The Rapid Elearning Blog

Those who design elearning courses are the bridge between the client who has specific expectations and the learner who has to take the course.  Ideally, the learner has expectations but sometimes they take the course because they have to and not because it’s what they want to do.

Building the bridge for performance-based courses is a little easier.  Because the client has performance expectations, you’re better able to build the learning environment around performance.  So they tend to be more relevant to the learners.  Ultimately, the learner knows that the measure of success isn’t in the course, but instead in improved performance.  So their motivation is a different.

It’s more challenging when you build information-based courses.  I’ve found that the client is almost exclusively focused on the information rather than the learning.  This is where the instructional design comes in.  How do you create a learning process when most of it is focused on information?

The good thing is that motivated learners require less effort on your part.  For example, I was doing a home improvement project and need to learn how to put up crown molding.  I did a search online and found the information I needed.  It was bland information with boring old text, no multimedia, and interactivity.  However, I didn’t mind, because I was motivated to learn.

So the key to success is to influence the learner’s motivation.  This works for performance or information-based courses.  To do this, put yourself in the learner’s perspective and answer these three questions.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: Why am I taking this course?

It’s important to develop learning objectives and then build the course content around meeting those objectives.  This is good.  However, what that usually translates into is a bullet point list of “You will learn this…” type of objectives.

While showing a list of objectives to your learner isn’t bad, what you really want to do is convince the learner that this course is valuable and will make a difference in what they do or know.  When the learners understand that the course has value, their motivation increases.  And motivation translates to a better learning experience.

So when you craft objectives for the course, it’s less about presenting a list and more about getting the learner to perceive value and understand how the course helps them.  That’s why scenarios and case studies are so effective.  They show the learner the course information in a relevant context.  This helps them perceive its value.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: What am I supposed to do with all of this information?

No one likes to waste time on irrelevant elearning courses.   When people commit their time to a course, they want to know why it’s important and then what they’re expected to do with this new information.

That’s why you build your information around what you expect the learner to do.  Even compliance training is built on a foundation of performance expectations.  You don’t prevent hearing loss because your employees know they need to wear ear plugs.  Instead, you prevent it because your employees are actually wearing the ear plugs.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog: How can I prove I know it?

Everything centers on what actions you expect.  When people know what the expectations are, they’re diligent to achieve them.  Let’s go back to the argument in a previous post about why people just click through the course.  The reason they click through is because they perceive that the content is not relevant.  In that case, the only performance expectation they have is to complete the course.  So they are diligent to demonstrate that they can complete the course.  In a sense, because we haven’t answered the first two questions, our course design incents them to click through to completion.  You can prevent this.

  • Make the course relevant to the learner.
  • Help the learner understand how they’ll use the information.
  • Create a way for the learner to prove they understand it.  The closer you can get to how they would apply the information in the real world, the better the learning experience. 

Quiz questions are fine, but the reality is that we rarely have to make multiple choice decisions outside of elearning courses and the occasional Cosmopolitan survey.  Ideally we design a way to measure the learners understanding that is more than selecting correct answers.

I read of a school that was teaching about nutrition.  They could have given a quiz to measure understanding.  Instead, they had the children design a week’s worth of menus for a summer camp.  The menus had to be healthy and they had to explain their choices.  As you can imagine, based on the menus designed, you’d get a better sense of the learner’s understanding than if you just had them select from a list of correct answers.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog: pointing to three learner questions

I’ve been in this industry long enough to know when and why we make the courses we do.  The reality is that a lot of times the courses are pointless and don’t warrant a lot of extra effort.  In fact, you might actually save the organization money by making them as simple as possible and letting people get back to work.

I also know that it’s a lot easier to make courses centered on the information rather than the learner.  They require less effort and time.  And to get around learner dropout (which can be anywhere from 25% to 50%), we’ll do things like lock the navigation and make courses compulsory.

