indicators are all over the place in Duolingo. The lessons are arranged based on a virtual skill tree, and keep coloring as you advance. Within each lesson, you get to see how many more questions you have to answer, as well as how many you got right in a row.


I haven’t practiced for more than a week now, and here’s what my progress looks like.


Duolingo is highly social. You can comment on and discuss specific questions from lessons, and get answers from others in the community. I’ve found this feature to be especially useful, in the absence of ‘why this works the way it works’ explanations from Duolingo.


You can add friends from your networks, and have a leaderboard comparing your score (XP) with theirs. You can also see what they’ve been up to, including their latest comments, who they are following and who is following them, as well as levels gained.

Cross a certain level, and you get a badge, which you can share on your social network. For the record, I’m 7% fluent in Spanish as I’m writing this post.

A much-touted feature is the Immersion area, which asks you to translate some text in a collaborative space, thereby helping you practice your language skills even more, and awarding you XP incentives for participation and contribution.

The lessons themselves are designed really well. No theory, no grammar rules, just a multi-modal learning system which uses visual and auditory cues to help you learn new words.

You start on the lower end of a skill tree, learning really simple words first, and then naturally and effortlessly progress towards more complex terms and constructs.

Repetition, a huge factor for success of any learning, language learning especially, has been used very effectively in Duolingo. Words and phrases you learned in Lesson 1 reappear in Lesson 3, in newer avatars, and in new constructs. Unconsciously you begin internalizing them.

Having said all that, the app is not without its flaws. My biggest gripe, from a learning design perspective, is the blatant implausibility of distractors. Many a time, the correct answer is a dead giveaway, either due to the construct, or some silly reason like punctuation. Check out the screenshot below.

  1. Looking at the choices, I’m pretty sure the sentence has to start with ‘No’ because that is the only word which is in title case. (In this case, the word is obvious, in others, it’s not.)
  2. When I’ve dragged four words to form a sentence, it’s way too obvious that the fifth word is ‘cook’, since that is the only verb, amongst the remaining options.


But despite such shortcomings, Duolingo is one fantastic language learning experience, neatly wrapped in a ‘gamified’ package. I hope and crave for more learning experiences to be designed so well.

¡Buen trabajo Duolingo! ¡Seguid así!

Rich Learner. Poor Learner.


Evan, Laura, and Allen work in the L&D department of a large company. One morning, their manager Helen calls them into her cabin. She says “Congrats! You’re going to DevLearn in Vegas!”

Celebrations ensue, and the three excitedly get ready for the journey. Before leaving, they individually make plans for the trip. Here’s what each of their plans looks like:


At the end of the trip, I’d like to:

  • Come away with at least three ideas for improving my learning design
  • Connect with people who blog on learning, especially those who talk about social learning and community management
  • Attend at least four sessions on mobile learning (two of them possibly Clark Quinn’s and Nick Floro’s???)
  • Visit Aunt Maurice

Before leaving:

  • Buy formal shoes


At the conference:

  • Attend at least 9 concurrent sessions; squeeze in 12 if possible
  • Make notes and consolidate for later reference

In Vegas:

  • Go shopping


  • 3 days of conference
  • Wed Evening: Dinner with friends
  • Thurs Evening: Relax in the room
  • Friday Evening: Gambling at The Venetian!
  • Saturday: Grand Canyon
  • Sunday: Flight back

After coming back, Helen asks each of them to present their experiences from the trip.

Can you guess what would have happened?

You’re right! Evan had a clear set of takeaways to present from the conference, while Laura, though a bit scattered, did have a few points to talk about. Allen, unfortunately, had nothing substantial to present. What he did learn at the conference had quickly evaporated, thanks to his lack of goals and focus on learning.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Isn’t this something we encounter all the time? Learners, without as much as an explanation of what to expect, being pushed to attend a day-long training event on compliance (or code of conduct, or communication, or some other topic). Or being forced to take a bunch of long and context-less e-learning courses.

So, unless the learner is in ‘receptive’ mode (by that I mean they are emotionally and intellectually ready to receive the content), it is highly unlikely that a learning event is going to be of any benefit to them. This was exactly what we saw happening with Evan, Laura and Allen above. Despite attending the same conference, and probably sitting through the same sessions and meeting the same bunch of people, the amount of learning that each of them got what was directly proportionate to how ‘receptive’ they were.

So, how do we ensure this? How do we make sure that learners are ‘receptive’ to the learning experience that we’ve so painstakingly put together? Here are a few ideas:

1. Tell them the why and the how

This is the ‘What’s In It For Me’, or WIIFM, for the learner. It answers two key questions:

a. Why is this topic important? Not to the business, not to the organization, but to me, the learner, as an individual.
b. How is it going to help me in my life / work?

