4 common instructional design mistakes

Earlier this week I delivered a webinar as part of Sukh Pabial’s Modern Learner Leader (#MLLeader) programme, but ran out of time while discussing common instructional design mistakes. This blog post is an attempt to make up for my rushed ending, with links throughout to further reading.

1. Learning outcomes up front

I’ll open with my most controversial point. Learning outcomes have been a mainstay of elearning courses for years. How else do people know what they’re going to learn?

The problems are that they immediately signal that we’ll be doing the ‘same old elearning’; they’re a boring start to any learning experiences; and they’re presumptuous — the learner might have their own outcomes.

Don’t get me wrong: as an instructional designer, you probably have things that you want your learners to learn or, better yet, business outcomes that you want your learners to deliver. These are great behind the scenes, but is it necessary for learners to know them?

A final point here: context is important. David Ausubel writes about advance organisers, whereby you would start a course on frogs, salamanders and caecilians by introducing the important relationship: these are all amphibians. Learning outcomes can do the same, but there are more exciting ways to do so.

2. Too much information

If you plan to deliver a course on a particular policy or piece of legislation, you’re going to end up with a lot of information delivery. Is this the most effective use of learning time? Why not provide a link to the policy, and then use your time to focus on the behaviours you want to see in the workplace?

Cathy Moore’s action mapping technique is a great way to avoid this. Start with the outcome you want to achieve, identify what learners need to do to achieve that outcome, then design realistic practice activities to give learners an opportunity to develop their skills. If they need to identify when a data protection breach has occurred, include a scenario where they have to make a judgement: not a multiple-choice quiz on data protection legislation.

3. Too difficult/too easy

People learn best when they’re stretched, but not too far. This is referred to as the zone of proximal development or, in more friendly language, ‘desirable difficulty’.

If a learner can sail through a course without thinking — or pass the assessment without looking at the course materials — it’s probably too easy. It’s worth testing this with a pilot group.

If you go to the other extreme, and make a course impossibly difficult, learners are likely to become frustrated and lose interest.

A fun way to get used to pitching difficulty level is to look at video games. Sonic the Hedgehog and Tiny Soldiers are both available from Apple App Store. Give them a go and notice how the levels become increasingly challenging until you reach a ‘boss’ — then have a slight reduction in difficulty at the start of the next level. This dip in difficulty gives your users an opportunity to rest.

4. Same content for novices and experts

We’re often asked to create courses for everyone, whether they’ve been performing a task for one week or ten years. This is a cost effective way to deliver learning to a wide audience, but how do you allow ‘desirable difficulty’?

One way is to include supports, or ‘scaffolding devices’, that are unobtrusive but are clearly sign posted. For example, you might have a scenario question with a ‘Help!’ button. An expert can answer the scenario question easily enough, while a novice has support if they are completely flummoxed.

Another technique is to provide definitions of new terminology. An expert won’t need them, but a novice can see them on mouseover.

These are just some of the common mistakes I see in instructional design — particularly in the creation of courses. If you want to ask any questions (or want to tell me that I’m wrong!), you can get in touch on Twitter @RossGarnerGP.