Why do learning and training experiences sometimes fail?

I’ve been a learner in some sort of formalized learning experience for the past 28 years. Given the amount of structure my mother provided for the first five, I suppose I might be able to include those in the count of formal experiences as well.

These formal learning experiences have taken place in a variety of settings from academic institutions to organizations and, of course, in the workplace. Throughout my own personal learning journey, I’ve experienced a fair share of what I would consider flawed learning experiences. To be completely fair, I’m kind of a picky about learning experiences. Go figure, given my line of work.

I generated a list of reactions to several specific learning experiences that fell short of my expectations. See if you can relate.

  • The course content was really dense and difficult to follow. I felt like I needed a Ph.D. to even understand what the instructor was saying.
  • The online course was painful to navigate and completely boring!
  • That was an epic waste of my time, why didn’t the instructor just give me a handout with what I need to know?
  • The animations and videos looked awesome, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with the information.
  • Gimme a break! I can’t possibly coach an employee using the steps they suggested in that course. That was cheesy and completely unrealistic given the way things work around here!

As we work with new clients, we often encounter stories about learning and training experiences that fall short of meeting learners’ expectations. In all seriousness, my own experiences and the stories we’ve heard from clients spurred me to ask, “Why do learning experiences sometimes fail?”

It’s easy to blame obvious things like the format of the course—“Online courses just don’t mesh with how I learn.”—or people—“That presenter was terrible.” —or learning activities—“I don’t like group discussions.” —or the setting—“The workshop room was too hot.” I won’t disagree that these elements can play a role in determining the perceived success of a learning experience, but I think there’s something far more fundament at play when someone perceives that a learning experience falls short of their expectations. I think the real answer to this question involves the design of that learning experience.

As I reflect on the design of our team’s most successful learning experiences, there are a few elements that come to mind – Pedagogy, Need, Content, UX and Context. Together, I think these things form the DNA of a successful learning experience.  Here’s a visual to show how I think these elements fit together:

Learning Experience Model

Messy? Well, here’s a little-publicized secret, designing successful learning experiences isn’t an exact science. Let me briefly walk you through the diagram.

Pedagogy—Fun word, huh? It means, “the art and science of teaching.” As I describe this element, I’m going to focus on the science part a little more than the art part. There are several philosophies, all based on science, which guide the design of learning. Some of these viewpoints on learning happen to be more modern than others, but they all have something to help us shape an effective learning experience. For instance, you might hear someone propose a constructivist approach to a learning experience; this is just a way of describing their underlying assumptions about how people learn. For example, constructivists tend to believe that learners are active, meaning making learners participants in the learning process. As such, learning solution designers who approach courses from a constructivist perspective tend to include a number of hands-on or scenario-based learning activities. Bottom line? Effective learning experiences start with a scientifically justifiable basis for the types and sequence of learning activities that are proposed.

Need—This element refers to the learning experience’s alignment to a clearly defined learning need.  When we design learning solutions at Vivayic, we believe that understanding the learning need begins with clearly identifying a business case for the course. If you can’t tie the learning experience to a critical business objective, it might not be a good idea to spend resources to develop a course. Beyond clarifying the business reason, there’s a need to analyze the learners and the context in which the learning will happen. Even with that information in place, it is important to identify, and state specifically, measurable outcomes and objectives for the learning experience. Think of this element as a target. If we don’t know what we’re aiming toward, a shotgun approach is what will result…at best, a hit and miss learning experience. Defining clear learning outcomes and aligning those to a justifiable organizational need is critical to the design of successful learning experiences.

Content—When our team designs a learning experience, there’s usually no shortage of content from subject matter experts. Whether it exists in documents or in the heads of experts, relevant and well-organized content is a critical component of an effective learning experience. (Look back at the two adjectives I added in front of the word content. I want to make an important point about those two qualifiers.) All content that can be included in a learning experience does not need to be. Moreover, there’s a science (and some art) to organizing content in a way that leads to more effective learning experiences. Content in a successful learning experience will be structured and filtered based upon what our team knows about the learners, the learning context, and most importantly the learning outcomes.

UX —This is shorthand for user experience. I have to admit, in all my years of learning about learning I’m a bit surprised that I only recently came across this term. Those who develop online, technology-based experiences primarily own the term; but I would venture to say that it applies to the design of effective learning experiences—in person or otherwise. This element encompasses all aspects of the user experience from the usability of the workbook created for an in-person course to the aesthetics and layout of the user interface designed for an online learning experience. Successful learning experiences consider the overall experience of the end user and brand the learning experience accordingly.

Context—I had a professor who once said, “Culture eats training for lunch.” The saying stuck. (I think it’s actually a paraphrase of something Peter Drucker said about business strategy and culture.) If the context, which I assume includes aspects of the local culture, doesn’t mesh with the learning experience you can most certainly be assured that the learning experience will fall short of expectations. Context also includes things like existing policies and practices, systems, equipment, physical setting and more. When I look back on some of our most successful learning solutions we took time to fully consider the context and aligned the learning experience accordingly.

Why do learning and training experiences sometimes fail? When I think back on my own experiences it seems likely that one or more of these elements weren’t fully considered during the design of the learning experience. Designing successful learning experiences is complex, there isn’t a one-size fits all solution at Vivayic. We’ve all been through learning experiences that fall short of meeting expectations before, so we actively use this model as we design each learning experience. We have a deep belief that doing so helps us shape more successful learning experiences that not only meet participant expectations, but also achieve real results for the organization.

In case you’re up for learning more about this model, I plan to discuss each of the elements in more detail in future posts. Stay tuned, there’s more to come!
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