WIIFM features prominently in Instructional Design discussions, but gets missed out, or gets improperly implemented in many cases.

But get this one right, and we can have learners hanging on to every word in the course.

2. Make an emotional connect

There is a reason that people love stories. And it’s for the same reason that they are addicted to movies and games.

Joy, sorrow, challenge, competition, surprise, suspense, fear, anger, trust… these are just some of the emotions we can draw upon in our courses to keep learners coming back for more.

3. Address a need

Ultimately, the course needs to help the learner get better at something useful. Specifically, it should deliver what it promised to deliver in the WIIFM stage above.

A classic example of this is YouTube videos. It doesn’t matter how good or bad a video is. If it addresses my need of the moment, say ‘how to fix my washing machine’, I would still watch it over and over until I get the information right.

4. Make it byte sized

No one has the time or the inclination to go through a long-winded course that covers every little obscure detail of the policy you’re trying to cover. Make it to the point, and learners are much more likely to be receptive to the experience.

5. Make it optional

This has long remained a pet peeve of mine. Forcibly making learners sit through a class and having them switch off their cell phones does NOT equate to their minds being open to what the class is offering. Same goes for locking down the Next button in the hope that they will read and absorb every little piece of information presented on the screen.

In fact, these strategies have the opposite effect. An individual (especially an adult) who does not feel in control of their circumstances is very unlikely to have an open, receptive mind that is conducive for learning.

Explain the benefits, sell them the idea, and leave it to them to decide whether or not to take the course.

So what have I missed? What other ideas can we use to help learners become ready to receive the content? I would love to hear from you.

5 Ways To Avoid Overwhelming Learners

overwhelmed_learnerThe deluge is upon us! Run for cover!

Well, I’m not talking about an invasion or a natural calamity. I’m talking about the stuff that we are faced with every minute of every day – the torrent of information that keeps hitting us, threatening to sweep us off our feet and drown us, if we’re not careful.

Ah, the curse of social media, which constantly bombards us with information from all directions. Combine this with a heady dose of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), and we can be sure to get inundated in the oncoming flood, without retaining much that is useful.

I have a fairly simple practice for handling social media. There are a select few in the industry who I really respect and admire, and I therefore want to listen to their opinions. Over the years, I’ve ruthlessly eliminated any kind of distraction, which basically is any information that is not from this select few. Of course, I keep editing and pruning this list.

My challenge is, this ‘select few’ runs into a few dozens, if not more. So, what for many is typically a barrage of irrelevant information concealing a few precious gems, I have a steady stream of high quality, valuable content, which of course I don’t want to miss out on (this is real FOMO in action, you see).

Okay, having said that, this post is not about how I handle social media. It’s about we can ensure that learners don’t get washed away in a similar onslaught of information in the courses we design.

How many times do we end up having to include way more than the average individual can digest in a one hour course, or in a day’s workshop? Because the SME insisted “they have to know this”. Or the unit manager said “this part is mandatory”. We see their point, so we end up adding that piece of content.

A drop here, and a drop there. And slowly but surely, the drops add up to form the deluge.

We don’t of course want to overwhelm learners with too much information. Because we know that an overwhelmed mind is ill-equipped for learning. Scientists and researchers have time and again proved that cognitive overload (the situation when we’re faced with more info than we can handle) is actually detrimental to the learning process.

So what can we do to avoid putting learners in such a situation? Here are a few approaches I can think of:

1. Break up the information into smaller, byte-sized pieces

Content chunked into digestible units can go a long way in helping learners absorb the information easily, without feeling overwhelmed. We should, of course, take care to ensure that this is done well, and that the chunks are not too interdependent.

2. Distribute the information over a period of time

If it is not critical that the audience should consume the entire content in a short time (applicable for instructor-led courses where traveling is involved), it would help to deliver the content piecemeal over a stretched duration. Referred to as spaced practice, this approach has been seen to have tremendous benefits for learning and retention.

3. Create information loops

Chunking and spaced practice can only work well if sufficient repetition is built in to allow for absorption into long term memory. Therefore, whatever strategies are adopted, make sure to create these information loops, which are basically about summarizing and repeating content at varied intervals.

4. Cover each point in greater depth, or provide context

In a recent project, we were required to help learners recall safety precautions they had to take before undertaking any maintenance work. Learners had gone through in-depth training on these safety precautions, and the client insisted that it would be sufficient if we added a line mentioning this, along with a generic image indicating safety. We did, but in addition, we added a couple of lines containing a super quick overview of the safety precautions, and provided a link to the original course if they wished to review it. Result: the overview and the link helped learners better recall what they had learned in the original training.

