Table of Contents

Effective Training Design Has Layers

A good lesson plan or eLearning storyboard may look linear – with one starting point and one ending point – but between the start and finish are a lot of layers. You may see an activity on your lesson plan or storyboard, but what’s beneath that activity? Is the activity built upon a solid foundation of adult learning? Is the activity directly connected to your learning outcomes?

In today’s podcast, I spend a few minutes talking about those layers and diving into the various categories of layers – or elements – that can go into a learning program to make it more engaging, effective and successful.


Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, which is a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I am your host. I’m also the Co-founder of an organization called Endurance Learning. And today it’s just me – no guests. Our podcast is going to take a look at the different layers that go into creating an effective training program. It’s not enough to just keep adult learning principles in mind. It’s not enough to know the technical ins and outs of using things like triggers and variables in a branching eLearning scenario. But we’ll get to that in just a minute or so. 

The first thing I do need to do is to share with you that today’s podcast is brought to you by Soapbox, which is an online tool that you can use for 5 or 10 minutes, and you can take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing a live, instructor-led training. So basically you go in, you tell the computer how long your presentation is, how many people are going to attend, is it in-person or virtual? What are your learning objectives? And then Soapbox will instantly generate a training plan for you. That training plan will have clusters of training activities. If you don’t like one of the activities, you can swap it out for another – there’s about 200 different training activities in Soapbox’s library. If you like the activity, you just enter your own talking points for your content. And think about what you could be doing if Soapbox saved you four hours of development time on your next training session. At $29 a month, it might be worth it to save yourself a few hours of work on every training session that you create. If you want, you can go ahead and try it out for free for two weeks by visiting

The Elements of Training and Instructional Design

Okay. Let’s get back into this idea of different layers that go into a training program. Today’s podcast, it really does stem from a book that I wrote called What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training. And the book itself uses the metaphor of a periodic table of learning elements to introduce various concepts of training and instructional design. If you wanna check it out, or if you wanna check out the periodic table that I’m talking about here and see the 51 elements that are outlined in the book, you can find an interactive periodic table of elements online – it’s totally free – if you go to That’s the number 51 and then the words “elements of learning .com”. 

The Layered Structure of Training Programs

When I was first designing this periodic table, I was simply brainstorming different aspects or different elements of engaging training design. And then the thing that really began to dawn on me was that a lesson plan may be linear or a storyboard, if you’re creating eLearning, may be linear, a training agenda may be linear, or a facilitator guide may be linear. They all have a starting point, and you walk through it until the ending point. But effective and engaging training has a lot of layers of things that kind of happen all at once, and they kind of happen one on top of the other. 

  • It’s one thing to have an engaging activity that gets everyone involved, but is it designed to meet your learning objectives and outcomes? 
  • Is your entire lesson plan or your entire storyboard rooted in a foundation of adult learning principles? 
  • Do you have a vision for how the learning will live on after the training session or after the eLearning module has been completed? 

All of that stuff happens at once. These were all questions that needed to be answered, and they helped me organize a hodgepodge of learning design elements into five different categories. And I’m gonna talk about those really quickly here. 

The 5 Groups of Training Elements

The Periodic Table of Elements of Amazing Learning Experiences

The “Gas-Like” Learning Elements  

So what are those layers or groups of training elements? When you look at the periodic table of elements of amazing learning experiences, you’ll see that the elements are color coded into five different categories. So the first one, the gas-like elements, it may be the most fundamental. These elements – there are things like adult learning principles, gamification, change management – these are theories and principles that are generally rooted in research and years of observations that are foundational to effective learning experiences. And just like oxygen, so a gas, these elements are often invisible, but also like that gas oxygen, if these gas-like elements were suddenly sucked out of the room, you’d notice it really, really quickly. These elements really do make up the foundational layer upon which the rest of a training program can be built. 

The Gas-Like Elements from

The “Liquid” Learning Elements  

Next in the periodic table are liquid elements. These are practices that, like liquids, they take the shape of the vessel into which they’re poured. In this case, the vessel is generally the organization, sometimes it’s a team within the organization. These liquid elements – there are things like supervisor support or assessment or follow up. They may look different in different organizations or even in different teams across an organization. So if a team or an organization finds a good way to use these practices, that team or that organization, they may wanna freeze these practices in place so they’re repeatable. Or if the team finds that these practices are getting to be a little stale, they can always melt them down and reimagine them. 

