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ATD Blog

So Just What Does “Learner Experience” Mean?


The learner experience is not just a binary relationship around a learner knowing content, it is about how, when, where, and why a learner interacts with content. It pulls on factors like engagement, collaboration, application, and meeting the learner where they are in their different moments of learning need, from brand-new to application to refreshers.

The learner experience is much more about a learner journey, the kind you might find in an onboarding, leader development, or sales program—not a discrete, disconnected learning event like an e-learning module. The learner experience is about being able to:

  • recognize a need
  • find an answer or resource
  • go deeper and develop skills or expertise
  • access and participate in learning seamlessly within their workflow without jumping through hoops (multiple sites, programs, logins, passwords)
  • interact with real people (experts, peers, instructors) in a coherent way
  • do some higher-order Bloom’s Taxonomy activities that involve practice, application, and reflection
  • not only consume things created by others but also personalize those resources into actionable insights that become uniquely theirs.

Let’s explore a real-life example of a learner experience that pulls in a number of these key elements. Providence St. Joseph Health is running a Nurse Leadership program that started because of a real business problem: nurse turnover. The solution? Growing the leadership skills of nurse managers. Providence St. Joseph Health created a five-month leadership learning journey that tackled topics like communication, setting goals, managing teams, coaching, resolving conflicts, and leading change initiatives.

The blended learning experience included four in-person events, plus online content, peer discussions, and uploaded missions that applied learning to the real job, and it was shared with colleagues on the online platform.

What made this a good learner experience program was that the needs and reality of the learner always remained the focus:

  • They could fit it into their busy days.
  • They had one place to go to access content and prepare for live sessions.
  • They had opportunities to engage and share ideas with peers.
  • They could practice skills like feedback and coaching and reflect on their own leadership style.

Most importantly, it took a complex program, made it engaging and simple to participate in, and delivered measurable impact with increased confidence and capabilities as nurse leaders.

What Are Common Myths People Hold About the Learner Experience?

The biggest myth is that learners need more content.


Yes, content is important. But what turns content into a meaningful learning experience is embedding that content within the right context and with the right activities to promote learning and application.

An example is a large consumer goods manufacturing company which was transforming from siloed businesses to a unified global operating company. To support the business transformation, everyone from C-suite down needed to understand the new strategy and growth game plan. While intimate four-day training events at Harvard were effective for the executives, that didn’t scale. To reach the senior managers, the L&D team created a blended eight-week journey that used a cohort approach with an online experience punctuated by four webinars.

They then curated the same Harvard content provided to the executives and wrapped it in the company’s specific context with real stories and company-specific examples via videos and microlearning. The capstone to the content-plus-context piece was marrying the Harvard information with integrated discussion forums moderated by internal coaches, and missions that allowed learners to practice and apply concepts like building and articulating strategy to their teams. The secret was not just world-class business school content, but the connections to the specific organization’s context, and the ability to test these ideas and approaches in tandem with the actual shifts occurring in the business. Learning at the speed of business, in other words.

It’s also a myth that all content has to be professional quality. It doesn’t—it just needs to be relevant.


So instead of thinking “professional quality, bigger budget, more time”, be agile and focus on relevance. Picture an onboarding program for new tellers at a bank where, using just a simple iPhone, they follow a lead teller and film her doing different tasks and procedures. It’s a simple approach to learning from a SME and offers a bigger impact than a written manual, is fast and cheap to make, and can easily be updated as processes change. Oh, and the learners love it! Think about when something breaks at home—you watch a homemade video from someone on YouTube to learn how to fix it. It’s OK for work learning to mirror our personal learning.

Why the Learner Experience Is So Important

A good learning experience generates an immediate, positive emotional reaction—like curiosity, accomplishment, and a sense that the people who created the experience understand the learner and their challenges.

If you can connect with learners by helping them see how this relates to their job or experiences, getting them to linger in the learning environment, and encouraging them to share ideas, then learners will keep coming back. They’ll want to return, because they know it will be worth their while; they’ll gain from that experience.

This is why the learner experience is more than just content—and why it’s so critical in moving the needle for business at the speed all types of organizations require.

Contributors: Nicole Bunselmeyer (Senior Business Development Executive), JR Burch (Principal Consultant, Learning Experience Design), Elizabeth Pearce (Senior Customer Success Executive), Manjit Sekhon (Director, Learning Experience Design)

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Great article. Can you explain how you're using the word Mission? They "uploaded missions that applied learning to the real job." Thanks.
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Well said! Convenience is important, relevance is important. Avoiding the idea that just presenting information has an effect on learners' thoughts and behaviors (performance) is essential!
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