5 ways to perfect your learning design for adults


Remember when visual/audio/kinesthetic learning was all the rage? The idea was that you either learned through seeing, listening or doing. Flash back to your high school days and I am sure you all had that one high school teacher that had everyone fill out a questionnaire to see what kind of learner we were.

It didn’t take long for educators to quickly catch up on the fact that this three-way divide never really existed. In truth, we all respond to all kinds of teaching when each is delivered in moderation. There is no one way to teach or learn, and educating is a beautifully complex task that combines many interrelated concepts.

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To make it a little easier to navigate, we’ve rounded up five of our favourite tips, techniques and principles that our expert learning designers love to use when they’re designing learning experiences.

Adults have unique training needs.

#1 - Tap into the AGES model

AGES stands for Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing. It is the “four active ingredients for long-term learning”, bringing a neurological basis to the structure of learning experiences.

Attention refers to the need for balance between times of focus and times of refresh. When we are focused, the brain actively forms new connections between the neurons in our brain, which are the building blocks for memories and learning.

Generation is about how we engage with learning material. The brain stores memories in a vast web, with each memory connected to many around it. The more actively and creatively we interact with new ideas, the stronger those memories will be as they become a part of the web.

Emotion is both tricky and important to elicit from your learners. Evoking emotional responses will increase their attention to information, while simultaneously activating core parts of our brain that are responsible for choosing which memories are important and worth encoding.

Spacing builds upon the principle of Attention by focusing on time of refresh. Refresh- often in the form of reflection- is when the brain strengthens these new neural connections, turning experience into memory. Without memory, there is no learning, making spaced times of refresh just as critical as times of concentrated focus.

#2 - Take a constructivist approach

Constructivism is a way of understanding how humans learn that has proved incredibly enduring. Developed and pioneered by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, constructivism posits that learning is a transformative process of actively building knowledge and understanding, instead of passively receiving information. When we encounter new ideas, we instinctively attempt to connect them to our prior experiences in two processes Piaget called Assimilation and Accommodation. If the new knowledge fits our experience of the world, we are likely to assimilate it into our web of understanding- if it doesn’t fit, we’re more likely to reject the new idea and stick with what we think we know.

Constructivism has a number of similarities to the AGES model. Both concepts conceive our brains as a web in which all our ideas and memories are connected in an infinitely complex web. Both teach that we need to purposely activate this web, whether through triggering focus or by evoking prior knowledge and experiences.

Constructivism is a educational theory that can inform your learning design.

#3 - Tell stories

Thousands of years before readings and writing became assumed skills, many cultures around the world had sophisticated oral storytelling traditions- and many still do. Stories have been used to pass on knowledge for millenia, and there’s a reason why. A recent study conducted by Northeastern University in Boston found that participants presented with detailed, suspenseful and relatable scenarios produced far more brainwave activity than those with limited characters, perspectives and decisions. Good stories and scenarios capture our attention, connect us to content and cement our learning.

HowToo recently developed a new, ready-to-go module on Equity and Diversity. The entire module consisted of a series of scenarios, with the learner asked to make a decision in each scenario. Instead of forcing the learner to read large slabs of policy text, the module uses the scenarios to guide the learner towards a new way of thinking. Incorrect decisions are treated as just as important and teachable as correct decisions.

#4 - Consider microlearning

Microlearning as a concept has been around for a few years now, and refuses to disappear. In short, it describes any bite-sized piece of learning that has a single learning outcome. It often only takes 10 minutes or less to complete. Microlearning approaches can lead to higher and more consistent retention rates. Structuring learning programs around smaller modules enables the program to be more flexible, as short elements can be updated with new content much quicker.

More recently, microlearning has provided a basis for the approach of “learning in the flow of work.” This champions programs made of smaller modules that employees can access on a needs-basis. Instead of forcing them through lengthy learning programs with poor retention rates, team members are encouraged to access the modules they need when they need them. In this way, learning enters the flow of work, instead of interrupting it.

Short courses and microlearning are a popular approach to learning design for adults.

#5 - Manage cognitive load

Cognitive load is a popular theory within cognitive science and psychology. Pioneered by Australian John Sweller, Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) offers a framework for understanding the capacity of working memory, with huge implications for learning design.

Cognitive load refers how much our working memory is being burdened at any one time. The more information we are required to remember and process at once, the greater the cognitive load. With the limit estimated to be between 4-7 chunks of knowledge at any one moment, it is easy to accidentally overload learners by:

  • underestimating the complexity of the new information,
  • offering too much information at once,
  • splitting attention between multiple focus points, or
  • using the wrong medium for conveying information.

The effective of cognitive overload is confusion, fatigue, zoning out and inevitably bad learning acquisition or retention. A keen understanding of CLT is critical for ensuring that learners are receiving the right amount of information at the right level.

Next Steps: Don’t just pick one!

In case you haven’t already realised, none of these tips are meant to act alone. In fact, you could easily apply all five to one learning module! The different ideas and techniques overlap and illuminate different areas of learning, motivation and engagement that are all important in creating a learning experience. There are times when you might lean more heavily on one than another, and that’s great too. Our list isn’t exhaustive either- no doubt we’ll be sharing more of our favourites soon.

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Sep 23, 2020
Learning Design

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