There’s an ongoing debate in the workplace learning space about whether an instructional designer or other training practitioner needs a specialized degree in order to work effectively. Here’s my story.

I had been in the field for a decade as a designer and classroom facilitator before going back to graduate school for formal instruction about the work I was doing. My goal then was driven mainly by the fact that I’d taken a new job, housed in an HR Department rather than in the Staff Development unit, and realized I needed help speaking a language my new colleagues (and boss) understood. I needed to be better able to articulate my work, to justify decisions and proposals, and to be better versed in things like analytics and statistics.

I thought I knew a lot about my field—I’d been there a decade, after all, and was a voracious reader of trade journals and business books (back then it was EQ and the tail end of the TQM movement) and a member of a very active community of practice (CoP) for trainers. But grad school, in what I recall as often exhilarating moments, also introduced me to a whole world of academic writing I didn’t know existed. There were studies that shed light on my unease with popular things like personality type-assessments. There was a whole body of literature that explained my sense of breathing better air when at a CoP gathering. There were research-based explanations from Richard Mayer that helped me articulate—finally—why we didn’t want to narrate every word in every online learning program. There were entire books on evaluating training programs and initiatives—like those beloved and institutionalized by my then-employer without any real rationale—and not just single classes. While I’m not interested in arguing about whether people need to get degrees to work effectively, I would argue that a practitioner can benefit from learning more about the academic work in their chosen field.

To start?

I spend a lot of time in online conversations, most often on Twitter, and I love that this puts me in the path of other, often newer, practitioners. I’m still surprised when they are surprised to hear that there is, for instance, a pile of empirical studies on the topic of “learning styles” or extensive academic, research-based discussion of the role and value (or not) of a community “lurker.” So in the spirit of “Nuts and Bolts,” here are some ideas for exploration.

If a topic—like CoPs or personality type indicators or learning styles—interests you, start with Google Scholar ( The search there will turn up mostly articles from academic publishers and universities, student theses, and other peer-reviewed work, along with notations showing instances of the piece being cited by other authors. Look for dissertations online and check their literature review chapters and bibliographies. You’ll quickly see that most ideas related to learning and development are not new but have been extensively discussed and vetted and tested, with questions mulled and dissected and reworked and discarded. Very little is really brand new, and in most cases a lot has already been said. You may find something that surprises or unsettles you. Or you may find something that confirms what you believe with data and not just some anecdotes or gut feelings. Some time spent here will help you move past “I think” or “it feels right” to “evidence shows.”


(Where there aren’t links in these lists, look up the names on Amazon or Google or both):

Communities of Practice? Start with Wenger; Lave & Wenger; Bozarth; Collins, Brown & Duguid; John Seely Brown; Wasko & Faraj. Chapter 2 of my dissertation offers an overview of this literature as well as some discussion of social and situated learning theory ( Also see Collins, Brown & Duguid, individually and separately, on social learning and knowledge management.

Learning Styles? Research shows little evidence that teaching to learning styles matters. Start with this great overview of the literature from Guy Wallace

Effectiveness of Online vs. Traditional Classroom instruction? Aggregated sources by year, sorted by finding, are at the No Significant Difference site:

Evaluation and assessment? Look at Stake; Brinkerhoff; and Stufflebeam. There’s a whole world beyond the better-known four levels of the Kirkpatrick taxonomy.

Games and Gamification? See Kerfoot; Hamari; Koivisto; Landers; Dixon; McGonigal.

Multimedia Learning? See especially Mayer; Clark and Mayer; and Clark, Nguyen, & Sweller.

Reflective Practice?  “Reflective Practice” was one of my favorite doctoral courses. Here’s the syllabus, with readings organized into themes like “theory and practice,” “identity,” and “sources of power and knowledge.”

Sometimes articles you find are hidden behind paywalls or in difficult-to-access journals, but it’s often worth the trouble to hunt them down. Sometimes pieces are pulled from longer works available at local libraries or even in bits from Google Books. Some pieces will require that you become more skilled at reading academic work, and understanding how to interpret research.

Whatever your interests, make an effort to read up a bit. It will help you add something new to conversations. Reading broadly will help you, as John Seely Brown has said, expand your surface area, which can only help you become more knowledgeable about and valued as you go about your work.