However, if you really want to bring value to your courses and make them meaningful to your learners, answer these three questions:

  • Why I am taking this course?
  • What am I supposed to do with all of this information?
  • How can I prove I know it?

How would you design your courses to answer these questions?  Share your ideas by clicking the comments link.


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22 responses to “The 3 Essential Questions Every Learner Wants Answered”

I’m embarrassed Tom – because I’m such a fanboy of your blog! Again, this is terrific content! This time its terrific because I agree with everything you say. Sometimes its terrific because you teach me new thing or two. Sometimes its terrific because of the discussion in the comments section. Thanks for a great blog.

Now my $0.02: I almost always start with question #3: how will I prove what I know? This was one of the important points taught to me during my BS.Ed. courses on creating Evaluations and Assessments. It’s a Covey-ism “begin with the end in mind.” My dad called it “thinking like an engineer.” Bottom line: start with how you will assess the learning, then work backwards from there to design learning objectives which will allow the student to pass the assessment. Its a simple concept that can accommodate very complex learning situations.

Of course, good instructional design really doesn’t start with the assessment. It starts much earlier defining learning goals and aligning them with business goals, etc. But, assuming those are done and out of the way… when the rubber meets the road – you start with the assessment. Then you create multiple learning activities designed to help the student pass the assessment. This is, in a nutshell: Mastery Learning.

I always enjoy reading your blog and this article is very exciting because I am writing course objectives right now. I wonder if you or any other readers have an example or two of what these objectives look like.

Another interesting post – thanks Tom. A comment I have addressing Why am I taking this course? involves what can be done outside a course to build interest and motivation.

For example, if someone takes an elearning course without initially knowing why, chances are some may still drop out when they find out the benefits. This is because they don’t perceive the benefits are valuable enough to complete the course.

To reduce the chances of this happening, outside marketing in the form of student testimonials and case studies of benefits outside the course can help.

Elearning professionals are also in the change management business in the sense that we set about changing, or improving, the knowledge status quo. For this reason, buying into a desired change is a necessary first step to building interest in elearning.

August 12th, 2008

I’m admitting it Tom…I’m such a fangirl of your blog! (Thanks Richard!) This is another terrifice topic and certainly timely.

I’m sure within this blog community there is a wide range of how many years we’ve doing this type of work/art and if, like me, its been 20 years (or, so…now I’m embarrassed),we’ve seen eLearning go through quite a change. I approach learning now very much like Richard with question 3 – how can I prove I know and/or can do it? For me, I’ve found that this really challenges the creative side during design and pushes efforts into designing an eEnvironment where the learner can prove it. This is one of the fun parts of design. Yes, its assessment based, but I find it really helps to keep the end in mind. I also find that by approaching it this way, the first two questions actually get answered along the way.

In terms of crown molding, Tom, if you’d like any additonal tips (and, believe me, success in crown molding is about tips), please feel free to drop me an email. I’m proud to say…I easily proved I could do it, by completing my entire house; as well as two of my neighbors!


I am an Instructional Design and Learning Technologies Master’s student (Full time) and I find your blog to be very useful and practical. Like Richard I think it is terrific and especially useful for me to get an idea of what’s happening in the real world.

I like the emphasis that you have placed on the learner. I have experienced situations where the subject matter expert (SME) is just focused on what they plan to teach and they think that’s enough to form a course. In situations like these we sometimes find that the content, assessment and learning activities are not aligned and learners become dissatisfied.
In my former work environment we made instructors or SME’s come up with assessment activities for each objective before deciding on learning activities. Thus, the learning activities are geared towards preparing the learner to successfully complete the assessment. The assessments are designed based on the performance outcomes so everything coordinates. This approach worked well.
Communicating objectives to students works well too, as it takes the mystery out of what is required and what is necessary to be successful.
The transfer context analysis process plays an integral role, especially in answering the question: What am I supposed to do with all of this information?
When we have a very good idea of the context that learners are expected to transfer/apply the information, we can use this to create scenarios and use examples that are of interest to them and as you said interest sparks motivation which positively influences learning.

