For this year’s back-to-school column, let’s first go back to a dark place, a place of learning nightmares … your freshman college lecture hall. But don’t worry: there is light at the end.

We used to know how to learn.

Like many of you, I found learning in college both a pleasant and a disheartening experience. As a freshman, I was subjected to the torment of huge lecture classes. With hundreds of my fellow inmates, we endured boring lectures and a learning strategy so impersonal that it seemed we were in some sort of academic torture chamber.

Things generally got better as we moved on. By the time we were seniors, classes were smaller and our engagement was higher. We did more discovery learning, more research, more team-based projects, and more peer-to-peer learning. We spent more time acquiring knowledge outside of the classroom than within it. We were an active part of our own learning. We knew (hopefully) where the library was and how to use it. And if we went to grad school, this participatory, active-learning model likely continued. We developed independent, self-learning skills.

Then we got jobs and were inflicted with corporate training.

Welcome back to large meeting rooms, rows of tables and chairs, days of lecture, and hundreds of PowerPoint slides. To be fair, there are certainly great examples of innovative learning going on in business and government agencies, and not every lecture or every PowerPoint presentation is necessarily bad. But we kid ourselves if we think this is the norm. Today, there is still too much lecture, too many binders, and too much passive learning. Our independent self-learning skills atrophied. And this is not just in the classroom. eLearning has its share of depressingly bad programs. Shocked? I didn’t think so.

We know better.

One way to change mindsets and think differently about learning is to recall our early years of college and those large lecture halls. Or, our worst nightmare of a high school teacher (like this cinematic classic), and then think about the greatest teachers we’ve ever had, or the best courses we’ve ever taken—classroom or online. Bring this up in your organization and you will likely hear recollections like those in Table 1.

Table 1: Nightmares and Peak Experiences

Teaching and Learning Nightmares

The Best Learning Experience Ever

Teacher didn’t have command of the content.

Teacher knew what he/she was talking about.

Teacher taught from the lesson plan, verbatim.

Teacher brought insight and experience (ours and hers/his) to the class.

Teacher never asked a question, or at least not a truly challenging one.

Teacher spent more time challenging us than talking at us.

Teacher addressed everyone as if they were the same.

Teacher understood we all learn differently, and at different rates.

Teacher could not relate to our world.

Teacher understood who we were and what our interests, needs, and issues were.

Teacher was infallible and all knowing; we were empty vessels ready for our heads to be filled with “stuff.”

Teacher was helpful and empathetic, focused on enriching our learning experience as guide and coach.

Course went on seemingly forever.

Course flew by.

Course was dominated by lecture with an occasional “exercise.”

Course was dominated by significant, meaningful learning activities.

Course provided little or no feedback.

Course feedback was deep, frequent, and helpful.

Course was useless in the real world.

Course built a strong bridge to the real world.

Course was a waste of my time.

Course was a great investment of my time.

We didn’t know why we were taking the course.

We clearly understood the course’s value for us.

We were not prepared for the course.

We had the right prerequisites.

We did not interact with other learners very much.

We had multiple opportunities for deep collaboration.

We did not know how to apply what we learned after the course ended.

We were prepared to apply what we learned, and to continue learning more.

Technology did not add much to the course, it just made bad learning more efficient.

Technology changed the nature of the course, making it more engaging, interactive, motivating, and effective.

Learning ended on the last day of class.

Learning continues in the workplace.

Just another required checkbox on the transcript.


From knowing better to doing better.

Okay, blinding-flash-of-the-obvious time. Make sure your learning programs look more like the right-hand column and less like the left. Classroom or online, it doesn’t matter. Turn this table into a checklist and score your programs. Run focus groups with instructors and learners, and listen to them. Try new approaches. Help your learners re-learn how to learn. Blow up the bad stuff and start anew. It will be hard, but it’s likely better than the status quo.

Do you remember the crappy courses and teachers you endured back in school? Sure you do. Don’t take your learners down the same road.