Make Learning Stick

A few months ago I had the pleasure of facilitating the Facilitating Learning Online (FLO) course, not once but twice. One of the ongoing assignments in FLO is to reflect on and share weekly learning nuggets. As we all know, teaching is the best way to learn so I had many of my own learning nuggets over the course of each FLO session.  

The Rolling Stones - Time is on my side gif

The Rolling Stones – Full video here

The first nugget was that you can’t actually make time. Seems we all get about 24 hours per day and all we can do is try to manage that time as wisely as possible. This is one of those lessons I seem to have to re-learn every few years.

The second learning nugget was about diversity and choice. I don’t want to edge into the learning styles debate but I think it’s safe to say that folks like to consume educational content in a variety of ways.  

Several of the FLO participants indicated a preference for reading content in paper form. FLO is a Moodle course and many of the assigned resources in FLO are provided via the Moodle books option. Moodle books are easy to view online and to save to pdf or to print for offline viewing. In this particular course the books also included several short videos – a nod to honouring diverse ways of learning by differentiating content. But, with no transcripts available for those who prefer to read, or read along, some participants felt that the videos took too much time to review. Other participants loved the videos. This got me thinking about how content is provided.

If you provide video, you should and when possible, also provide transcripts or notes that capture the key points made in the video. Most people are able to read 2-3x faster than they can listen so transcripts save time. Adult learners are often short on time and like me they are unable to make more. Transcripts or summaries for videos would provide a choice.

The third, related nugget, was around the differences between what people prefer and what works. One thing we know for sure as educators and trainers is that when it’s too easy, learning suffers.

“Best Practice” is to present written material in a clear and easily read font with lots of white space. Cognitive load theory suggests that this reduces the amount of mental energy used so that more energy can be used for learning the content rather than struggling to read it. The problem with that is the brain doesn’t work that way. Other research suggests that fonts and layout, on paper and online, that are more difficult to read, are actually more likely to be attended to, remembered and understood.

See “If you want people to pay attention, use an ugly font like Comic Sans”  for more on this.

We are wired to pay attention to and remember things that are unique, unusual, or surprising. We also pay attention, focus more, and try harder to understand when something in the environment signals our brains that what we are doing is difficult. This relates to the idea that “we remember what we think about” not what we read, hear, or see.

If this is true, we should develop learning experiences where learners are exposed to novelty and have to think about what we are hoping they will learn. And not just in a transient thought kind of way. Learners should have to really think hard to make learning stick well. BUT, if we’re not careful this can frustrate learners and if it’s too difficult, many will just leave.

Games and other interactive content do a great job of motivating learners to think. These are the opposite of presenting content for passive consumption. The challenge is that games, branching scenarios, and other kinds of interactive learning objects can be expensive to produce. The technology for interactive learning development is becoming less expensive and more accessible but the cost to design is still quite high. Interactive learning takes time to design and develop and time costs.

Forums, especially gamified forums (points for participation) that are well-facilitated and that include thought-provoking, open-ended questions, can get folks thinking, reflecting-out-loud, and participating in dialogues and discussions for a lower up front investment, compared to other kinds of interactive content. Development cost is replaced by the cost of well trained and engaging facilitators. So either way, creating engaging and made-to-stick learning experiences has a value and a cost that goes beyond the price of the content itself. 

This brings me back to FLO. One way to reduce the costs of well-facilitated online learning is to train staff to facilitate. FLO is a great option for this so  be sure to check out the Facilitating Learning Online course via BC Campus


What else works to increase learning engagement and participant retention?



Ode to ADDIE



I like ADDIE. She’s like that friend who’s always there for you. She’s dependable, flexible, and keeps you on course (pun intended). Sure, she’s not as trendy or exciting as some of your other friends. Rarely is she the life of party, but you can count on her to never steer you wrong.

ADDIE is of course not a real person – although I wish at times she was. The ADDIE model is one of the most-used Instructional Systems Design (ISD) models in the curriculum and instructional design worlds. Like all good frameworks, ADDIE is a mnemonic that lays out the five phases of instructional design, in order.

There are many in the field who are critical of the ADDIE model suggesting it’s too ponderous and is not suited to rapid development needs or emergent learning practices. I couldn’t disagree more. I suspect that the folks who don’t like the model are just not using it as effectively or as flexibly as they could.

The ADDIE model is incredibly generic – for a reason. It’s to allow for adaption and flexibility. Having said that, each phase is important and if you’re designing learning without giving the phases their due, you’re likelihood of designing high-quality learning experiences is going to be a matter of luck more than planning, knowledge, and hard work.

I think that another reason some folks dislike ADDIE is that she is seen as too process-driven and that each phase has to be completed in order. Learning is messy and learning design is often messier. It’s not unusual for multiple tasks across several phases to be done at the same time. In more complex learning design each task or answer to a question informs and influences other tasks, making interative design a necessity. 

Here’s a quick description of each of the phases in a downloadable pdf.

ADDIE chart

These descriptions are for designing training. Education design looks a little different, especially in the analysis phase. And yes, training and education are not the same thing.

It’s not unusual for learning designers to be brought in to complete one phase or even one part of one phase of a full program or course design process. Designers that specialize in creating content may begin seeing more agile models and backward design (for example) as the only way to go, forgetting that there are stages before and after that have to be attended to by others. Backward design is part of the Design phase, not a substitute for ADDIE. And ADDIE can be as agile as you need her to be.

That’s my ode to ADDIE. I love her. She is my rock. She’s always there, providing a solid foundation and quietly guiding me along the path to better learning design. Thank you ADDIE 🙂

P.S. For an extended history of ADDIE check out Don Clark’s post.