New Instructional Design Ideas for Learning Effectiveness

photo of an old fashioned school room

There’s the old-school, simple lecture approach to learning and then there are the many new ways to convey new concepts and build new skills. With technology there has come a variety of learning delivery methods…among them gaming.

In our instructional design consulting practice we have taken a close look at whether or not gaming can have advantages over a more standard eLearning approach. In other words, is the instructional design effort to include games in the methodology worthwhile? 

It is not a surprise that games not only attract but also maintain the interest of the new generation that is now entering the workplace in ever greater numbers. Games appeal to their different types of learning styles. Entertainment and learning are blended to keep participants engaged and, because the games provide opportunities for practice and feedback, the learning is interactive and performance-based. So certainly for this audience, some form of gaming should be considered as part of your instructional design.

Some instructional designers separate learning games into two categories: so-called “serious” games and “casual” games. The serious games are ones which are designed around the knowledge and skills to be learned…they are not intended simply as entertainment but focus on a specific skill or information that is part of the overall learning initiative. Casual games are separate from the learning. They are designed simply to enhance the learning. Employees are given the chance to play a game before answering training questions.

We have long believed that packaging learning in a game that is fun and competitive can be very effective. We were surprised to discover that even casual gaming drives both greater engagement and better learning outcomes. After a year-long study, a recent CLO Article, stated that the numbers show that playing a casual game prior to engaging in a learning activity resulted in logging on more frequently, higher levels of motivation, more accurate answers and more sign-ons for extra learning opportunities. The explanation is that learners who played a casual game prior to learning were more ready to concentrate and focus.

The best instructional designers use a variety of methodologies to engage learners. Certainly both serious and casual games should be part of any instructional design toolkit.

Download Whitepaper - Better, Faster and Cheaper Instructional Design Approaches

To “Get There” Instructional Designers Need a Clear Plan

A man is drawing steps leading upward

Whatever the goal, we who have worked in the instructional design consulting field for decades know that you are much more likely to achieve success if you have a clear plan. This goes for individuals as well as for teams. Know where you want to go and then plan the instructional design steps to get there.

To be set up for success, follow these instructional design consulting best practices:

  • Don’t design training alone
    There is nothing to be gained by working in a vacuum. When it comes to instructional design, do not guess.  Work with the target audience, their bosses and executive leadership to identify what matters most to all three levels.  And do not forget to use trusted subject matter experts for their advice. Involving others in your research, instructional design and subsequent plan gives you a support system and a system of accountability. And, if you have trouble getting input or help from any key stakeholders, it is a credible sign that you may be off course.
  • Be specific about your goals
    “Becoming a better manager” is not a specific enough goal to begin the instructional design process. First, identify the critical few metrics that are used to measure manager effectiveness in your specific situation.  For example, effective managers usually excel at increasing performance and employee engagement while decreasing attrition and employee relations issues. Then narrow down the field of what it takes to be a “better manager” and focus on the critical few traits and scenarios that will have the greatest impact. Perhaps managers need to be better communicators during times of change. Then you need to develop better listening skills and learn how to speak more effectively and persuasively. If this is the case, you might well focus your instructional design on a workshop that helps managers learn how to listen, reflect back what they think they have heard and check for understanding across the big organizational changes taking place. 
  • Set up a step-by-step plan to mark progress
    Put an instructional design plan and schedule in place that specifies exactly what steps you will take and when. The steps should include the basics of training needs assessment, design, delivery and training measurement.

For an instructional design to succeed, you need to use all resources available, identify your goal, specify your focus and mark your progress step-by-step. Good luck!

7 Best Practices for Instructional Designers

a dart board with a dart in the bull's eye

Sometimes we get so bogged down with the details of instructional design consulting projects that we forget the most important purpose of our job—engaging and enlightening learners in a way that builds new skills and knowledge, changes desired behaviors and improves on-the-job performance.

Instructional design consulting experts are full of advice on how to structure training programs, what activities to include, what format and delivery system to use. All well and good. But let’s take a step back and re-focus on what we need to do to capture and sustain program participants’ attention so learning can occur. 

Here are some instructional design consulting basics to ensure that learners are ready to learn. Make sure you design a program that is:

  1. Focused
    Do not bury learners under too much information. Give them a chance to digest and reflect upon the content. Just throwing stuff at them is like checking off the box and thinking the information has been absorbed.  Focus only on the critical few skills, knowledge, behaviors and situations that matter most to their success.

  2. Experiential
    On average, 70% of your design should be experiential and action-oriented and 30% should be lecture and information sharing.  Require thoughtful action and reflection on their part. Your responsibility is to see that the training has been understood and that the skills are ready to be applied on the job. Interactivity is necessary to test understanding and performance readiness.

  3. Engaging
    Do not put participants to sleep. If trainers just drone on and on, learners will quickly be bored and tune out. While we are not promoting “edutainment”, make sure that you add enough variety of pace and delivery to keep them tuned in, primed and challenged to learn something new.

