We can’t open a learner’s head and poor knowledge in, so understanding how people learn and what strategies might support that process is essential in the instructional design process. Ultimately, learners must do the learning. Gagne reminds us that instructional design is the purposeful application of learning theories and strategies (external instructional events) that support the internal learning process to achieve an intentional outcome. (Gagne et al, 1992)
Learners construct meaning by associating what they already know with new information and creating symbolic links for retrieval. Gagne suggests four parts of the learning process where an external instructional event can influence and affect the learning process: drawing attention to important points, practice and application of the new knowledge, providing organization for structured association of the new knowledge, and connecting long-term memory with working memory. These parts of the learning process are all exposed in Gagne’s nine events of instruction which can be categorized into three main stages: (1) learner preparation, (2) guiding content acquisition, and (3) reinforcement.
Gaining learner attention is essential before any learning can occur. A learner must be ready and willing before they can engage in opening themselves to exerting effort and potentially uncomfortable changes in the ways they’re used to thinking about things. Adults can make great learners because they often seek instruction to solve a problem or fill a gap. Ultimately, every learner must find an intrinsic form of motivation to connect with a learning experience. Strategies that help learners invest in their own learning involve connecting with a predicament or desired skill that the learner can gain from the learning opportunity.
Julie Dirksen in her recent book, Design for How People Learn, describes an e-learning module presenting a course in statistics for high school students. The course began, “Welcome to this course. Let’s start with the…history…of…statistics!!” Regardless of exciting graphics, there is nothing for the learners to connect with in this introduction. The instruction has lost before it’s started. Dirksen suggests some possible instructional make-over’s: use attention-grabbing statistics that are highly interesting or relevant and have the students analyze what realities the numbers represent; or present a scenario that is motivating to them such as money or the purchase of a new car based on statistical data. (Dirksen, 2012) The reality of workplace training is that the instruction (and thus the learning) is driven by the organization’s ROI – hardly an attention-grabber. The motivation needs to be presented in terms of the learner, not the presenter or the organization.
Strategies for guiding content acquisition have been well-developed by numerous sources. Which strategies are the right strategies will depend on the type of knowledge addressed in the instruction. Pointing back to Gagne again, he categorizes learning outcomes into five categories:
- intellectual skills including procedural knowledge and rules;
- cognitive strategies such as problem solving and critical thinking,
- verbal information or declarative knowledge,
- attitudes encapsulating the learner’s affective domain and
- motor skills or physical capacity.
Karl M. Kapp in the July, 2011 issue of T+D Magazine presents a number of strategies based on knowledge types. For instance, if the knowledge type is verbal information, strategies might include providing mnemonics, segmenting, or story-telling. For procedural knowledge, instruction might include starting with the big picture, teaching “why”, and transcending simplified procedures with a highly complicated scenarios where things don’t run smoothly. (Kapp, 2011) The winning strategy is one in which the outcome and what a learner is supposed to be able to do following the instruction is aligned with the knowledge type. For instance, if it is determined that training is to be provided because a procedure is not being properly followed, but the instructional designer ascertains that the learners know how to perform the procedure correctly, the instructional designer may conclude that the gap has little to do with knowledge and more to do with attitudinal gaps. Thus, the winning strategy would address attitudinal change over rehearsing the procedural concepts.
Reinforcing strategies recognize that outcomes may take time to realize and adopt. Spaced learning, mentorship, and social strategies can all help reinforce newly acquired skills and abilities. Taken together, focus on strategies for learner preparation, guided content acquisition, and reinforcement will create greater transfer and the realization of new skills and abilities. Gagne asserts that teaching is only one event in the instructional process and that, “Instruction must be planned if it is to be effective.”
Dirksen, J. (2012) Design for How People Learn, New Riders, Berkeley, CA
Gagné, R. M., Briggs, L. J. & Wager, W. W. (1992). Principles of instructional design (4th ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers.
Kapp, K. M., (Jul-2011) “Matching the Right Design Strategy to the Right Content”, ASTD Press, Alexandria VA