The Liquid Learning Elements from

The “Solid” Learning Elements  

Another group of elements are solid elements, which are training tools, basically. And they can either be digital tools like quizzing or polling software or things like rapid authoring tools. They can also be physical, like lesson plans or flip-chart markers.

The Solid Learning Elements from

The “Radioactive” Learning Elements  

A fourth set of elements is known as radioactive elements. These elements, they can be extremely powerful, but if they’re used incorrectly, they can blow up or they can lead your participants to have a meltdown. These are things like lecture or PowerPoint or icebreakers or eLearning.

The Solid Learning Elements from

The “Interactive” Learning Elements

And then the final group of elements is known as interactive elements. These are digital or social media tools that can be used to get in touch with and engage the participants before, during, or even after a training experience.

The Interactive Learning elements from

Combining the Elements of a Training Program

So in sum, a training program is multi-layered. It is the tools that you use, the theory upon which you’re building, the activities that you’re designing. Are you using them in the right way? The good news and the bad news is that, like the title of my book What’s Your Formula? There is no one formula that’s going to prove effective and successful every time for every situation. It’s a question, the title of the book is a question: What’s YOUR Formula? The fun part is finding elements, experimenting with those elements that are going to work for you as a training designer and for your learners. 

Thank you so much for listening. This was just a little bit of a taste of the idea that there are different layers that need to go into a training program. If you want to make sure that you are notified each time there is a new podcast, all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks, when it’s hot off the press, go ahead and subscribe at Apple or Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Even better would be if you were to give us a review, to give us a like. It’ll just take you a minute, but it’s how other people find out about the podcast. If you’re interested in learning more about these different elements, you can go ahead and pick up a copy of What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training at Just go ahead and search for Brian Washburn. Until next time, happy training everyone.

This week’s podcast is sponsored by Soapbox. Sign up today for a free demo below.

Articles Similar to Effective Training Design Has Layers

Learning & Development
Brian Washburn

How “Mature” is Your Training Program?

How strategic is your training program? How outcome-oriented, governed or sustainable is it? In today’s podcast, Danielle Duran talks about how to objectively measure your training program in those four key areas.

Learning & Development
Brian Washburn

A Conversation on Inclusive Training Design with Jolene Jang

When I participated in a DEI-focused session led by Jolene Jang at a recent conference, I just kept shaking my head. She would point out specific ways to make learning more inclusive, and I immediately thought: there’s another thing I’m not doing!

Learning & Development
Brian Washburn

Where Sales Enablement Meets L&D

Natalie Mazzie, an experienced sales enablement professional, feels there is a lot that general L&D folks can learn from the sales enablement field. Here’s our conversation.

Maria Leggett on learning & development resumes
Learning & Development
Brian Washburn

A Learning & Development Resume that Gets Noticed

When you’re applying for an L&D job, how do you best position yourself to get a call from a recruiter or hiring manager? Experienced HR professional, Maria Leggett, offers her insights in today’s podcast.

Subscribe to Get Updates from Endurance Learning

Brian Washburn, Author

Brian Washburn
CEO & Chief Ideas Guy

Enter your information below and we’ll send you the latest updates from our blog. Thanks for following!

Download the Element Sanity Check

Even if you haven’t yet purchased the book (what are you waiting for?!) you can get access to worksheets that will help guide you through the use of the elements of amazing learning experiences.

Find Your L&D Career Path

Explore the range of careers to understand what role might be a good fit for your L&D career.

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the PDF of the What’s Possible in L&D Worksheet.

What's possible in L&D

Let's Talk Training!

Brian Washburn

Brian Washburn
CEO & Chief Ideas Guy

Enter your information below and we’ll get back to you soon.

Download the Feedback Lesson Plan

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the lesson plan as a PDF.

feedback lesson plan
MS Word Job Aid Template

Download the Microsoft Word Job Aid Template

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the Word version of this template.

Download the Free Lesson Plan Template!

Enter your email below and we’ll send you a Word document that you can start using today!

free lesson plan template
training materials checklist

Download the Training Materials Checklist

Enter your email below and we’ll send you the PDF of the Training Materials Checklist.

Subscribe to Endurance Learning for updates

Get regular updates from the Endurance Learning team.