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11 Ways To Create Learning Experiences That Work

Posted on March 27, 2014 at 06:50 AM

How many times have you completed a training exercise, returned to the job to apply your new knowledge and thought, “Wait, how do I do this again?” The time spent partaking in the learning experience seems unjustified when retention rates plummet and job performance wanes.

Keeping a list of best practices in instructional design on hand will allow you to design learning experiences that get the job done – that is, change behaviors and improve performance on the job.  Here’s a short list:

How To Create Learning Experiences That Work

1. Build In Daily Practice

No one ever mastered a skill on the first try. Understanding concepts, definitions, and theories does not equal capability.  If this were so, doctors would skip a residency program and jump straight to treating patients without supervision. Why shouldn't they? Four years of grueling medical school should have prepared them for the real world, right?


Ask any first year surgical resident whether they feel ready to take the lead in an open heart surgery. Ask yourself if you want a first year surgical resident taking the lead in your open heart surgery. Practice, yes, even for physicians, is key to capability. Practice is so important, in fact, that physicians have numerical targets to hit prior to graduating residency. At the University of Minnesota, OB/GYN residents must complete 200 deliveries, 150 C-sections, and 110 hysterectomies (though they all perform many more) before finishing residency.

2. Encourage social learning

Social learning means information sharing. Information shared is information repeated, and repetition increases retention. Small group exercises, on-the-job mentoring and learning networks, whether formal or informal allow learners to bounce questions and ideas off one another, creating learning experiences that foster memorability.


3. Break Learning Into Chunks

Learning can be overwhelming when viewing the big picture. Breaking down information into digestible chunks or micro-learning allows learners to master a section before moving on. Eventually, the chunks create the whole. Structure your learning experience so learners complete small segments at a time.

4. Focus On One Topic At A Time

No matter how hard we try, the brain cannot actually multitask. People who believe they are multitasking are actually switching between two tasks very quickly. Whenever this swicth occurs, a cognitive switching penalty takes place. Basically, the brain wastes time and loses information while rebooting. Create the learning experience to allow learners to have a singlular focus.

5. Make Learning Visual

Vision trumps all other senses in learning. This doesn't mean throw all information up on a PowerPoint. It does mean that utilizing video, posters, flow charts, flash cards, and other visual focal points will keep your learner engaged. If in the classroom, consider providing your learners with highlighters, pens and pencils to color code or recreate visuals by hand they've seen during the learning experience.

6. Learn In Context

A study was conducted with two groups of scuba divers. One group was tasked with learning a list of words on the beach, the other studied a list of words while underwater. The different groups were then tested in the context of where they learned the information and also where the other group studied. Those who were tested in the environment where they learned the information outperformed the other group. 

With this in mind, classrom training isn't always appropriate, especially when learning new software. Seek to create learning experiences that reflect the environment the learner will use the information in. Often this may require a blended learning solution.

7. Use Spaced Repetition

As you probably remember from high school, cramming doesn’t produce long term results. To ensure long term retention, spread out your learning. Studies have shown that recall improves when learners take a break during tasks. As a general rule, it’s better to study, or partake in a learning experience for 20 minutes a day, than for two hours one day a week. Avoid the knowledge dump.

8. Invest In Temporary Loss

Learning a new skill will undoubtedly result in a period of poor performance, at first. When Josh Kaufman learned how to type on a new keyboard, his typing speed got worse before it got better.

When employees learn a new software system or process, it's very likely that there will be dips in productivity as they adjust. This temporary dip doesn't necessarily mean that the learning experience isn't working. Allow for this short-term dip (to a point), and as the learner becomes more competent, long term gains will outweigh short-term losses.


9. Focus On The Critical Components First

The Pareto Principle states that for any event, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Learning speed can be increased by focusing on the critical 20% and by structuring the learning to accommodate. Work with a subject matter expert to identify the most critical information and structure the learning experience to cover these components first.

10. Prepare For Resistance

The body and mind constantly seek equilibrium. When pushed out of balance, both attempt to auto-correct. This tendency is great during a crisis, but a negative force when encouraging positive change. Prepare for this resistance buy gaining buy-in on the front end. A short explainer video with testimonials from company higher ups will appeal to the heart of your learners.  Remember "Heart, Head & Hands." Learners need to first believe learning can happen (heart). They need to understand what is happening, and why (head).  And they need to know how to make it happen (hands).

11. Learn Towards A Goal

Having a goal or business outcome that you're learning toward gives the information meaning and purpose. Learning for the sake of learning does not bring long-term results, and it's waste of time and money. Be constant in your focus, making sure the learner understands every minute spent in the learning experience is justified. Consistent reminders of the end goal will keep your learners motivated and moving forward.

Need a little help in the "heart" department? (See #10 above.) Download our Free E-Book on Learner Motivation, or rather "Giving a $%!+" and engage your learners! Click the image below to download.

Motivate Learners

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