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Ideas Instructional Design

Keeping Learners on Their Toes

Struggling to get your learners engaged? Try some of these ideas to liven things up.

Almost anything can trigger behavior change. Seemingly insignificant experiences might lead to small changes. In a Scientific American article, Emily Laber-Warren suggests that simply imagining yourself as being more or less fearful can lead to small shifts in your political bias. In another article in the same journal, Rachel Hertz, a psychology professor at Brown University, explains that scents can have different effects on people from varying cultures, and can even impact the way we experience emotions.

Other decisions can lead to more resonant change, possibly even helping you redefine your life’s purpose. Take for instance Irene, a woman whose recovery from severe depression began when she forced herself to go for walks, according to an article in Psychology Today. Irene’s walks gradually got longer and led to a deeper appreciation for music, a keen eye for the beauty of raindrops on leaves, and eventually to rediscovering joy in providing for her family.

By the same reasoning, training can take a wide range of formats and approaches and still meaningfully impact a user’s behavior. Just ask Christian Jarrett, who’s written extensively about the brain, and in a Wired article stamps out the myth that people learn best through one preferred method. Personally, I find it freeing that, as Jarrett claims, we often learn best when applying ourselves in ways that are varied and even uncomfortable.

If you put enough thought and care into how your users experience a course, ensuring that they encounter sufficient variety and a few surprises, something is bound to strike a chord in them.

Let’s celebrate this exciting potential with some weird ideas that might keep your learners on their toes!

Start Small

Everyone wants to welcome users to a course right away, showing them exactly what they’re going to learn and how it’s going to help them. It makes sense: You want learners to feel appreciated and informed as soon as they launch the course. So obviously, you have to kick things off with a high-gloss production number!

But what if you didn’t?

Why not start off with a small, curious challenge that prompts learners to invite themselves into the experience? You see this kind of thing a lot in video games. Check out Limbo, for instance, which sets players in a quiet, eerie world filled with mysterious sound effects and no directions. Or you could ask an unexpected question that seems unrelated to the content to catch learners a little off guard. Think of astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s famous quote: “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” By framing a simple baking task in a universal context, Sagan surprises us and challenges us to reconsider the very nature of the problem.

Instead of a full, media-rich animation—which can definitely work great, but stay with me on this—why not have a single object to move, or a series of clicks on a sparse, abstract environment that guides learners through a set of boldly stated takeaways? As we often point out, you always need to engage the user quickly, but there are many ways to achieve that. Sometimes, a whisper can be louder than a shout.

Switch it Up Suddenly

Just because you’ve established a specific vibe for the training doesn’t mean you’re shackled to it for the entire experience. Think about it:

Great music, books, and movies don’t usually hammer the same note over and over again.

It’s the way they incorporate different levels that keep people hooked. Don’t be afraid to subvert expectations! Mix frank, outspoken writing with a sincere call to action. Use actual, modern humor—not corniness—to complement a serious review of consequences in a compliance course.

Same goes for interactivity and visuals. Add some interruptions that require learners to make a choice while feeling a little uncertain. Create some fake banner ads that call out the unspoken hardships your audience endures in their day-to-day tasks. Give them a quiz that’s more rigorous or reflective than an expected march through facts. Don’t get hung up on making everything perfectly uniform and consistent—users can handle a well-placed change of pace.

Change the Entire Format

Training shouldn’t have to look or feel like the standard rectangular window you launch and proceed to march through. Need proof? Check out our Neverfog project, in which we turned healthcare benefits training into a user-directed sci-fi game. Think about ways to deliver training in a creative way that moves beyond the basic linear progression of a typical course. Here are some ideas:

  • An ongoing series of graphic novels, or even just a four-panel comic, to depict how a new policy will impact the workplace
  • A beautiful infographic delivered on the homepage of the intranet, or directly to learners’ inboxes
  • Journal-style narrative installments of a story that follows a new hire’s journey through orientation
  • Documentary-style videos of employees revealing their most effective techniques for mastering customer service
  • An audio interview showcasing some authentic employee perspectives regarding the benefits of a new procedure
  • A daily gif or captioned photo that depicts the consequences of a vital rule in one shot

Whatever you choose, consider whether subverting the standard, expected approach could benefit your audience by getting them to double down on their investment in it. The science behind solid instructional design is always enriched by the addition of art and creativity.

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