This is one in a series of thoughts on some broken areas of ID that I’m posting for Mondays. The intention is to provide insight into many ways much of instructional design fails, and some pointers to avoid the problems. The point is not to say ‘bad designer’, but instead to point out how to do better design.
One of the first things learners see is the introduction to the content; it’s the first place that they can be disappointed, and all too often they are. They are given objectives that don’t matter to them, they’re told what they’re going to see in dull terms, it’s all aversive rather than interesting. Which is a wonderful way to start a learning experience, eh?
What we want to do is bring in the emotion! Almost all of instructional design is about the cognitive part, yet the motivational part is often just as important. And we’ve got to go beyond simplistic views of what that means.
Even cognitive science recognizes that there’s more to the mind that the cognitive aspect, and includes the affective and conative as well. Affective are your learning characteristics, your learner’s styles. Whereas conative is the interesting bit: the intention to learn, which includes things like motivation to learn, anxiety about learning, etc.
I’ve gone off before about learning styles, and the short answer is to a) use the right media for the message, and b) to provide help for learners. However, addressing motivation and anxiety is a different, and important, thing. We want to assist their motivation, which happens by helping the learner connect this experience to themselves and their goals. And we want to reduce their anxiety to an appropriate level (people perform better under a little pressure), by helping manage their expectations.
To help with motivation, there are a couple of things to do. We know that learners learn better when we activate relevant information up front (it helps associate the new information to existing information). I maintain that we want to extend that, and open them up emotionally too. And, I believe that it should be done first. I think we need to indicate the consequences of the knowledge, either negative for not having the information, or positive for having the information. I think the consequences can be exaggerated, to increase the emotional impact, within bounds, and it can be done dramatically (see Michael Allen’s Flight Safety video) or humorously. I’ve used comic strips to begin elearning sections (we don’t use comics enough)!
There are nuances here: it has to be specific to the situation, not just a non-related exaggeration. Done well, it can incorporate the cognitive association activation as well! But hook them emotionally, and the information will stick better. Too often in the learning I see, there’s not just little, but essentially no addressing why this information is important to the learner, and that’s got to be job number 1, or we risk wasting the rest of the effort.
Then we come to objectives, and here I nod in the direction of Will Thalheimer, who’s said this better than I: the objectives we show to the learner are not the ones we use to design! Too often, there’s a section in the cookie-cutter template for objectives, and we slap in the ones we’re designing to. Wrong, bad designer, no Twinkie ™. We (should) use objectives [previous post] to align what we’re doing to the real need, but the learners don’t want to know about our metrics. The objectives for them need to be rewritten in a WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) framework. They should get objectives that let them know what they’ll be able to do that they can’t do now, that they care about!
Another thing that helps, and now we’re onto anxiety more, is addressing expectations. Stephanie Burns showed that of people who set out to accomplish a goal, those that succeeded were those who managed their expectations appropriately. Similarly, when I run workshops, I find I get less concerns when I help lay out what’s going to happen and why rather than just barging ahead. If people don’t know what to expect, or expect it’ll be X (e.g. entertaining) and there’s some Y (e.g. hard work), they get frustrated or concerned with the mismatch. They can get upset in particular if one aspect is difficult and they feel like they’re floundering. Making sure that the expectations are set appropriately helps learners feel like they’re in synch with what’s happening, and maintains their confidence.
A role that’s cognitive as well as motivational is that we don’t do enough has to do with contextualizing what’s happening. Too often, learning is conduced in a vacuum. Yet Charles Reigeluth’s Elaboration Theory suggests drilling down, and I say contextualize the learning in the larger context of what’s happening in the world. Even if we’re learning about some minor medical procedure, we can talk about how health care is a major issue, and getting it right is one of the components to make it effective and efficient. Or somesuch, but you can quickly connect what they’re learning to the real world, and you should. It’ll help again associate relevant knowledge and increase the effectiveness of the message by connecting what’s happening now to what’s really important.
And, I’ll finally add, no pre-tests, unless it’s to let the learners test out. I’ve talked about that before, so I’ll merely point you to my previous screed.
So, introduce your learners appropriately to the learning, get them cognitively and emotionally ready for the learning experience, and you won’t be throwing away all the effort to develop what follows the introduction, you’ll be maximizing it. And that’s what you want, at the end, is for that learning to stick.