  4. Relevant
    Utilize relevant scenarios that are as close as possible to real-world situations. The training venue should be a sort of laboratory where new skills can be explored and practiced in a safe and forgiving environment. But the goal is to have learners take these skills back to the workplace. The more scenarios reflect the kinds of important situations learners will face on the job, the more adept they will be in handling them.

  5. Challenging
    Don’t make it too easy. Designers often underestimate their learners and this is de-motivating. Be sure you layer the skills exercises with increasing complexity so learners are truly challenged and have to stretch to complete them successfully. They should learn something new each time they are pushed out of their comfort zones and tested.

  6. Beneficial
    Make sure the instructional design focuses on important benefits to the participants, their bosses and the company as a whole.  Be clear about what they will learn and how this will help them and their organization be more successful. This tip should be number one in the list! You want learners not prisoners. Participants need to understand what is in it for them. They should attend because they are willing and eager to learn and improve, not because their manager made the training mandatory. Managers should be fully behind the training because it will teach the behaviors that are part of a larger corporate strategy. There should be measurable business results when the training becomes part of the participants’ standard operating procedure.

  7. Adaptable
    Remember that you, too, can learn. Pilots are a good way to test the effectiveness of your instructional design and training program content. Observe and listen to your test learners so you can adjust the program design to make the learning more accessible, engaging and challenging.

6 Must-Have Instructional Design Elements for Learning Games

One of the challenges of those of us who practice instructional design consulting is how to keep things fresh and exciting, as well as effective.  Certainly the old school style of lecture has proven to be ineffective in terms of truly changing behavior and engaging today’s more sophisticated learners who reject yesteryear’s authoritarian approach to learning. 

Are instructional games the answer? Games are fun and they engage participants actively and with a sense of competition. But are they effective in increasing skills, knowledge and performance? We say absolutely “yes” as long as they include the same instructional design elements that make any learning solution effective. 

One of our good friends, who pretty much pioneered the use of games to teach behaviors and skills in the corporate setting, maintains that any instructional design and training technique can work if the following elements are incorporated into the design:

  • Purpose
    The purpose of the training in terms of both business and learning objectives should be crystal clear to the participants, their boss and the business as a whole. Are you hoping to instill better customer service behaviors or are you looking to improve conflict resolution on a team? Keep the purpose in mind every step of the way as you develop the program.

  • Participants
    Be sure that you include the target audience in your design. Just as you would focus a presentation to what mattered most to your intended audience in terms of content and delivery, you must also consider what matters most to the workshop participants and the learning style that would most benefit them.

  • Engagement
    We know that the more actively engaged participants are in the exercise, the more likely they are to learn the new skill or behavior. Participants will be motivated to engage if the facilitator is credible, encouraging and trusted.

  • Relevance and Practice
    The training program will succeed if the lessons to be learned are deemed highly relevant and beneficial to the participants, their bosses and the company as whole.  With experiential practice of the desired new skills and behaviors in the safe, neutral and experimental setting of the classroom, comfort zones can be expanded and meaningful learning outcomes can be achieved.

  • Application
    Our training measurement research has found that, unless the learning can be applied frequently and fairly immediately on the job and is combined with performance feedback, it is likely to be forgotten. Transfer of the new behaviors to the job to improve performance is the goal. When the learning design incorporates real world situations, transfer is far more likely. Then if you add to the debrief of the game or exercise some action planning which includes feedback and coaching back on the job, you can measurably increase the transfer of newly learned skills.

  • Impact
    Remember why you are designing the program. The lessons learned should be directly related to knowledge and skills that will improve performance in areas that matter to the organization.  Then and only then will your instructional design be truly successful.

Instructional Design: It’s the Performance that Counts

4 cartoon figures are competing in a running race

In our instructional design consulting business, we are constantly surprised at how few learning practitioners focus directly on performance; they are much more apt to discuss their expertise, approach and deliverables in terms of learning. 

When all is said and done, however, it is not so much what has been learned but, in the corporate setting, how much has been learned AND applied on the job to improve performance.  Learning is simply a means or a path to better performance. It should not be the only end result of the training programs you create.

If your instructional design team can truly adopt this performance and outcome-oriented mindset, what will it look like and how will it change things in the workplace?

  • Business needs will be couched in terms of changes in performance. 
    Instead of simply adding to the corporate body of knowledge with yet another bit of learning, the learning solutions will be targeted to improving relevant on-the-job behavior that has been identified as having a measurable and meaningful business impact. Say that the organization’s strategy includes improving the customer experience to increase customer loyalty, renewal revenue and deal size. Design your training program around the scenarios and role plays that will have the greatest impact on those three performance metrics.  Then, practice and provide on-the-spot coaching so participants can understand, experience and benefit from the desired behavioral shift and performance outcomes.

