The Rapid Elearning Blog

I once worked on a project for new machine operators who were not able to meet their quotas within 90 days of being hired. I assumed that I would build a standard course that took them through the tasks.  Before starting, I wanted to get to know more about the learner’s environment, so I spent a few days with the machine operators.  Do you know what I discovered?

The new hires didn’t have a problem with the job.  Instead they were all intimidated by the machine.  Every day, they were told, “This is a million dollar machine, don’t break it.”  This created so much pressure to not mess up that it slowed down their work.

It caused me to change my approach to the course.  Most of the course focused on the machine and less on the details of the job.  They learned a lot more about the parts of the machine and how it worked.  We spend the entire first week doing preventive maintenance.  By the time they actually started doing real work, they were very comfortable working on the machine.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: courses need to be matched with real world experiences

Initially, the client scoffed when we pitched our ideas.  They wanted us to focus more on the job tasks.  However, the results were that within the first two weeks, almost all of the new hires were performing at the desired level.  

I would never have known to focus less on the job and more on the machine’s intimidation had I not spent time with the learners and better understood their world and the pressures they face.

That event was one of my best learning experiences.  It reinforced the need to meet with learners and understand their world.  It also opened my eyes to think beyond the obvious.  A big pitfall is that we tend to rest in the familiar. Without the time on the floor, I would have built a functional course, but missed the opportunity to make real improvements on their performance.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: Avoid these pitfalls

Here are some other pitfalls we can avoid if we spend some time with our learners.  

  • Screen after screen of information irrelevant to the learner’s needs.  This is the biggest problem with elearning.  We have a tendency to present information rather than have the learner process it.  A more engaging approach is to drop them into real-world situations where they have to make decisions that require the use of the course’s information.  You won’t know what the best use cases are if you don’t spend time with your learners.  They’ll give you insight in how they use the information.
  • Rely too much on your own intuition or experiences and end up building courses that don’t fit the learner’s needs.  This is especially common if you’re the subject matter expert.  Sometimes we lose sight of how much we know and the experience required to get there.  Hook up with new or recent learners to get a better feel for the course design. 
  • Create a big course and all they need is a cheat sheet.  I’ve worked on a project that took months to complete.  By the time we rolled it out, the employees had already created simple cheat sheets and they were off to the races.  They didn’t need what we built.  Keep it simple and give them what they need when they need it. 
  • Elearning doesn’t replace the need for legitimate performance support.  One of the biggest disconnects with elearning is that we tend to use it to replace the time a person needs to learn from others in a social context.  Sometime people don’t need training.  Instead they just need to be connected to others.  
  • Our learners have needs we’re not aware of.  This could mean that the learners have technological limitations, physical disabilities, or a work environment that’s not conducive to taking elearning courses.  Trust me on this one.  There’s nothing worse than rolling out a big elearning project and finding out that none of the computers have sound cards.
  • Miscalculate the motivations of the learner.  While we enjoy the elearning courses we produce, odds are that the learners are not quite as enthused.  Find ways to tap into the learner’s motivation.  A good starting point is to focus on performance and helping them to do something better.

To know your learners doesn’t mean that you have to canvas the floor with people in clipboards and lab coats.  At the very least, spend a few minutes talking to the people who will take the course.  If you can, talk to recent learners to get a sense of what worked for them and what insights they have to improve the process.

By getting you know your learners, you’ll avoid many pitfalls and build better courses.  Poorly designed training wastes time and potentially disrupts the work environment because it’s not really addressing the performance issues that typically instigate the training in the first place.

What pitfalls do you recommend that we avoid?  Share your ideas by clicking adding them to the comments section.


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24 responses to “Get to Know Your Learners (And Avoid These Pitfalls)”

November 11th, 2008

Great list of pitfalls to avoid. I found Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping deck ( a nice guide for avoiding the “irrelevant information” pitfall.

And I completely agree that getting to know the learners is a valuable time investment. To build on that, I’d also say that taking time to understand the business issues behind the learning need is key to making the training (not the instructional design) successful.

How does this work when the learners are inaccessible? Or even when they are not well defined but the client still demands a course. Its difficult to understand the requirements when the senior people sort of force you to assume things and make the learners pretty inaccessible. Some of the points you have mentioned are great and very pertinent, especially understanding the technical capabilities of the learners.

This topic is near and dear to my heart, Tom. I can’t tell you how many times our group has had to develop training tools (not elearning) based solely on what management wants to push versus what employees want to learn. The typical process where I work is to create a “solution” before identifying a problem! It’s not only ineffective, it’s damaging. Employees roll their eyes and immediately dig in their heels to resist this kind of forced irrelevent training. On the (very) rare occasions where we are allowed to seek their input first, they don’t give us any because we’ve never gained their trust or respect. I totally understand their point of view. It’s very frustrating that management does not.

Anyway, that’s where I work. What I’m doing after work (freelance) (creating an interactive learning environment) is going to be powerful, effective and successful thanks to your tips and advice!

Thanks, Tom!

November 11th, 2008

Sometimes, spending some time on the floor uncovers hidden opportunities that can vastly improve workflow without any intervention at all. Just by observing you can pick up on things that provide no value, but keep getting done over and over. That’s why I see training and process improvement as a continuum and not as two discrete worlds. Competent people working with competent processes can do wonderful things. But if either side of the equation (or both) are lacking it rarely can work as we wish. Trainers are sometimes reluctant to stretch beyond the classroom and explore the workplace. Very often, we’re the only people who can look across thought worlds and functional barriers to see how things relate and how they can be made better. We need to take those opportunities. Stetching can increase the trainer’s value to an organization. In today’s climate that’s not a bad thing.

We recently had a corporate-wide training package that all were required to take concerning policy. It had this elaborate video-game feel – you progressed through the course by collecting tokens which allowed you to open the “treasure” at the end. It had animation, it had elaborate graphics, sound, etc. I wonder how much time and money was spent creating this course, when most of us would have been perfectly happy with “just give me the facts, ma’am.”

[…] come creare corsi coinvolgenti ed evitare di annoiare a morte gli utenti. L’articolo è qui. Voglio commentare qui i suggerimenti che Tom […]

@Nancy: I saw a similar demo at a conference. It was a cool new hire game. After about 5 minutes of watching a game player navigate the course and fight creatures, one of the executives asked how you get oriented as a new employee.

The response was that you first had to make it to level 2.

You also bring up a good point. So often we talk about engagement and learning, yet many learners just want tog et to the facts. I recall once when I showed off a cool scenario interaction, someone told me that what they hate the most is going through a scenario when all they needed was some basic information. It’s surprising how many people prefer “bullet points” over interactive learning. This makes sense for a lot of the compliance type training that doesn’t really impact performance.

@Deepali: good question. In many cases it is not easy to get access to the learners. The client has some sort of rationale behind the training and what it is to accomplish. Use that. If you can’t get access prior to the training, at least try to get a pilot group to review the course. Worst case, the client is right and just deliver what it is they want. If it’s not linked to real performance improvements, it probably doesn’t matter anyway.

@Michael and Myles: I am reminded of a previous job where I worked to build a consortium of training, management, and the data collectors. The goal was to yoke the training efforts with real business goals. I won’t say what happened, other than that I learned a lot about the complexities of business decisions and business politics.

@Bonnie: glad you get to stretch your wings

November 11th, 2008

As a sales trainer, I am always looking at better ways to teach our employees. Your ideas and thoughts are always a breath of fresh air. Thanks.

Knowing your audience and needs analysis is extremely important in creating effective training. This post was right on target! Thanks.

An additional benefit from “shadowing” staff is identifying how e-learning courses are being used and the environment in which they are being accessed. I am an e-learning designer for a bank and when visiting branches, I have noticed staff must take my courses in spurts due to the arrival of customers, demands of the manager or other staff, etc. I have also observed staff revisit courses as a reference or job aid. All of which has made me rethink the design of my courses (access, navigation, orientation, etc.) and development of jobs aids in conjunction with course releases.

@Jeff: good points. I think it makes us rethink the locking down of courses or shutting people out after completion. If possible, I try to give learners as much control as possible.

Another excellent post – thanks. Most of my projects are more sales presentations than e-learning courses…I would really appreciate a post or two on that aspect of using rapid e-learning tools, as I suspect I’m not the only one using them this way.

