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Reinforcing Deep Processing—and Other Learner-Centric Principles

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Fri Apr 01 2016

Reinforcing Deep Processing—and Other Learner-Centric Principles
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The first post in this series discusses how the effectiveness of learning styles had been debunked. Post number 2 assured readers that even though some instructional design fads seem to have unstoppable momentum, the pendulum usually swings back toward tried-and-true learning methodologies. Part 3 of this series presents some insights and tools for helping L&D professionals move toward designing the best possible experience for learners. 

One significant take-away from the differentiated learning style theory is that “proof is in demonstration.” This sentiment aptly invites Covey’s reminder to "begin with the end in mind." Designers should not waste time inventorying learning styles; instead, we should be asking ourselves how the end justifies the means. This sort of instructional investigation is four pronged. 

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#1: Learning Starts at a Prior End Point 

L&D pros need to continuously ask themselves whether they have developed an articulated curriculum that effectively attends to prerequisite needs. In other words, have we assessed the wherewithal to really meet learners where they are? 

But how do we accurately access where individuals reside on the learning curve—so they can move to an appropriate next end point? How do we identify and activate the proper connections? We should ask learners to perform some related tasks before we engage in formal instruction (see Ausubel's advance organizers). What’s more, we should ask what they feel best fits their needs—rather than simply prescribe something to them. 

#2: Learners Need to Demonstrate Competency 

At the end of any learning activity, we need to find ways for learners to immediately demonstrate competency. To do that, we typically ask learners to perform some sort of demonstration of their learning, from projects to tests to speeches. This demonstration, however, should match the individual learners’ strengths and capability to produce; it should not be driven by a pre-assessment or, worse, judged by weaknesses. 

The point: One size does not fit all. Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman say it best in First, Break All the Rules: “Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Draw out what was left in.” 

#3: Learning Transfer Requires Follow Up

Learning is not a one-shot deal; it requires continuous refreshing. This may include, for instance, facilitating required follow-up discussion sessions with executive leadership or periodically sending out literature to reinforce concepts. Sometimes, the L&D function may even need to build and provide additional learning opportunities based on content deficits that were discovered during the core course. 

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#4. Learning Must Model Capability—and Organizational Values 

Consistent with Robert Gagne’ design foundation, L&D pros need to develop solutions that model and coach employees over time in the context of learner capability and organizational values—to help them reach the desired goal. This raises some critical questions: Is the goal to demonstrate mastery of a specific task, to move into a formal leadership role, or to improve overall business processes? How well has L&D integrated various behaviors into the integrity of the institutional commitment? For example, in terms of engagement, one of the ends should be to spark initiative, innovation, critical thinking, and creativity. 

Whatever the specific learning objective, though, the overarching goal is to move the learner from surface knowledge acquisition to deeper processing. In addition, we must provide opportunities for purposeful learner manipulation of information that affects efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity. A side-effect—deeper processing—always results in greater retention and improved learner results. 

Bottom Line

Learners live up to—or down to—expectations, all while navigating time and contexts for learning. These expectations are aided by sound instructional design and delivery, coupled with a commitment to excellence. This is perhaps the greatest error of instructors: a lack to seek understanding of learner capability and needs by subscribing to a “medical-type” model of learning prescription. 

The last post in this series will grapple with the wherewithal of designing creative, structured opportunities that value—and add value to—the learner.

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