Design for How People Learn

What’s in it for me? Discover how to design your lesson plans around how people learn.

Contrary to popular belief, education doesn’t just end once you leave the classroom. Technology, innovation, and knowledge are all progressing at an exponential rate – and in order to keep up and stay competitive, we all need to be lifelong learners. But if you’ve ever dozed off over the pages of a tedious textbook or found yourself scrolling Twitter when you’re supposed to be completing an online module, you’ll know that not all learning experiences are exactly well-designed.

Luckily, when you’re called upon to lead a workshop at your office or given the opportunity to teach a course in your field, you won’t fall into the trap of teaching dull, ineffective lessons. Why? Because by the end of this summary to Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen, you’ll understand how students learn, how memory works, and how good lesson design can turn a dull course into a memorable learning experience.

So, let the teaching begin.

In this summary, you’ll learn

  • how to motivate even the most apathetic students;
  • how to ensure your material penetrates through to students’ long-term memory; and
  • how to design effective lessons and assessment tools.

Chapter 1 – Great teachers know their students as well as their topic.

Meet Sven. He’s head of graphic design at a fancy start-up and he’s about to lead a group of new hires in a typography workshop. He’s done a lot of preparation – if anything, Sven’s overprepared – and he’s excited to share what he knows. So when he gets started, he doesn’t even bother with introductions. Instead, he decides to launch right into the exciting stuff – the difference between a typeface and a font, the merits of serif vs sans serif, and exactly what kerning is.

But therein lies the problem: Sven knows a lot about typography. However, he doesn’t know anything about his students.

Before Sven even began teaching, he should have gauged how much his students already knew. That way, he might have found out that Juanita in the front row is a typesetting nerd with strong feelings about Helvetica – and that Liam, in the back, doesn’t know anything past the fact that he used Times New Roman for his college essays.

Learning about your students allows you to pitch your course content to their skill levels and tailor it to their motivations. So, before you start teaching, here are a few initial steps to get to know your audience a bit better.

First, try to establish whether you’re dealing with a skills gap or a knowledge gap – or both! Let’s say your class is on hiking the Appalachian trail. A practiced hiker already has the skills to tackle the trail. They lack knowledge: What’s the best route? What weather conditions should they prepare for? But a novice hiker will lack skills as well as knowledge. You’ll need to teach them the basics – like how to lace up their hiking boots – before you move on to anything specific. And you should lead them through a few basic short hikes, then multi-day hikes, before you let them attempt a 2,000-mile-plus route.

Next, check in on the learners’ motivation. A motivated learner is more likely to excel than an unmotivated one. Teaching French to a Francophile? They’re already excited and engaged! But what if you’re teaching French to someone with a passion for bassoon? Well, you can always direct them to the nearest bassoon class. Then again, they might have to learn French – say, for dealing with French clients at work. Sometimes that’s motivation enough – but in case it’s not, tying your course material to your learner’s interests is a useful strategy. Sure, it might mean you stay up all night preparing a lesson about the eighteenth-century French bassoonist Adolphe Blaise – yes, he is a real person – but you’ll probably see a pay-off in the classroom.

The point is, keep learning about your students long after the initial round of introductions. In particular, aim for a two-way flow of information throughout the course. Ask them to explain concepts and demonstrate skills – you’ll easily be able to see who’s grasped the material, who needs some more help, and who’s misunderstood and needs correction quickly!

Finally, give your students input into the course wherever possible. Ask them to vote on how the course is paced or structured – this creates a sense of ownership. And if you have a range of experts and beginners, allow experienced students to opt out of sessions where you’ll be teaching something they already know. The best teachers aren’t the ones that know their topic inside out – they’re the ones who know their students inside out, too.

Chapter 2 – Creating memorable lessons is simple.

Let’s try out a test. Try and remember as much as you can from the following. Ready? OK.

The inventor Nikola Tesla was born in 1856, in Smiljan, Croatia. After he moved to the US, he collaborated frequently with Thomas Edison, before the two men fell out. Tesla’s inventions include the Tesla Coil and the alternating current, or AC, motor.

Got it? Alright, time for a pop quiz!

In which Croatian city was Tesla born?

Who was Tesla’s one-time collaborator?

And, what does the AC in AC motor stand for?

The answers are Smiljan, Thomas Edison, and alternating current.

Maybe you got some, or even all of those answers correct. But will you know those answers a week from now? The answer depends on how well they penetrate through your three layers of memory – sensory, short-term, and long-term. Our brains can’t store every piece of information we learn. Each layer of memory acts like a filter, deciding which inputs we want to keep and for how long.

First, your sensory memory filters all your sensory perceptions and decides what to pass on to your short-term memory. Then, your short-term memory stores information, but only on an as-needed basis. So, for example, it will remember that the Wi-Fi password in a cafe is bananamuffin666 but only for the time it takes you to type it in and get online. We can hold a lot of information in our short-term memory, but not forever. And unless you’re teaching Forgetting Information 101, you want your learners to retain course content for longer than the span of your session. To make sure information penetrates from short-term memory to long-term memory, try a technique called chunking. Funny word – very handy technique.

Here’s an example. Here’s a number, you repeat it back: 549.

Not too hard, right? Try this one next: 100,783,305,222.

Slightly more difficult. But can you repeat these four numbers: 100; 783; 305; 222?

