Design for How People Learn

By Julie Dirksen

(New Riders Press, $39.99, 272 pp.)

Reviewed by Ann Pace

I can vividly remember my ninth-grade English classespecially the demanding, irritable, and perfection-expecting teacher. Because of him, much of what I learned those 15-odd years ago about grammar, literature, and writing has maintained its mental stickiness today: Subject-verb agreement, Shakespeares iambic pentameter, and many oft-rehearsed vocabulary words such as "plethora" have successfully found their way into my long-term memory.

As Julie Dirksen, author of Design for How People Learn, would say, these concepts have claimed their places on permanent, tidy shelves within my mental closet.

According to Dirksen: "The goal of learning design is for learners to emerge from the learning experience with new or improved capabilities that they can take back to the real world, that help them do the things they need or want to do. If your learners are on a journey from novice to expert, how can you help them along that path?"

Dirksen takes readers on their own dynamic learning paths to determine the journey's starting point, get to know their learners, identify learning goals, discover how memory and attention work, and design appropriate strategies to target each learning gap.


Perhaps the most insightful distinction for instructional designers and trainers is Dirksen's emphasis on recognizing and bridging this gap--be it knowledge, skills, motivation, environment, or communication--based on each situations learning problem. The books final four chapters describe methods and tools to help learners reach their unique destinations.

My favorite chapter--"How Do We Remember?"--explores the differences between sensory, short-term, and long-term memory, and presents design tactics to help students effectively store information in their long-term memories, or "closets." For example, when it comes to pairing wine and food, a sommeliers mental closet is orderly, with a great deal of context, fine-tuned distinctions, and sophisticated methods for organizing newly learned wine facts.

Dirksen explains how to maximize environmental and emotional contexts, incorporate activities such as role playing and storytelling, and use repetition and memorization to make information as easy as possible for learners to store and retrieve.

Although I am not an instructional designer, Dirksen kept me engaged through humorous and helpful sketches that illustrated her ideas, a variety of examples and practice activities, and her clever, sarcastic wit that evoked many a chuckle.

All in all, a great read for anyone interested in how people learn. Four cups!