August 12th, 2008

Just stumbled on an article this afternoon and thought it’s worth adding with respect to Why am I taking this course? An excerpt from the June/July issue of Elearning! notes (in reference to a recent successful SAP elearning rollout):

“To create interest in the new curriculum, information was published through several internal communication channels. These included e-mails to development managers, an article in the internal newsletter, and an article on the landing page of the corporate portal.”

The article also states they used a trailer (as in movie style) to promote the elearning initiative.

I think when we build interest outside the course, we can spend more time answering question 2 and 3 in it.

Having been a junior highschool teacher many years ago I am reminded that when presenting the *what you will learn* in lesson plans gets the wrong response from some students. They take that statement as a dare. and their reply is “You think so? Well, I will show you that I can’t learn from your presentation.”
Hopefully they do learn in spite of themselves but listing the objectives as ‘you will learn this’ is counterproductive. How about listing what they WANT to learn instead.

Great topic this week. More often than not courses fail because we forget our learners. My colleages and I are discussing Malcolm Knowles’ book, The Adult Learner which covers in detail several learning principles unique to adults including those mentioned here.

“How would you design your courses to answer these questions?” is a challenge to break-up the current production process. Hundreds of hours of lessons in I have a writing, design, and production process that works for instructional designers, authors, and content distributors.

Posing the three questions from the learners perspective is an interesting challenge to make a new recipe.

Design changes I would make:
– start with the knowledge and skill quiz. If you pass the quiz the content is optional. Fail and it is required.
– invite the students to share their knowledge or experience after the lesson is completed, much as you do with this blog
– challenge the student to create an action plan at the end of the lesson to apply the information. This could potentially be a requirement for completion.

August 14th, 2008

Tom, I am not sure I have read a more important blog that this one. After reading it, I threw everything aside from my “day job” and wrote a new introduction to my fledling course on Workplace Duties. The challenge, which I was not meeting head-on, is to explain to managers and human resources professionals why a DUTY is a more powerful tool in the manager’s hands for effecting constructive change than a RIGHT (people are initially much more excited about learning about their rights and entitlements — they mistake the concept of duty with an imposition — its not an easy sell). After re-writing the introduction as you suggested, I felt like taking my own course! (And probably will if I ever complete it). Keep this up please! I learn something important from every one of your blogs.

I am working very hard to ensure that the question “Why am I taking this course” is not one that the user wants answered. In fact, I would rather see a situation in which the moderator can ask the learner “Why are you taking this course?” Because if they haven’t got a reason coming in, it means they’ve been ‘sent’, ‘done to’. We need to be looking to empower our users so that they come on this course because they have identified that it addresses an area in which they want development. I would like to see them taking greater ownership of their personal development.

I would also hope that question 2 never arose, because the ‘course’ (hate that word!) didn’t contain screeds of information, but instead pointed to what the learner is supposed to do rather than dumping content on them that they may or may not ever need (and are likely to have forgotten if it turns out they do need the information at some point).

Lastly I would hope that the user didn’t feel the need to jump through a hoop, but instead felt equipped to do his/her job better. I touched on this recently.

August 15th, 2008

Tom, the first thing that was taught to me when I started designing courses and writing content, was the strategy – Why What How.
Approach the topic setting the learning context. Explain to the learner “Why” it is important to learn the topic. This could be done using a simple scenario that reasons out the “Why” part.
Once the context is set, it is lot easier to make the learner internalize the concept being taught. That’s the What part.
How – could be the steps to perform (if it is a level 3 objective) or could emphasize how/where this knowledge could be put to use.
Needless to say, a strong cohessive summary will be required at the end that paints the complete picture.
I find this technique very effective irrespective of the subject in discussion.

August 18th, 2008

Hi, Tom-

I am a recent blogfan- thanks for the helpful tips! Thanks especially that they are so simple and yet so very practical.

