12 Learning Building Blocks We Can, And Should, Use

Learning Building Blocks And Templates We Can, And Should, Use While Designing Learning

Just to be clear, I’m not referring to the pre-programmed visual templates that come with authoring tools, which you can apply to your course by simply changing the color and the content. I’m talking about the key learning building blocks that make up a course (specifically the ones that often get overlooked).

I’m referring to them as templates for want of a better word (ideas are welcome :-)). In fact, the idea of using such templates is neither new nor original. Clark Quinn has talked about them in several of his articles, and has written an enlightening piece here.

Making a list of such building blocks has a couple of advantages:

  • The building blocks, put together, can form the basic structure of a course (any course).
  • They serve as useful reminders so we don’t end up accidentally excluding key elements.

Note that these building blocks can also extend far beyond the course, into the performance arena. Useful, isn’t it?
Here is a list of learning building blocks / templates to get started (by no means an exhaustive list):

1. What’s In It For Me (The Learner)?

Done well, learners immediately grasp that the course is useful to them. Variations of this could include:

  1. Why Is This Topic Important?
  2. Why Is This Course Important?
  3. How Will This Course Help Me?

2. How This Course Works (A Guide To The Unique Navigation Patterns In This Course)

Help screens that point to every little button used in the course, providing a detailed explanation for each are so passé. However, it is useful to point out any new, unexpected features. Rest, learners can figure out on their own.

3. Practice (For Each Learning / Performance Outcome)

Perhaps the most critical part(s) of the course. This consists of four parts:

  1. Context / Scenario.
    The setting which ‘immerses’ learners into a credible environment that emulates the one in which they will be doing their actual job.
  2. Decision.
    The actual decision, or series of decisions, that they will be making in the practice scenario.
  3. Consequence.
    The response to the decision made by the learner. Make it authentic and as close to real-life as possible.
  4. Feedback.
    The objective feedback that reinforces the ‘why’ of the consequence, and provides an explanation to help solidify the learner’s understanding, and to mitigate any misunderstanding.

Here's some great guidance from Clark Quinn on designing good practice.

4. Content (For Each Learning / Performance Outcome)

What is the content that is absolutely required for learners to successfully complete the practice activities? That’s what we include here. Ideally, the content should be tightly coupled with practice, reinforcing the theory behind why certain decisions lead to certain consequences.

5. Revision Of Key Points Covered

There are cognitive benefits to repetition and practice. Therefore, it is ideal to repeat key points (probably at the end of every section) in a concise manner.

6. Critical Action Items (For The Learner To Implement After Going Through The Course)

Even after plenty of practice, it is possible that learners revert to their old ways, forgetting to implement what they learned in the course. It could be helpful to add some triggers, nudging them in the direction of thinking about how and when they would implement their newly-learned skill, and putting it down in the course.

This is like a set of goals that learners are setting for themselves, and therefore they are more likely to follow through and achieve them.

7. Downloadable References (For Support On The Job)

What good is a course which does not make it easy for learners to go back and refer to certain sections? They might find themselves wondering “What was it that the course said about handling this kind of situation?”, and we need to find a way to provide them with support in such moments.

The support could be in the form of a simple PDF (that they can download on to their mobile devices) containing the content in its most concise form, stripped of all context and story. Or it could be in any other form that they might find useful.

8. Learner Feedback

What kind of questions do we ask to gather meaningful feedback on whether the course served its purpose or not?

Will Thalheimer has some great pointers on how to design good feedback questions. His blog is an invaluable resource, and his book, Performance-Focused Smile Sheets, is a must-read.

9. Assessment

This is the final assessment that learners take after having gone through the course. A couple of points to note here:

  • This can, and should, be no different from practice, only that assessment is scored; while practice is not.
  • It should be administered after a gap of about 1-2 weeks after learners complete the course, to allow for the forgetting curve to settle in.

10. Evaluation

This means that you wait for a period (of 3-12 months, depending on the course and context) and take stock of how well learners are able to put into practice what they learnt from the course.

To evaluate effectiveness of change in behavior, we might have to survey their (the learners’) managers, co-workers, or even customers.

11. Options To Share The Course (This Could Be Via Social Media, Or On The Organization’s Internal Corporate Network)

A popular course is, at some level at least, a useful course. Your course might become a viral hit one day, and you don’t want to deny yourself that opportunity ;-).

12. Reminders (For Distributed Practice, Could Take The Form Of A Quiz, Case Study, etc.)

A lot has been written about strategies that can be used to beat the forgetting curve. Check out this post and this one.

At the simplest level, we can employ reminders, which are pieces of content that are sent out to learners at regular intervals, to keep their learning at the top of their minds.

What do you think? What other learning building blocks / templates can we use to make sure that we don’t miss out on key elements inadvertently? Please add your comments at the end of this article. You can also post them on Twitter (@Learnnovators and @elearnindustry).