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ATD Blog

An English Major’s Guide to Learning Design

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A few quotes from famous writers offer inspiration and insight to instructional designers.

“I know of nothing in the world that has as much power as a word.” – Emily Dickinson

Some learning designers are one-person shops. They write the content, enter it into an authoring tool, and choose or create the images, audio, video, and everything else that goes into making a dynamic course. Some designers work with other developers, user-experience experts, and graphic designers to take on some of these tasks. Whatever route they take, designers are first and foremost writers. Writing is the cornerstone upon which all else in a learning experience rests. Choose your words with care, knowing that every word carries the weight of effective instruction.

“Write one true sentence (a day).” – Ernest Hemingway

Imagine a world where a project manager sends a daily email asking if the instructional designer has completed her “one true sentence” for that day. A 10-minute module would take a year to write. More often, instructional designers are given one day to write hundreds of sentences. We don’t have the luxury of Hemingway’s pace, but we can aspire to write true sentences—not in the factual sense, but true in its intent to deliver credible, beautiful, and wise information.

“…all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Learning designers are well-versed in verbs. We comb Bloom Taxonomy’s list of verbs by cognitive category to find just the right one. The learning objective is instruction’s reason for living, and the verb is the engine that drives that purpose home. It is critical to pinpoint the verb that will activate the learning objective and produce the desired learning outcome—the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that the learners must demonstrate by the end of the instruction.

“Omit needless words.” – Strunk and White

When editing, try to remove every other sentence and see if the paragraph still makes sense. Sounds crazy, right? But this technique often works. We write something; then, unsure whether we said it right, we say it again. This may be a case of faulty expression or of not trusting the learner. Neither is desirable. While scaffolding and refreshers provide healthy repetition, wordiness is not advantageous.

“No sinner is ever saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon.” – Mark Twain

Microlearning has been sucked dry of its meaning now that nearly any instruction that runs less than 20 minutes is considered microlearning. Often, what’s called “microlearning” is just a long lecture broken into 20-minute segments. However, microlearning should be self-contained. It should have its own center of gravity (expected learning outcome), a story to tell (content), two meaningful actions (interactives), and a means of measuring success (assessment). Writing microlearning is an exercise in concision and economy.

“The human heart has hidden treasures.” – Charlotte Brontë

The topics instructional designers are asked to breathe life into can seem endless! Fortunately, for every dreaded topic, there is a subject matter expert who loves that very thing. A learning designer’s mission is to tap into the passion of those SMEs. Their passion, combined with our love of teaching, will bring vitality to the instruction. Fail to capture that passion, and the learner will suffer. Remember, a learner’s boredom can blossom into fascination once they understand a thing well enough to see its hidden treasures.

About the Author

Julia Miller is a seasoned digital learning professional with extensive experience in both the leadership and operational sides of online learning development and delivery. After receiving her Ph.D. in Irish Studies, she migrated into educational technology. She is currently director of learning design for ansrsource, a learning design company. Dr. Miller’s background features a unique mixture of strategic consulting, curriculum design, program management, and faculty development. She has more than 20 years’ experience as an online and face-to-face instructor, and brings together theory and practice in her approach to creating outstanding, transformational learning experiences.

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Good reminder of what micro learning actually is
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Lovely and useful article - thank you! As an English Major myself, I could not resist reading and was glad I did. The breakdown of what should exist in good microlearning is probably the best I've seen so far.
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Thank you! This was a great reminder. Another great Strunk and White maxim: "Cut! Cut! Cut!"
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