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Excuse Me, Your Biases are Showing

Linda Reningby Linda Rening, PhD - Studio Executive

For years, we’ve talked about different learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic. But, I’d like to suggest that ending the discussion there results in thinking that is both overly-simplistic and incomplete. Consider the people you know, and see if the way I portray differences is accurate in your experience.

Pretend you’re putting together a bike you’ve just purchased for your daughter’s fifth birthday: do you read the directions or do you just start putting it together?

Or, how about when you get a new cell phone. Do you read the entire owner’s manual first, do you have it available in case you need it, or do you toss it aside and just wing it? Human beings differ in a multitude of ways, including differences in how we access and assimilate information.

BikeSince there is such a variety of approaches to things like bikes and cell phones, I’m left to wonder why we want to force all our learners through the same pathway in e-learning courses. I doubt it is our intention to annoy as many people as possible with pedantic and condescending instructions, but I fully believe that is the result.

The Allen Interactions’ approach to learning advocates a “test-tell” approach rather than the standard “tell-test” structure. So, rather than telling learners everything and then testing them to be sure they’ve mastered 80% of it, we try to create real-to-life challenges and activities that engage learners in the content, and then teach new knowledge and skills when giving feedback.

It is a wonderful model that most people embrace until confronted with the notion of structuring their own e-learning that way. Then it seems to go right out the window.

More than once, I’ve heard the argument, “It’s not fair to learners to give them questions when you haven’t told them the right answer.” And, more than once, I’ve been tempted to say, “Really? Are you sure? Have you asked them?”

These assumptions are yet another example of a bias we believe our learners have, but like learning styles, it is not necessarily the whole truth. There are people who read the last page of a murder mystery first, while others enjoy being kept in suspense and reasoning out what happened by paying attention to clues. If you question the validity of this assumption, think about what you like to do for fun. For most of us, fun times include a game or sport of some kind. But, there isn’t a sport or game I can think of that doesn’t involve frustration when trying to learn it. If you’ve ever played golf, you know exactly what I mean.

But doesn’t it feel wonderful to be successful, to get out of the sand trap and on the green on the first try? Why would we want to deprive learners the fun and satisfaction of mastering challenges in e-learning courses? By “telling then testing,” we take the fun out of learning.

So, what is an instructional designer to do? Throw out all theories of learning style and tried-and-true techniques?

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions:

  • Remember that your learners are you. Think about yourself - would you learn from this training? Would you be able to swing that club better without practice, frustration, and learning from your mistakes? Ask your learners what they like. User testing is a great way to determine what your learners really want. Just saying, “our learners need clear directions,” or “our learners don’t want to be frustrated,” is not only arrogant, it is taking the easy way out. Ask them. They'll tell you.

  • Make definitions and resources available throughout your course. Give learners the option: Do you want to read more about it, or are you ready to jump in and try it yourself? 
Perhaps if we invite curiosity, our learners will be engaged enough to pay attention to what is on the screen. Perhaps if we allow learners to struggle a bit with a new concept, they will actually master it. Perhaps if we don’t assume we already know what’s right for everyone else, our learners will have an experience that feels right to them.