I’m assuming that calling this column “Nuts and Bolts” is descriptive enough, but before I move into this month’s topic I’d like to offer a little more about what I’ve agreed to do.

It’s no secret that many workplace trainers just fall into, or get “volunteered” for, the role of trainer and/or instructional designer, and haven’t attended a school that offers degrees in training, HR development, or instructional design. Often these folks are program experts, or perhaps technical experts, or are just very good at public speaking. With the advent of e-Learning, the corps of the volunteered grew to include many from the ranks of IT Departments, including Web designers, security experts, and jack-of-all-trades IT staff.

I intend this column to provide some basics – “nuts and bolts” – of instructional design and issues related to workplace learning for those who have found themselves afloat in designing, developing, or buying e-Learning solutions. With a limit of about 750 words, I’m picking fairly small pieces of information to address at any one time. I hope those with more experience and/or formal training find the column a useful source of reminders or perhaps new perspectives, and I especially hope that novices or those without much background in the Learning Biz find help and ah-has.

And now that I’ve used up a third of my allotted words, let’s move on!

Any basic review of good practice in instructional design in 2010 points us toward an awareness of cognitive overload: A learner can take in only so much at a time. For an effective learning experience, it’s critical that designers cull the must-know from the nice-to-know. Of course, those who have tried this know it’s easy enough to say, in the abstract, that we should remove extraneous content. As with many things related to learning, though: knowing is one thing – doing is something else again!

The well-meaning designer does the right things. She meets with subject matter experts – who often don’t understand that we aren’t trying to develop more subject matter experts, but rather people who are acceptably competent. Conversations are loaded with war stories and memories of once-a-decade conundrums. She may need input from managers in HR or legal, who insist that every possible contingency and interpretation of a rule be covered (a problem bad enough in the traditional classroom, even worse in self-paced e-Learning courses). Add to that basic research, and the data from needs-analysis surveys or other tools, and a course can quickly turn into a runaway train. The problem is, in covering everything, the information most critical to the learner gets buried.

Here is something I’ve found useful in talking with the subject matter experts, HR, and Legal, and the others who might need to have input into content. I use it when I’m working with clients, and I use it with my own work. I use it when I am evaluating programs for purchase. (I also use it when I write.) Here it is:

Before you begin designing, identify the two or three points most critical to successful performance on the job. What must the learner know? I call this “finding your 20%,” and have always envisioned it as looking like Figure 1.


cascading image what learners will actuall see/hear and what they will remember, and what they will use

Figure 1: Start with what learners will use.

(Image adapted from Bozarth, J. (2008). From Analysis to Evaluation: Tools, Tips, and Techniques for Trainers. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.)

Design starts here. Rather than take everything there is to know and try to capture it all in the course, start in the center – with the critical content – and work your way out. Once you have found the critical content, add on only what truly supports understanding of it. Be careful of maybes, and extenuating circumstances, and once-in-a whiles. Watch out for distracters like interesting (but tangential) anecdotes, unnecessary animations, and quiz questions emphasizing content that’s easy to write quiz questions about. And dealing with those who insist on covering everything? See if you can you satisfy them with a link to the policy or the technical manual. If they won’t give, then how about some sort of required pre- or post-reading? Or maybe a job aid? If there really is much more content deemed critical, would it be worth considering development of multiple modules?

There’s an old anecdote about a sculptor who, when asked how he created such a beautiful statue of a stallion, said, “I cut away everything that doesn’t look like a horse.” Rather than trying to put more in, remember: you’ve finished the design when there’s nothing left to take out.

(Want more? For an interesting overview of cognitive overload see David Kirsch’s http://interactivity.ucsd.edu/articles/Overload/published.html .)