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Lessons on Instructional Design from…my Dog

By Carly Yuenger, Senior Instructional Designer 

Carly(250).pngFor the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve been the primary trainer to my dog, but for some reason, my mind has kept this task separate from my daylighting work as an instructional designer. Most days, I’d venture to say that I’m a better instructional designer than dog trainer, so the reason may be simple ego-protection.

To stitch these two facets of my mind together, for fun, and without further ado: Lessons on dog training from my moderately trained adolescent dog, some of which pertain to instructional design. Enjoy!

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Lesson 1: Make unappetizing things fun.

A. When it’s time for a walk, dogs are excited to get out the door, but they don’t want to put on a leash. As part of our walk ritual, I hold up my dog’s leash and say, “Ready….” (he heads down the hall), “Set…” (he gets ready to run), “GO!” (he trots past me, allowing me to lasso him with the leash). I never trained him to do this; it was just repetition over time.

B. Let’s face it: Some things that should be in a course really are boring. Take, for example, a message around tidiness in a workspace. No one wants to be nagged! A new hire needs a hint, not a Is there an unappetizing morsel in the course on which you’re working ? First, acknowledge it. Then, make it fun! Consider humor, or make it a peer-to-peer message. Warning: Use the right sugar for the medicine you’re serving—humor must be used carefully! 

Lesson 2: Repetition over time! (and place)

You can work with your dog and some really good treats for 15 minutes in your kitchen and get the basics of a trick down: Repeat, repeat, repeat! But then you have to do it in the living room, and then outside where there are distractions. This is leveling for dogs!

When first practicing “leave it,” we started with bread, which is relatively easy for him to pass up. So it was when he stopped mid-stride en route to a chicken bone on the sidewalk that I was really proud of him!

With any trick or command, it’s use it or lose it! If you don’t practice at least once a week, it fades. For this reason, the tricks I teach my dog are pretty practical, like “go get a toy.”

We know from neuroscience research that repeated actions stickgood and bad! Spaced practice over time gets that “retrieval” action down (that’s the metaphor used in neuroscience for accessing something “in” your brain). But we know this from life, right? You gain confidence and mastery by doing something multiple times in slightly different situations.

Performance-based design works because “the first retrieval” of the new skill is done in the course, so it’s easier later on, when learners are on the job. Do build multiple opportunities to practice the same skill in a variety of contexts and levels of complexity into your e-learning, but also take time (right now!) to think about how you will support successful retrieval of the behavior 2-days, 2-weeks, and 2-months after  the learner has completed the course.intervals

Do learners need a support tool? An opportunity for feedback? A discussion with a manager about building more frequent opportunities to practice the new skill into a current role? You can roll out that messaging with your course!

Note on repetition to dog owners: If you teach your dog to open his own birthday presents, you cannot blame him for opening the packages you get in the mail.

Lesson 3: Let learners explore. 

A. My dog walking philosophy is pretty simple – when we’re on a walk, it’s his time. If he wants to spend ten minutes sniffing a branch, I don’t judge. I like to think that this is why passersby often say, “He looks so happy!” But I’ve also found that when he’s on his 30-foot-long leash at the park, he actually listens better. It’s as though a little independence makes listening less begrudged. 

B. When learners sit down to training, they often expect a : “What do the higher-ups want me to do now?” Wouldn’t you put up a wall? One of the most common, content-centric mistakes we make is thinking training is something akin to a dump truck: “Sit still while I open up your brain and pour this content right in it.” That’s enough to make anyone squirm! 

Try this: Sit down to a non-linear menu. “Ahhh! I can start anywhere I want? Huh, these situations are all realistic…interesting! You mean you want me to reflect on this situation and tell you what I think?” A little agency goes a long way! Especially if you back it up with meaningful, challenging activities.

All performance-based design has agency built – its built around the learner’s decisions. But it’s easy to think more like a control-freak than is necessary. Take a moment (right now!) to decide where your course could give the learner more agency. Which activity could begin simply by exploring? Does that menu need to be linear? I have no research to back this one up, but it sure seems that we are all happier and more open (and thus able to absorb) when we feel we have some control, than when we have someone hovering over us with a dump truck. 

Lesson 4: Stories, not facts…

A. It’s the food, not the bell! Okay, this is not exactly Pavlov. But what you’re repeating when teaching tricks and commands is more like a story than a fact: “I’m sniffing around, she says my name, I look up, she says, ‘Come!’, I run on over there, and she gives me a treat!” At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what’s going through his head.

We could reduce this to a presentation slide saying, “Run to person who says ‘come,’” but this piece of information has little to do with what it’s like to do the behavior, and it’s the behavior we need to repeat, not the information. Knowing the story of the behavior is what helps us know when we are supposed to do it – it has context, a moment of decision, action, and consequencesjust like a good plot, or CCAF! There is a reason one of Dr. Allen’s most famous short-hands for successful training is, “Getting people to do the right thing at the right time.” Sounds a little like a plot, right? 

B. Memory research suggests that retrieval from short-term memory is different from that from long-term memory. It seems that retrieving from long-term memory is done by association. I think this is one more straw on the camel of content-based learning: Information that we can’t associate with a meaningful, motivating, memorable context is “in one ear and out the other.” 

Or, to follow the research more nearly, it’s there, between our ears, but we just can’t access This goes to the heart of why performance-based design is effective: Context, challenge, activity, and feedback (CCAF) is like the plotline that gives us access to the new information in our brain.

Lesson 5: Is your dog food-motivated?

A. That’s the technical term among dog trainers for “will-do-stuff-for-food.” I frighten to think of a dog who isn’t! Still, there are different “levels” of treats. You really want your dog to get better at recall? Try chicken. Try That will have him remembering how good it is to respond to his name real quick.

B. Here, good learner-centered design looks a lot like a hallmark of design thinking: Don’t think you know what your audience wants, go ask them. Really, physically. No survey data. Create meeting invites and some open-ended questions that will let you learn where your learners’ heads really are. I guarantee you’ll find out something that will make your course better.

This applies to a lot more than motivation, of course. I highlight it here because, when we do finally go out and ask learners, it’s common to forget about this affective and invisible but crucial!thing. Here are some questions to get at it: Ask about what they love about what they do. Ask what gives them the most satisfaction. Ask about de-motivators and disincentives. Ask why they do something or don’t do something. Then, make sure those meatballs get into your course.

I’m not the only one out there training people and dogs! What hilarious overlaps, or lack of overlaps, have you found?

 

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