Designing learning for how we learn today

dreamstime_xs_53297742Over my last 21 years in the digital learning and development field, a lot of my thinking has been based on a good dose of sound reasoning – the only way when there is often little prior experience to leverage – and what businesses and employees have been telling me.  I’ve also learned a lot from observing the realities of learning in the workplace and I’ve seen that change considerably over the last two decades.  Today we call that “learner insights” and the more we know about our learners, the smarter will be our learning programme designs.

One of the trends I’ve seen is the desire for learners to consume learning in ever-smaller pieces.  Twenty years ago we didn’t have the constant interruptions from e-mail and mobile phone communications and we seemed better able to set aside time for training.  Now we know that we’re lucky if we can get through 10 minutes without an interruption.  And whereas two decades ago, it was easier to focus the mind on a complete piece of learning, now we seem to be more able to exist on just snippets of knowledge and look to grab those just when we need them.

Digital approaches are clearly an influencing factor here.  It’s much easier to find what we need to know and when we need to know it, though that doesn’t always mean the quality will be what either the learner or their business really expects.

This has manifested itself in three learner journeys I’ve seen emerge over the last few years.  Learners have turned to me and asked if they can consume training content in three flavours, which I’ve translated into these statements.

  1. Give me the highlights in two to three minutes. That will give me a good sense of what’s what and when I need any more information, I’ll look further.
  2. Give me the basics of the most important bits in five to ten minutes. I will be able to get through the next few minutes and be able to move onto the next task.  If I keep coming back to this and need extra support, I’ll look for something with more detail.
  3. Give me the complete picture in fifteen minutes. This is something that is critical for me to know and to master.

The actually durations are somewhat arbitrary, but they will remain proportionate depending on the topic.

I’ve since translated these statements into this graphic, with some suggestions on how each flavour could be delivered.LearningDurations

Until fairly recently, I’ve accepted the above, purely based on my own learning insights.  Then I accidentally stumbled on a discussion about three learning approaches that are acknowledged in the academic world and I saw a parallel to my own observations of learning preferences in the workplace.

Learners in education tend to fall into one of three categories:

  1. Surface learners – try to get away with as little work as possible
  2. Deep learners – immerse themselves totally in the subject
  3. Strategic learners – a mixture of the above, looking to identify what’s most important and then concentrate more on that

Here are some characteristics of each type, which I’ve tweaked to reflect a business setting.

Surface learners – learn just enough to get by
  • Learn to meet specific job requirements
  • Stick closely to the minimum requirements and essentials to learn the job
  • Study unrelated bits of knowledge
  • Don’t link or connect different bits of learning
  • Memorise facts and figures for that moment in time and to carry out procedures routinely
  • Memorise information needed for assessments
  • Take a narrow view
  • Fail to distinguish principles from examples
Deep learners – learn as much as they can
  • See each part of the task as making up the whole
  • Interact more deeply with the learning content
  • Seek to understand the material
  • Take a broader view and relate ideas to one another
  • Relate concepts to previous knowledge and experience
  • Critically evaluate and determine the key themes and concepts
  • Look for improvements to completing the task at hand
  • Motivated by an interest in the topic
  • Tend to study beyond the core requirements
  • May do less well in assessments as they may follow their own interests rather than what’s important to the organisation
Strategic learners – learn in order to be seen to do the job well
  • Want to be seen to be a top performer
  • Seek to know what are the most important things to demonstrate high performance
  • Alert to assessment requirements and criteria
  • Learn in order to achieve highest possible course score or rating
  • Make more of an effort to understand knowledge to demonstrate learning
  • Organise their learning time and effort to greatest effect
  • Often do better in assessments due to their focus on what’s important

If we accept that some of these learning behaviours creep in from school life to the world of work, then we can match each approach to the three flavours.

Surface learners Give me the highlights in two to three minutes.  That will give me a good sense of what’s what and when I need any more information, I’ll look further.
Deep learners Give me the complete picture in fifteen minutes.  This is something that is critical for me to know and to master.
Strategic learners Give me the basics of the most important bits in five to ten minutes.  I will be able to get through the next few minutes and be able to move onto the next task.  If I keep coming back to this and need extra support, I’ll look for something with more detail.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that each person might adopt a different approach depending on the need.  Just think of compliance training for instance.  What proportion of your learners are “surface” and possibly “strategic”, as opposed to “deep” learners here?  And how could you acknowledge this fact in your designs?

So when you next design training – in particular a curriculum where there is an audience that might have different needs and motivations to learn – then do consider how you can respond with different flavours of content.  Make sure each flavour is clearly signposted and try to design each flavour in a consistent way, so the learners can start to spot the different learning patterns.

In this example of training a four-step process, I’ve mapped the concepts of performance support (e.g. aide-memoires), the use of explainer videos and full e-learning modules to the three different “learning habits”.A Learning Habits Design Framework

This will also provide a good visual presentation of your content on a learning portal too, albeit that you’ll probably want to replace the “surface-strategic-deep” jargon with something different.

You should also look for smart ways to leverage the different elements to enable their re-use, as a surface learner might find it useful to build on that content as they look for a more strategic learning option; with the deep learner looking to build on both the other two formats.

Finally, take another look at the characteristics of each “habit” and see how well your learning supports each.

Designing learning for how we learn today

9 thoughts on “Designing learning for how we learn today

  1. Yes, seven years ago, when I returned to the corporate L&D world after 7 years on the vendor side, I noticed a significant difference in how employees worked and learned – and the two are tightly linked. Not only do instructional designers need to be more aware of this, many of the instructional design approaches we’ve used need to be modified or even phased out to meet today’s requirements. And yes, mobile learning is well placed to respond to these changing preferences.


  2. I believe the only problem can lay in the lack of motivation on the side of employees – they simply don’t want to learn during their commutes and so on, as they believe it to be their free time. I have to say I understand it, though – employers have to think of a way to reward employees for learning.


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