  • Measurement will focus on adoption and impact.
    No longer will you be measuring what has been learned; you will measure what skills have been adopted, how behavior has changed on the job and the impact it has had on performance.  While the customer service skills for your unique strategy, culture and industry will vary as much as your scenarios, the impact you are looking for in this example is an improvement in customer loyalty scores, renewal revenue and deal size. 

  • You will be seen more as a business partner.
    When your focus shifts from skills to performance and business metrics, you become a key player in improving individual, team and organizational performance. You will be part of the conversations about what critical moves the organization needs to make in order to grow and thrive. You are not limited to what happens in an outdated and traditional learning and development department; you become an enabler of business success.

Instructional Design Tips for Different Learning Styles

A compass points to the word "Learning"

As an instructional designer, it is up to you to structure learning programs in a way that maximizes participant learning and knowledge gain. This means engaging learners so that they are actively involved in the process.

We have learned a lot about adult learning since Malcolm Knowles first studied the subject in the late ‘60s. We know that adults learn best when relevance is high.  And relevance is high when participants believe that they need to:
know the information to be successful
improve their skills to be successful
change their behavior to be successful

In other words, training participants learn better when they understand the benefits personally and professionally of learning in addition to the risks of not learning and not changing.

As instructional design consulting experts, we know that to engage adults from the beginning in a learning program they and their boss need to believe in the value of the effort they need to make and the correlated performance results that will occur. Your challenge as an instructional designer, then, is to ensure that the content is regularly linked back to how this will improve their work and performance in the real world. You also need to include a variety of learning tools that will engage the different types of learning styles: 
For the visual learners utilize slides, videos, flip charts and demos.
For the auditory learners incorporate group discussions, stories and lectures 
For the kinesthetic learners design relevant role plays, scenarios, simulations and activities 

In designing the flow of the learning solution, give plenty of opportunities for the facilitator to provide real-time feedback for the participants. As a form of personalized coaching, facilitators can guide learners, on the spot, toward the right answer or encourage the right behavior or tweak the skill being taught. Facilitators should monitor small group activities, guide discussions, and conduct debrief sessions after a role play that include all the learners.

Once a group has completed a presentation, for example, set up time for the facilitator and other learners to give feedback by asking questions, giving specific examples of what worked and what did not work. And after a learning activity, prompt the facilitator to summarize and reinforce what was learned and, most important, link the results to what the learners do on-the-job real-time. For true learning transfer, this focus on how the lessons will be applied on the job is a critical component to the transfer of training back to the workplace.

Learn more at:

How Instructional Design Can Accelerate Learning

cartoon of a man's head being filled with books

Thank goodness we understand much more about adult learning now than in the past! 

For example, experts on adult learning theory have taught us better, more effective ways to deliver new information and skills. It is not just by reading books or attending lectures…the best learning occurs when there is a questioning strategy, lots of interaction, reinforcement of concepts, and application of new skills. That’s what instructional designers aim for…they figure out how to deliver learning experiences so that the acquisition of knowledge and skills is more effective, more efficient and, in the final analysis, more interesting, lasting and fun. 

One of the most challenging groups of learners are corporate executives. They are pressed for time and are rightfully reluctant to leave their posts for any kind of “training.” Besides their pressing schedules, many executives don’t believe they have much to learn and, if they admit to needing improvement, it is hard to find someone with the experience and credibility needed to address them effectively.

Some time ago we were faced with the challenge of working with a group of high-priced and very successful partners at a prestigious law firm who needed help in dealing more effectively and sensitively with their staff to improve employee engagement, retention and performance. We found a facilitator who had the credentials and the savvy to gain their respect. But first we had to get the attorneys to recognize they needed help and could not make the changes on their own. 

Here was our instructional design consulting approach:

1. We gathered and presented the business case.
Their dealings with the staff had created serious performance problems. There was painfully high and increasing turnover.  The staff that remained was seriously demoralized.  Productivity, client satisfaction and collections were sliding drastically across the board. We quantified the hard and soft costs of the attrition and slowdown of work in terms of the metrics that mattered most to them – billing rates, billable hours, collections and client satisfaction.  The numbers were startling.  The most senior lawyers were ready to pay attention.

2. We described the success of our program in a similar environment.
By telling the story of a turnaround in a similar company in a similar situation, they were ready to make the commitment of time and effort to learning and adopting the new behaviors required to get different results.

3. We coached them in the new behaviors and measured resulting changes in staff attitudes and work production.
When we could prove that their efforts toward dealing more positively with their staff and toward creating a high performance environment were aligned with their business strategy and made a difference, the program became institutionalized throughout the firm. 

The first step in delivering effective learning is to create personal and professional relevance.  Typically, we work with the target audience, their bosses and the leadership team to define success in a way that matters most compared to other business priorities. The relevance has to be high enough to convince the learners, their boss and the company to set aside the time and make the effort required to drive true behavior and performance change. Then you need to frequently monitor and recognize progress toward the desired results. This is how to keep your learners learning.

Learn more at: