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Learning & Development Blog

Performance Support_Putting Content Into Context

Performance Support: Putting Content Into Context

Kristin Ford is Owner and President of PC Training Source, an independent consulting firm that specializes in premier learning industry products and services. She is also President of the Twin Cities Chapter of the American Society for Training and Development. Kristin has known Dashe & Thomson for many years and is very excited to contribute a two-part guest post to the Social Learning Blog.

When you learn – what is most important to you? Content or context? Most likely, the answer is "both."

Consider new hire orientation. You don’t really need to know about the umpteen different retirement options you have access to on your first day. You don’t care, and they might not be relevant. You also don’t care about insurance options you are not eligible for. Quite frankly, you don’t care about anything that does not apply to you. You especially don’t care about anything that doesn’t apply to you right now. 


What the concept of performance support asks us to do is to put ourselves inside the learners’ experience. Learners are not different from you and me. They want what they want, when they want it, and how they want it. We no longer live in a world of blind obedience. We no longer need to memorize and just “know” pieces of information. We need to understand the process, but we do not need to memorize what we know how to access.

There are a number of anecdotes about phone numbers and memorization. In Dr. Ruth Clark's book on instructional design, she says that phone numbers were designed to be 7 digits long in the United States because 7 digits is the point at which it becomes much more difficult to memorize pieces of information.

Dr. Conrad Gottfredson’s teachings on rapid instructional design are very similar – we can remember about 10 pieces of information, plus or minus 3. Notoriously, Einstein did not remember his phone number because he knew where to look it up. Einstein was clearly an early adopter of performance support.


So how do we go about structuring content within context? One of the most useful guides regarding performance support comes from Conrad Gottfredson, Ph.D., of Learning Guide Solutions who describes the learners’ end user experience as being in one of"

The Five Moments of Need:

1. New: When people are learning how to do something for the first time

2. More: When people are expanding the breadth and depth of what they have learned

3. Apply: When they need to act on what they have learned, which includes planning what they will do, remembering what they may have forgotten, or adapting their performance to a unique situation

4. Solve: When problems arise, or things break or don’t work the way they were intended

5. Change: When people need to learn a new way of doing something that requires them to change skills that are deeply ingrained in their performance practices

The first two categories of “new” and “more” are addressed most effectively by formal learning, which is something that we all recognize.

Formal learning occurs in an organized, linear way – normally out of context – when we attend a learning “event” in a classroom, seminar or eLearning environment. We recognize its structure: There is an objective, a topic, a subject matter expert, an outline and – if we’re very lucky – some take-aways so that we have some tools or reminders of how to apply what we have learned.

The next three categories of “apply”, “solve” and “change” is where context is most important. This is where informal learning and performance support absolutely shine. Allison Rossett, Professor of Educational Technology at San Diego State breaks down job aids and performance support into Planners and Sidekicks. Planners are in our lives just before or after the challenge, while sidekicks are at our side during the task.

One of the most memorable stories that I have heard regarding a Sidekick was used by Pilot C.B. “Sully” Sullenberger when landing the US Airways flight in the Hudson River after birds had hit the plane.


Captain Sully had never been in this kind of situation before. Never. How was it that he was able to react in exactly the right way? He had a manual underneath his seat that provided a checklist that walked him through what to do in the event a bird hit the engine. A Sidekick: what to do during the task. Cool.

Perhaps one of the most readily available and relatable examples of electronic performance support is a GPS. Physical maps, Mapquest or Googlemaps would all be considered Planners, however, a GPS would be considered a Sidekick. Elliott Masie defines performance support as GPS for learners. Context: What you need, how you need it, when you need it. Beautiful.

Learning strategies have traditionally encompassed the first two moments of need. Combine them with classroom and eLearning and you have a typical blended learning solution. A true blend however, needs to encompass all five moments of need. A mix of methodologies, delivery methods, formal and informal, Planners and Sidekicks should be considered to make up and deliver the most effective and efficient strategy.

The questions asked to determine design and delivery should go back to the five moments of need and design with the end in mind. Content and context.

The most effective solution would be to design formal learning and performance support on the same topic simultaneously. Basically, performance support would turn the formal instruction completely upside down.


  • Training Objectives
  • Demonstrations
  • Deeper Reference
  • Steps


Deeper Reference
Practice or Demonstrations
Other Resources

To read Part Two, click HERE.

Performance Improvement Roadmap