eLearning designers and developers spend a lot of time on assessments, particularly things like quizzes and knowledge checks and tests. It’s easy to fall into blame-the-learner mode when they don’t do well: I often hear everything from “they aren’t paying attention” and “they allow distractions like email and phones” to “no one reads anything.” But sometimes, easily fixed design issues are the culprits. Here are a few.

Overload and extraneous information

Too much information, especially if only tangential to job performance, risks inviting learners to focus on unimportant detail rather than critical content. It’s a bad use of their time and our efforts.

One solution: Design assessments first. Too often designers create a course, then go back scouring for items to turn into contrived multiple-choice or true-false questions. (My own memory of this calls up a question in a basics-of-supervision course that asked whether our merit-based recruitment policy was established by House Bill 886 or House Bill 668.) Write performance objectives and work backward from there, leaving out unrelated content. If you’re having trouble, try applying my “Find Your 20%” model, focusing on the question “What will learners actually use on the job?”

Another solution: It’s no secret that “stakeholders” often insist on including content tangential to actual performance: background, history, every-extenuating-circumstance legal information, etc. If you must accommodate those requests, try to negotiate them as linked material, additional reading, or “further exploration.” And don’t discount the value of getting some negotiation-skills training for yourself. I find that many instructional designers, due to lack of skill here, fall into the role of order-taker even when there is some safe room for negotiation.

“Wall of words”

Cluttered screens, too much text, too many fonts, bad fonts, branding elements that eat up screen real estate … the list goes on and on. More than just being dull or hard to view, this kind of design error can, like the extraneous information problem, keep the learner from learning. If this is hard for you, try learning something about sketchnoting, where the best skilled practitioners find wonderful, quick ways to represent complex ideas. And while it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, Twitter forces you to get to the point. Try participating in a few Twitter chats (like #lrnchat, Thursday evenings at 8:30 pm ET) or follow the feeds of some people who know how to convey information that is both useful and concise. Or just step back, look at your screen, and ask: “What if I had to pay $5 a word?” See if that doesn’t help you decide where you can cut.

Wrong information

Really? Yep. We probably all know of projects on which everyone was so busy arguing over the color of an avatar’s suit that they missed a glaring content error. My favorite example involved a YouTube safety video launched without checking the auto-captions, one of which told viewers … to throw water on a grease fire. Luckily, the error was caught before it did any damage. Make sure information is correct, and make sure the information presented matches its presentation in things like quizzes and certification assessments.

“One size fits all”

My work in state government puts me in touch with an incredibly diverse workforce: doctors, lawyers, law enforcement officers, teachers, park rangers, housekeepers, food service workers, prison guards, software engineers … you name it. While I understand the economics of it, the reality is that a single safety or harassment or customer service course will rarely meet the needs of those people equally. Even if concepts are similar—as with something like communication or conflict resolution skills—the language levels can be vastly different. With something like reducing staph infections, the prior knowledge of the nurse is likely very different than that of the janitor—although both play critical roles in achieving the goal. Failure to attend to such differences can affect learner understanding and subsequent performance. It’s possible to create multiple versions of a course without having to completely reinvent the wheel. And I’ve had good luck with offering “choose your own” scenarios as part of an experience, so landscapers could access different, more targeted, examples than the office workers, and supervisors could access additional information aimed specifically at them. See where you can make similar accommodations to make more content relevant to the many rather than the few.

So when considering learner evaluation, give some thought to how much these basic design issues—not just content itself—can enhance or interfere with learner success.