Category Archives: Instructional Design

Learning to Swim

At a recent workshop for instructors, one of the participants said something that struck home: “Anyone, even a novice, can make something sound complicated,” he said. “It takes real skill to make something easy to understand.”

I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly. Our students have enough to do to learn new concepts, especially in areas that are very unfamiliar. I believe we have a duty to them to avoid making their job any more difficult.

Consider this: There are some folks who think that the best way to teach someone to swim is to throw them in the deep end of the pool. Maybe there are some situations where “sink or swim” is the right approach. Maybe. I think most of us would prefer to start at the shallow end, wearing floaties and goggles.

So let’s look at some ways to get students swimming, without drowning them in the process.

  • Organization: I’ve worked with subject matter experts in numerous fields. Almost all of them have struggled to organize information. They often want to get deep into each topic as soon as it’s mentioned. This can be overwhelming for the novice. Often it works better to let learners know that we’re introducing them to a concept that we’ll return to in more depth later.
  • Language: If you’re deeply immersed in a topic, big words and complex sentences can convey meaning in a highly nuanced way. If you’re new to a topic, or simply not a great reader, you’re just not ready for nuance yet. Maybe we can use more accessible language to draw students in and give them the confidence to explore more deeply.
  • Visual aids: I don’t mean merely decorative stuff. I mean those images, charts, or animations that are worth a thousand words. You don’t have to be an artist. A quick web search will bring up dozens of free, easy-to-use tools for making informative graphics and animations.
  • Mnemonics: Is there a catchy phrase or acronym that might help your students remember something? Use it. It’s not a gimmick, it’s efficient and effective.  You can even ask students if they’ve invented their own, and let them share with the class.

Okay, that’s a start… do you have any “swimming lessons” to share? Post a comment below.

— by Rissa Karpoff






You Have 6 Seconds…

We’ve been developing some safety training for folks who work around high-voltage electrical systems. It’s a good feeling, knowing that this course might actually save lives.

I looked at one of the key graphics the other day, and it just wasn’t communicating clearly. You had to think about it a bit to figure it out. It was on screen for only 6 seconds, though, and during that time there was also narration going on.

I started thinking that instructional design has a lot in common with billboard design. We need to get the idea across as clearly as possible, as quickly as possible. We want people to remember our message, not struggle to figure it out. We can’t count on their undivided attention, and we have only a few seconds before we lose their attention altogether. Continue reading

Information? Or Instruction?

I recently began work on a new course-development project. The goal of the course is to prepare workers for a highly technical job in the petrochemical industry.

Like many courses, this one will be founded on a textbook selected by the project’s subject matter experts.

The textbook is a great resource, filled with tons of important information for the work these folks will do. At the same time, it’s pretty much useless. See, it’s a terrific reference manual – if you’re already familiar with the job and you just need to look something up. But for a novice? It’s just one, big, insurmountable wall of… stuff.

The problem is the way the book is organized. There’s a chapter for each type of process and each category of mechanism. But this structure doesn’t relate at all to the way a new technician will encounter these processes and mechanisms. Sure it tells them what they need to know, but it doesn’t tell them why or when. Continue reading

6 Instructional Design Tips from Abe Lincoln

Pop quiz! Who is this guy and what prompted him to write this statement?

Edward Everett

“I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

No guesses? Okay, I’ll tell you his name: Edward Everett.

Still no guesses? Here’s another hint: He was president of Harvard University from 1846 to 1848, and Acting U.S. Secretary of State from 1852 to 1853.

Ah, I see some of you Civil War historians out there raising your hands. That’s correct! Edward Everett was a highly respected public speaker during the Civil War era. In fact, he was the featured speaker at the dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, the same event at which President Abraham Lincoln made his brief and famous speech. Continue reading

Woman Marathon Winner

6 Ways to Develop Marathon Learners

I’ve been thinking lately about the word “training.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary online defines training as:

  • a process by which someone is taught the skills that are needed for an art, profession, or job
  • the process by which an athlete prepares for competition by exercising, practicing, etc.

If I were a personal trainer preparing someone to run a marathon, the first thing I’d do would be to take her out running. I’d help her pick appropriate goals for her current level of ability. I’d help her work on her stride, her pacing, her breathing, and her endurance. I’d make sure she had the right gear, including insoles or knee braces if she needed them. When her determination started to waver, I’d encourage her to keep going. I’d also eliminate as many obstacles as I could. I probably wouldn’t make her leap hurdles or climb walls. And I definitely wouldn’t make her stop in the middle of each run, read a map, and then decide where to run next.

When you think about it, this could be a fairly useful comparison to what we do as educators. Continue reading