It’s easy to view soft-skills eLearning through a wide lens—e.g., “We need to teach our salespeople how to sell better.” From this perspective, eLearning design can look daunting. How can we design eLearning that teaches complex soft skills?
It’s tempting to try to cram as much information as possible into the training. “This stuff is complicated, so we’d better cover it all. And since there’s so much to learn, we’d better approach it in a logical, linear manner, so our learners don’t get lost.” That’s how we end up creating eLearning modules that are 30, 60, or 90 minutes long that nobody wants to watch.
Yes, these modules contain loads of valuable information for learners. But, like the instructional designers who create them, learners are overwhelmed by the content. So is it any surprise that long-form eLearning routinely suffers from incredibly poor utilization rates?
How do we create eLearning that reduces the burden on designers and learners alike?
Two approaches—inspired by classic studies in behavioral psychology—show us how to shrink workplace eLearning to a manageable size.
A series of studies by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman illustrate the power of framing. They found that how we perceive an issue is affected by how we define it. Changes in our approach to a problem can significantly influence our choices and shape our mental outlook.
Framing teaches us that we can overcome challenges by looking at them another way. What if, instead of looking at eLearning design through a wide lens, we shift our perspective?
So let’s look at eLearning through a narrow lens. Instead of framing the goal broadly—“teach our salespeople to sell better”—let’s narrow our view to the individual skills and concepts that build sales competency. We can then design eLearning modules that focus on each of those specific skills.
Several years ago, for example, we created a 90-minute two-part eLearning program on cold calling. It was chock full of great ideas. But nobody wanted to watch it. We also created a nine-minute module called “How to Win the First 20 Seconds of a Cold Call.” We posted it on YouTube. It’s had more than 215,000 views.
Short-form, single-concept modules are the future of eLearning. Quick, intensive, and centered on a single concept, they reduce cognitive load and increase learner retention. People will invest a few minutes of their time to get better at one thing.
But there’s another reason why short is better.
When the task of learning is reframed and scaled-down, we begin to accrue small wins. In his influential research, experimental psychologist Karl Weick described how organizations broke down massive problems by focusing on small victories.
When eLearning designers break down a big goal like “better sales skills” into individual components, learners are able to celebrate more wins along the way and feel motivated to continue on the path. They leave each module with a single, actionable outcome—a small behavior change that will improve their performance. Quickly the insurmountable goal of training feels achievable.
Short-form eLearning is an ideal vehicle for generating small wins. Learners are more likely to invest in a training process framed as a quick, narrowly-defined learning journey, and the incremental victories encourage them to continue. Managers also benefit, as follow-up seems feasible and doesn’t require a burdensome time commitment. Learning happens. When learning happens, eLearning designers have succeeded.
When approaching your next eLearning module, here are some questions you should ask:
- Is your module short and digestible for today’s busy learners?
- Is your module focused on a single skill or concept to reduce the risk of cognitive load?
- Does your module result in a “small win” for learners—a concrete, actionable outcome?
Reframe your view of soft-skills eLearning. Create modules that allow learners to build upon their small wins. Get small.
Tversky, Amos, and Daniel Kahneman. “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.” Science, 211(4481). 1981.
Weick, Karl E. “Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems.” American Psychologist, 39(1). 1984.