November 12th, 2008

I don’t know about other countries, but in India, “Need analysis” is something that is missing all the time. As a result, the learner is the most neglected and forgotton entity in the whole content develoment life cycle.
Neither the SME nor the ID gets to meet the learners (or a section of them) to understand their needs. Here the whole design is based on the demands put in by the client. Both the client and the vendor, ofcourse want the course delivered at the shortest possible time. More often, the person who develops the storyboard is given the subject to develop content, without getting any feed back on the requirement of the student, his demographics or psycgraphics.
That is the pity with most elearning courses.
The other problem I have seen is when school teachers come in to create content. Though, they know the needs of a learner best, they are unable to deliver a course content as per the requirement of the vendor/ client. I wonder why?



That was quite a comprehensive list. Thanks Tom. Now that many of us have admitted that we do not have access to the real learners before we start with the project, I think it would be a good idea to check with them at least in the end. That is, when the course is done with and launched, check with them on how did they like it. Did they feel it helped them in any way or helped them do their job better? That also helps many a times when there are is a series of similar such courses to be built and ‘rolled out’. At least the same mistakes can be avoided. But then again, if the real learners are not accessible even then, should we just ‘rely’ on the client to give us the feedback?

Hi Tom,

I hear you! I can’t express enough how important it is to do needs analysis. And in reality it is usually a two set approach:

1) Training Needs Analysis: what skills does a competent staff member need? What does a new person need to be trained in?

2) Skill gap analysis: what do existing staff need?

My big tip is to ask to observe staff that management think are their top performers, ask to observe those that they think struggle the most, and ask to observe a group in the middle. It’s often the really small things that make the difference between the three groups. And the most common demoniator between the top performers and the other groups is that they understand ‘why’ they have to follow certain processes and the consequences. Too often people train others on machines / software and never tell them why they have to follow a certain process. Crazy!

I can also relate to your comments about training materials. I recently worked with an external company who was providing training for new software in my company. The training materials were awful. They had slide after slide after slide of screen dumps (95 slides in total! And they read every single one).

And yes, the handouts were the powerpoint three slides to a page with blank lines. Yuk! Who wants to flip through 20 pages of those? And of course they did training crime 101: they asked the participants to enter data as they demonstrated it on screen. I call this ‘follow the bouncing ball’ training and it is never successful.

So for the rollout in the next region, we’ve took the training back in house. We redesigned the slides – cutting them from 95 to 25 (and we cut out the paragraphs of text). We removed all the screen dumps. We demonstrate live how to use the system, then we give them ‘play time’ on a training database. We now only give them a 3 page quick reference guide.

We’ve cut hours out of the course. Guess what, our participants are noticeably more positive since we’ve taken over the training. There are fewer errors, people are excited about using the system, oh and they don’t go back to the old ways!

Like Bonnie I too am about to go into the field of e-learning in more detail – going from a full-time employee to a freelance accountant-cum-video-and-e-learning-provider.

Yesterday I had an interview at an accountancy practice which is looking to pull together its staff’s knowledge of various software packages.

“How would you know what our staff know about this package?” said one of my interviewers.

“I’d ask them” I said. “I’d want to come in and spend some time working with them to see how they use the software”.

My interviewer beamed at me.

That said, though, I find it very annoying when someone peers over my shoulder to watch what I’m doing. How do other e-learning providers get round that?


[…] Kuhlmann writes a great piece about getting to know your audience and avoiding common pitfalls. Unfortunately not all content project teams are lucky to get access […]

Nice example, Tom. It’s straight out of Mager! He had it all figured out so long ago.

That’s a fitting example. In my opinion, new employees should be given the space and freedom to make any mistakes without feeling the threat of being chided for it.

[…] Get to Know Your Learners (And Avoid These Pitfalls) […]

I think that to develop a course you have to understand very well the concept that you are going to give.To fine different way for the person to understand it.The concept has to be as clear as posible and lot of picture ,photos or clip art. To expland the concept. Give examen or exercise to see if they have the idea of the concept.

When I do a powerpoint I like to be very preside in the concept and give a lot of foto or picture to compensate the concept . Have a lot of picture for the student to tell me about the concept in the foto.By see the picture or foto they can manage very well the meaning of the concept with the foto

[…] Get to know your learners to build the best course possible […]