Thanks also to those who mention starting with the end in mind- how does the learner prove what they have learned? However, if I may be so bold as to add my own $0.01 to that- please make certain your assessment really assesses the right things. Otherwise, the learner has only proved that he/she can pass the assessment, not that there has been learning. I taught school for years and must confess to my shame that it took far too long to learn to write valid assessments. Writing good ones is an art- if you can dash ’em off left and right, I would humbly suggest that you might need to take another look.

Recent case in point- one of my master’s professors graded our papers more strictly on APA-style adherence than content (ironically, in an Adult Learning class). My question is this: does she want to know that I can follow a set of rules, or does she want to know what I’ve learned? Even more important, the limited feedback regarding content left me wondering whether or not I really had picked up the salient points of the class.

Thanks again for the helpful tips.

August 23rd, 2008

Hi Tom,

You are simply great Tom. You had put it across the whole eLearning in just three steps and its true that if the course centred around these, the course comes great….Thanks a lot for your lovely tips….

I have been reading some interesting posts on rapid eLearning, instructional design etc. These have been excellent and very useful.
This is nothing directly or specifically related to this post, but I nevertheless thought it a point worthy to raise in the context of elearning and SMEs.
One real-time scenario and a big challenge that we all face is the readiness of content for eLearning development, more specifically, for Instructional Designers. SMEs have it all in their heads as tacit knowledge, and are often either not aware, or unwilling or have no time to put it down as content that can be very valuable for effective instruction in the elearning mode of delivery.
How do we bridge this gap? Is there a guideline and tips and tricks that we can share, or job aids that we as instructional designers share with the SMEs to simplify this exercise and capture the vast SME knowledge?


December 11th, 2008

I see the challenge to motivate my students. I feel that PodQuests and more interaction will help keep them involved. I also see the need to find alternative assessments rather than the standard essay for students to demonstrate learning.

December 11th, 2008

The challeng is to maintain motivation and engagement. I think the use of Pod Quests will hlep, but I also need to find away for my students to better demonstrate knowledge other than essays.

August 2nd, 2011

Outside of the fact that all your posts are amazing, in this one I loved the line: “Quiz questions are fine, but the reality is that we rarely have to make multiple choice decisions outside of elearning courses and the occasional Cosmopolitan survey.”

In working to train teachers on creating interactive course material it would be:

Quiz questions are fine, but the reality is that staff and students rarely have to make multiple choice decisions outside of school and the occasional Facebook poll.

[…] The 3 Essential Questions Every Learner Wants Answered […]

November 10th, 2011

Hi Tom,
As part of my coursework we were supposed to look through different blogs and I stumbled across yours. Even though this article is a few years back, it is still so useful!

We are currently discussing the use of blogs in an educational setting and as a supplementary learning tool. Browsing through your blog I have found so many useful tips and I had to quote you on my own blog, as the content of your blog is fantastic. This is real useful hands on experience.
I also believe the key success lies indeed in the motivation of the learner. I mean after all, we all can still remember how we used to moan about the delivery of content during our school years I believe in anticipating the expectation of the learner, can help me create a more meaningful relation to the content as well as the presentation.

The tips and tricks on your page are most professional and I am actually trying them out in my work as I have just finished compiling training for my co-workers. Here your technical tips on presentations are really helpful.

Well I have subscribed to the RSS-feed and I am following passionately as a new fan member. Thanks Tom, great stuff!

Motivation is the key to learning! I am an elementary teacher where the fundamentals must still be taught, yet my students’ lack of motivation is a hindrance. Few even seem bored, UNTIL…a video pops on, or they listen to a book. Anything other than hear my voice again [laughing]. I think it is important to see it from the learner’s perspective and answer the first 2 questions up front. The last question, and the way you describe the evaluation is what we school teachers [here in Georgia] call a “performance task”. Public school systems like project based learning where there is an assessment at the end that shows comprehensive learning. The only way I accomplish this is with Backwards design planning; or plan with the end in mind! Thanks for letting me share my two cents!