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Design for How People Learn

“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.”

― Doris Lessing

There’s a book that was released in the past year, Design for How People Learn, by Julie Dirksen, that’s becoming a must-read for both novice instructional designers and L&D veterans alike.

Few of us grew up dreaming of being an instructional designer, but instead entered the profession in a roundabout way.
Dirksen says as a result, the field is populated with people who have mastered a skill in the workplace, for example customer service, and are then promoted to train customer service representatives, without necessarily knowing how to effectively design training. This book was created with these people in mind.

Dirksen was inspired by books such as, The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams, a primer for the graphic design field, and Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability for those entering the usability field. “I noticed that we didn’t have that type of book in our field,” she says.

Instructional design is based on a process model and there’s a lot of literature out there on how to design instruction, but not the why behind the how. “Most everyone knows to put learning objectives at the beginning of a course, but few know the rationale behind doing this,” says Dirksen.

Throughout the book’s nine chapters, Dirksen sheds light on the underlying principles for writing learning objectives, identifying learning gaps, designing for different learner types and making learning stick.

She uses engaging photos and illustrations to get her point across. In the chapter about grabbing a learner’s attention, she compares the emotional or automatic brain to an elephant and the conscious, thinking brain as the rider on the elephant. Photos of the elephant, including one of it stomping its foot, are used throughout the chapters to illustrate the emotional brain in action. It’s an effective way to illustrate a concept, and Dirksen clearly practices what she preaches in the book’s design.

One of the reasons learning fails is the difference in emotional context between the classroom and the workplace, according to Dirksen. She uses the example of learning how to give feedback in a management training class when participants are calm and relaxed. In reality, when a new manager first has to deliver feedback, the emotional context is one of anxiety and the manager forgets most of what they’re supposed to say.

Dirksen recommends role-playing as a way to help prompt learning recall during a real-life situation. Adding an element of emotion by using videos of full screen faces of someone yelling or adding an element of stress by timing the exercise are ways to help create an emotional context that’s closer to reality.

During the last chapter, Dirksen moves beyond training to the role that the environment plays on learning. Drawing on Donald Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, Dirksen suggests that the question instructional designers should always be asking is, “Is this something that everyone needs to know, or is it something that we need to build into the system?” She recommends that L&D practitioners act as business consultants and get into the conversation earlier about how to help people with systems that develop performance, instead of at the end of the process.

While it’s still too early to think about a follow-up book just yet, Dirksen is interested in the area of behavior change. “We’re becoming an increasingly information available society with smart phones, etc.,” she says. “People have all of the information at their fingertips, but they’re still not changing behavior—that’s what interests me.”

Julie Dirksen is an Instructional Designer and eLearning Consultant. She can be reached at: http://www.designforhowpeoplelearn.com.