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instructional design tip

This instructional design tip focuses on how to simplify and chunk content in complex training courses. Essentially, instructional design is about crafting a viable learning experience. Based on our desired learning outcomes, we create a way for people to learn (and hopefully apply) the content in a relevant context.

Often we have to teach content that’s too complicated for new learners. The risk is that we dump too much on them and overwhelm them with a lot of new information. Or we over-simplify the course content (especially real-life decisions) and the result it the course is not complex enough. This can also make the courses less engaging because they’re less challenging.

Instructional Design Tip: Break Your Content into Chunks

One way to teach complex content is to break it into more manageable chunks and getting rid of a lot of extra content. Guide the learners to work through the chunks and as they acquire new skills (and comfort) they’re able to work through more complex content.

instructional design tip

I find that one major challenge for adult learners is the unease that comes from not understanding the appropriate context and how the learning fits into the bigger picture. Because of this I like to break the content into chunks and progressively assemble the chunks to build a broader context of the course content and objectives.

Below is an example from a previous project that may inspire some ideas for your own courses.

Instructional Design Tip: Get to Know Your Learners

A few years ago I had to design training for machine operators in a complex production environment. The machine was a linchpin in the production process because the work flow boomeranged and returned to the machine twice during production. A good operator kept things moving forward, but one less experienced could hold up the entire floor’s production and cost the organization time and money. Our task was to get all of the new operators at an acceptable level of production within 90 days.

instructional design tip

I met with managers and subject matter experts who gave me a lot of content to review. And then I spent some time on the floor. This is a key part of instructional design—get to know your learners, their work environment, and what they have to do. Don’t just review documentation or trust what the subject matter expert says. They often dismiss real world issues or present things from an ideal perspective based on years of experience.

By meeting with everyone including the learners and investigating the real world environment, I had a better understanding of how the environment impacted the learning experience for new people.

Instructional Design Tip: Identify the Discomfort

When I analyzed the workflow, one of the first things I learned was that the new operators were intimidated by the machine and the fast pace of the workflow. They had to constantly upload and unload material and then deal with machine-related issues. In addition, the work environment was really noisy so it was hard to hear instructions and get feedback. And to make matters worse, they were constantly reminded how expensive the machine was and to “not mess it up.”

These are things not covered in documentation manuals.

We designed some elearning modules around the parts of the machine. They were pulled from the production floor and took a few modules to learn about the machine, preventive maintenance, and the general workflow.

Then when they got back on the floor, all they focused on was daily maintenance of the machine. For most of the first week, they just touched the machine a lot without a lot of focus on production work. By the time they got into production, they were so familiar with the machine that they no longer were intimidated.

Instructional Design Tip: Peer Coaches Help Train

Another challenge was that all of the people were being trained by different machine operators—some better teachers than others. And most were not given an incentive to make the training stick. And they were doing the training in real time with real production in a loud facility.

A new learner benefits from having a go-to contact who provides guidance, answers questions, and provides feedback. The organization benefits from having a consistent message and a vehicle to mentor potential supervisors or managers.

instructional design tip

We trained some of the production staff to be “peer coaches.” This gave us quality control over how the content was delivered. The peer coaches became a consistent point of contact for the new learners.  And the new learners felt more comfortable when requiring help, as they didn’t feel like they were getting in the way.

The peer coach program also provided a way to train future supervisors by giving them elevated responsibilities.

Instructional Design Tip: Learning Journals

We created a learning journal. The journal served as a dynamic operator’s manual. It contained all of the core content the new learners required, all of their notes from the conversations, day’s work, and online training was captured in the journal.

instructional design tip

We also used it as the guide for the peer coaches to help them, especially when they were busy. They didn’t need to think through what to teach, they just had to follow the guide and review the learner’s progress.

Instructional Design Tip: Online Training Compresses Learning Time

One of the benefits of instructional design is being able to compress the time required to learn. For example, in a given work day, a person may do a specific task 2 times. Thus in the course of a week, they only get 10 repetitions of that task.

Instructional design allows us to pull that task out of the normal workflow and create a practice activity where they can repeat just that task many more times than what they’d do in the daily workflow. I also found that when a task only happens a few times, those are pushed out for more advanced learning and only experienced people get to do the task for fear that a new person messes it up.

Instructional Design Tip: Create a Working Lab

We created a working lab by slowing down the production on the training machine. Initially the organization didn’t want to slow down production. But we convinced them that slowing down production allowed the learners to get meaningful repetition and as they gained confidence we would increase the speed to match the real world.

instructional design tip

For this training, we created individual activities. Thus they didn’t focus on getting everything through the machine. Instead they only focused on that one part. As they became more comfortable, we added more speed and combined tasks.

Breaking your content into distinct chunks helps make the learning experience more manageable and it’s easier to develop and update. In the example above we were able to separate the tasks from the real world flow and chunk them into smaller learning activities. And as their skills improved we combined tasks to add complexity.

The result for us was that we had almost all people trained within 10 days. In fact, we did so well with the training that we under reported our success because we didn’t want people to think that we were fibbing on the numbers.


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