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Experiments in Learning Design: Al + Id + Hn = Surprising Your Participants

On June 29, my book What’s Your Formula: Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Design, will finally be available. I’ve teased this before and I’ll write more about it as the release date approaches, but the gist of the book is that you can (and should) string together various basic elements of learning design (see the periodic table below) to create amazing learning experiences.

Periodic Table 2 21

Over the next few weeks we’ll explore some combinations of these elements, and I’ll try to find combinations that may not always be so natural or evident. For that reason, we’ll call this series: Experiments in Learning Design.

Today’s experiment: Mixing Al (Adult Learning) + Id (Instructional Design) + Hn (Handouts) to yield a way to grab your participants’ attention from the beginning.

Before we see what happens when we combine these elements, let’s quickly define each of these elements:

Adult Learning (Al)

A theory of instruction which believe that learners are most likely to succeed when specific criteria are met, including ensuring that the learning is relevant, solves a problem and, when possible, is self-driven.

Instructional Design (Id)

A practice by which learner or organization needs are identified leading to a learning solution being crafted, implemented, evaluated and refined.

Handouts (Hn)

Print materials distributed during a learning experience.

The Experiment: Al + Id + Hn

As any good experiment should do, let’s use the scientific method to see what could happen with this particular experiment.

Step 1: Observation/Question. I’ll be the first to admit that this is a tricky experiment. In general, when I need to create handouts, I open up Word (or maybe PowerPoint if I want more graphic design flexibility) and I create the handout. I’ll insert text (sometimes lots of text), maybe illustrations, maybe blank boxes or lines for participants to take notes, but I generally don’t invest a lot of time or effort in developing creative handouts. My guess is that many other training professionals feel similarly since most handouts I’ve received in training sessions and at conferences are also often generally straight forward.

Step 2: Form a Hypothesis. Several years ago, my colleague Tim Waxenfelter and I were developing a half-day classroom training for a client and we wondered: Can a handout that participants find at their seats when they first enter the training room change the entire look and feel of the learning experience?

Step 3: Perform the Experiment. The training program we were working on had the goal of helping a group of salespeople understand and buy in to a new service they were being asked to sell. Since “Describe the value of the new service” was one of the learning objectives, we decided to combine the instructional design, the need for this training to be relevant and immediately applicable (adult learning) and the design of the handout pictured below:


Basically, we wanted to allow the participants – who were skeptical of selling this new service – to put the service on trial. Throughout this day-long training, they would serve in the role of “jurors”, examine the pros and cons of this new service, and then decide for themselves how valuable this service could be.

We could have used a straight forward self-assessment using a basic table created in Microsoft Word on a plain white handout, but we chose to do something different with this handout as participants entered the room. It would set the tone for the training session and make it clear to the participants that this session was going to be a little different.

Step 4: Analyze the Data. The client loved how we got away from a straight-forward training program (sit here, listen to me, enjoy my slides) and used a courtroom theme in everything we did – both in the sequence and flow of the learning, and in the course materials (including the handout above). While correlation doesn’t necessarily imply that this handout (or the half-day training program overall) was solely responsible for the results, the client did report that the national sales team exceeded their sales goal by 13% and saw a 139% increase in year over year sales following this training program.

Step 5: Report Conclusions. Sometimes a straight-forward handout, quickly thrown together in Microsoft Word, is perfectly adequate. The problem is when that’s the attitude for every training program and every handout. Taking some time to think about your learning objectives and asking yourself if you can create print (or digital) materials that can help your participants recall information or help them do something better will increase the likelihood that your handouts don’t end up in the recycle bin as soon as your session is over.

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