As an online learning developer, I don't often have the opportunity to talk to my users to find out what they like and don't like about the online courses I create. I can always ask them to take an online survey, of course, but the lack of direct interaction between me and my learners leaves me a little blind when it comes to figuring out how to best meet their needs.

So, to get a better sense of what I’m doing right and wrong, I like to ask my friends and family about the online courses they take at their workplaces. For the most part, the results of my unscientific survey show the world of online learning still largely consists of page-turners created for compliance training. And, for the most part, the learners I talk to often describe their online training experiences as boring or aggravating, and not very educational.

It’s a reasonable reaction. Even though learning professionals know that human brains aren’t designed to download large bodies of abstract, detailed information in a short time, page-turners often require learners to demonstrate just that skill. Interactive elements, which are much more appropriate teaching tools considering what we know about how we learn, are relatively under-represented, even now that online learning is a well-established field. Why the disconnect?

I’ve created my share of page-turners, and could easily recount the pragmatic time, technology, or other pressures that led me to offer them as a training solution. Those motivations don’t tell the whole story. Because even though I know that interactivity can enhance learning and retention, I also know there’s a catch. The drag-and-drops, hotspots, ranking exercises, or threaded discussions are just tactics that become instructional only when they’re written in a meaningful and strategic way. It was hard for me to imagine ways to incorporate these tactics in a way that would be challenging and appropriate to the content I wanted to teach. To learn to incorporate them, I had to learn to start writing instructional content backwards.

Backwards engineering

I can sum up the single most useful thing I learned in graduate school in one sentence: Course objectives, instruction, and assessments should all match. In all three stages of the process, your goals as an instructor are the same.

As a result, it really doesn’t matter where you start. It may be usual to develop instruction from the objectives, but it’s equally valid to think about the assessment questions that would demonstrate that a learner understands the content and to build objectives and instruction to match those questions. In some cases, those questions can be turned into part of the instruction.

I do a fair amount of application training, which usually begins with some orientation to the menu system. In the past, my orientation often started with several slides of exposition about the menu categories before demonstrating the individual functions a learner would need to know.

Starting from an assessment perspective, though, if I needed to demonstrate that learners understood the menu categories, I might ask them to find items that belong to those categories. While it might not be appropriate to begin the module with a quiz, a similar exercise could serve as an introduction instead of an assessment. A timed scavenger-hunt style search for particular set of menu items would still orient users to the menu system and allow the learners to engage with the information they need to learn. The interaction directly relates to the objective, and the learners get a chance to work with the content immediately, making them more likely to retain the information after the training is finished. If exposition follows, it will build on and reinforce the introduction.

Asking learners to predict outcomes is another assessment strategy that translates well into instructional strategy. In this modification, the learner would have the opportunity to alter factors that contribute to different possible outcomes and compare the impact of each factor. For application training, you might allow learners to apply different menu options to the same image, data set, or document. For compliance training, you might let learners see the effects of a failure to comply with the rules.

Assessment strategies work as instructional strategies because they mirror the kinds of activities active learners engage in naturally. Creating instruction with the assessment in mind is really creating instruction from a learner’s perspective, forging pathways that will help them form their own connections to the content.