5. Increase the duration of the course, if required

Implementing any or all of the above approaches might mean an increase in the duration of the course… which is okay, in my opinion. Ultimately, what counts is that learners have understood the content well enough that they are able to translate it back in their workplace.

What do you think? What other approaches can we use to make sure that we don’t end up overwhelming learners? I look forward to your comments.

There Ain’t No Better Teacher Than A Mistake

… as long as it leads to a lesson learned.

learning_from_mistakesIt was a series of online sessions on instructional design that I was facilitating. The audience was a smart group, comprising mostly of people from HR and talent development. Needless to say, the session was very interactive, and as I had come to expect during the series, they were questioning me and challenging me at every juncture.

I was extolling the virtues of well-designed multiple choice questions, and to make the point about options which are grammatically incorrect and aren’t parallel with each other, I had used a question from Cathy Moore’s blog post on MCQs, by giving full credit to Cathy, of course. Here’s how the question read, along with the options.

We can confuse learners when we:
a. fail to actually complete the sentence we started in the question.
b. inconsistent grammar in the options.
c. sometimes we veer off into another idea entirely.
d. wombats.

One of the participants asked me what word ‘wombats’ means, and I confidently replied that the word doesn’t exist. He accepted my response, and we moved on. But I kept thinking about the question, and later that night, I thought I’d google it, just in case, to see if it had any meaning. And, to my surprise, I learned that wombats are short four-legged creatures which are native to Australia.

Caught off guard and a bit embarrassed, I nevertheless decided to share my newfound knowledge with participants. Here’s what I wrote in the designated discussion forum:

In Session 3, I had used a Multiple Choice Question borrowed from Cathy Moore’s blog, in which one of the options she had listed was ‘Wombats’. The point that Cathy (and I) was trying to make was that sometimes the options are so obviously incorrect that learners have no trouble guessing the right answer, thereby passing the test without understanding the topic or having to think about it.

One of you asked what is the meaning of ‘Wombats’, and I confidently replied “it’s not a word”. My confidence came from the understanding that Cathy frequently uses fictional names, places and situations. But I wanted to double check this, and when I did, to my surprise I found that Wombats are short-legged animals that are native to Australia.

Apologies for the confusion caused because of this.

Lesson learned: Do not assume anything.

It was a mistake I’d made, and my realization and subsequent sharing of the same with participants sparked a discussion unlike any other thread in the entire forum.

This got me thinking: So what can we do to leverage mistakes in the courses we design? How can we make it possible for the learner to ‘stumble upon’ mistakes, and glean lessons from them? Because after all, mistakes are seldom made randomly. They represent manifestations of long-held beliefs or misconceptions. We don’t want to frustrate learners of course, but their moment of realization can turn out to be a huge learning point for them.

Here are a few possible ideas:

1. Use them as options in scenarios, and provide detailed feedback. While the options can reflect the common misconceptions, extensive feedback against each of the incorrect options can help explain why the option is wrong, and what would work better in that scenario. Note that such feedback against the correct option would also work well, to consolidate the learner’s understanding of why that option is correct.

2. Where possible, have them justify their choice of options. So if a question reads “What is the beverage that has highest consumption in the world?”, no matter what their choice, have them answer a follow-up question which reads something like “Why do you think so?”. This can help them think through their answer, and possibly even correct their original choice.

3. Provide an option for learners to correct their mistakes and redo the scenario. This can help address any frustrations with early failure.

4. Run a scenario and make learners point out mistakes. This is very similar to the scenario in the first point above, except that here the learner doesn’t make the decisions. Instead, they get to point out the mistakes that another character in the scenario is making, a nice relief from the decision-making scenario, and another great way to learn.

5. Tell failure stories. We often get enamored in success stories, but they don’t always give the full picture, nor do they tell anything about the struggles that went into the process. Failure stories, on the other hand, can teach as well as inspire, and give a helping hand to students who make similar mistakes.

6. And last but not the least, it is not a bad idea to include them as part of your explanation. As in, call out a mistake that’s commonly made, and say “DON’T DO THAT!”.

Finally, it’s important for any learning event to emphasize a growth mindset so that learners do not associate mistakes with shame, and view them instead as learning opportunities. Of course, a single learning event would be hard-pressed to do something like this on its own, but we can always try, right?

What other strategies can you think of to lead learners from their moment of ‘oops’ to ‘ah-a’?