A bit easier? Now, that was the same number as before but just broken down into digestible chunks. Hence, chunking. Breaking your course material down like this – whether it’s breaking a process down into several instructions or breaking up a large text with headings and bullet points – will make it more memorable. Maybe even memorable enough to penetrate into your long-term memory filter.

But just breaking in through the long-term memory filter once isn’t always enough. To get information to stick, you need to find multiple entrances.

Chapter 3 – Apply new information to the proper context.

Think of your long-term memory as a huge closet. Some shelves are beautifully labeled and organized – while others are stuffed with all kinds of random bits and pieces. As a teacher, your goal is to make sure your information lands on one of those beautifully labeled shelves. Ideally, the same piece of information would land on multiple shelves, so it’s even more accessible. But, with so many options, how do we make sure the information goes where we want?

This comes back to knowing your students. Leverage and work with the shelves they already have. An English speaker learning Spanish already has a good set of shelves because the two languages have similar roots and grammatical structures. So, in your lessons, help your students make those connections. If you’re teaching Finnish, which has very little in common with English, you’ll have to build those shelves from scratch. But repetition will help ensure new information sticks in long-term memory.

It’s also crucial to help your learners shelve new information effectively. If you’re teaching Intro to Hip-Hop, you don’t want all the course content to land on one overstuffed shelf labeled Hip-Hop. Instead, repeating the same information in different contexts and with different associations will make sure it’s stored across multiple shelves. That way, they can store Run DMC’s career on shelves labeled East Coast, Def Jam, Adidas, and so on. The more shelves the better.

To extend the closet metaphor just a little bit further, it’s important to know that as humans we only access certain shelves in certain contexts. A receptionist might greet all a company’s clients by name when he’s sitting behind his desk, but fail to recognize them if he bumps into them at a restaurant over the weekend. Try and encode your course teachings in the environment where they will be used – so if you’re teaching court reporters to write in shorthand, create an environment that’s as close to a real legal trial as possible. Better yet, hold class during an actual trial.

Just as important as environmental context is emotional context. The calm, supportive emotional context of a classroom often doesn’t match the context where skills and knowledge are applied. In this sense, role-plays that mimic the stressful, real-life situations where learners will apply new skills can be very helpful. If you’re coaching trainee telesales employees, for example, have them role-play dealing with harassed or irritated customers.

And just in case all that didn’t make it into your long-term memory, here it is again in a nutshell:

Break down new information into digestible chunks.

Help your students shelve information precisely and intuitively.

Match the tone and context of your class to the tone and context of the situations in which learners will apply their new-found knowledge.

Chapter 4 – Good design is the foundation of great teaching.

Incorporating a few principles of good lesson design will engage your learners and elevate your material. So, to help you implement these, this chapter will run through five of the most effective strategies for lesson design. Grab a pen – you’ll want to take notes!

One: Design your lessons to be action-oriented. Create opportunities for learners to apply new knowledge and practice new skills. They’ll retain much more that way. For example, if you’re teaching a course on nutrition, rather than simply telling students that a balanced daily diet should comprise roughly 2,000 calories, ask them to create a meal plan that hits that caloric target.

Two: Design with desirable difficulty in mind. Difficulty? Desirable? It may sound like an oxymoron, but the truth is you don’t want your lessons to be too easy. The psychologist Robert A. Bjork has shown that students learn better and form stronger connections with learning material when they’re working at the very edge of their ability. Setting challenging tasks will keep your learners motivated. Remember to adjust the difficulty as your course progresses and your learners’ competence grows.

Three: Design for interactivity. Rather than explain a new concept, try guiding your learners to uncover that concept for themselves. This interactive approach is far more engaging. For instance, if you’re leading a workshop on how to ace a job interview, you could share a checklist of best practices for prospective job candidates. Or you could show recordings of successful, and unsuccessful, interviews and ask your learners to formulate that checklist for themselves. With some guidance from you, your learners can uncover core concepts for themselves.

Four: Design good habits. When we implement a skill, we’re sometimes using our conscious mind and sometimes acting automatically – and the difference between good and great performance can come down to how well those habitual actions are performed. Let’s look at computer coding. When a programmer designs new code, she applies herself consciously to the task. But she should also be in the habit of performing regular version controls where she tracks any changes she makes to the code – making it easier to identify bugs and errors, among other things. You can’t simply tell learners to have good habits – but you can get them to participate in habit formation. Create new habits by asking students to identify a trigger – for example, performing a version control every time you save a file. Bundling the good habit – version control – with an existing trigger – clicking save – will help the habit become automatic.

Five: Design knowledge into the environment. Visitors to Boston don’t need to read a history of the city, or even download a map signposting its significant historical sites to enjoy an informative walking tour of the city center – a big red line winds through the sidewalk, connecting key historical monuments. It’s accessible to anyone and simple as anything to use. This is a great example of how knowledge can be designed into the environment. After all, there’s no reason learners need to store all the information they need in their heads when you can encode it into the environment instead. If your learners are getting overloaded with new information and concepts, take a step back and ask yourself if some of this info can be offloaded into the environment, whether through signs, visual reminders, online resources, or even a workplace manual.

Keep these five principles of lesson design in mind and it’s likely your students will grasp your course content successfully. Of course, there’s only one way to find out for sure how effective your lessons actually are: through testing and evaluation.

Chapter 5 – Evaluate learners effectively with well-designed assessments.

A stomach full of butterflies. Sweaty palms. A racing mind. Pretty typical stuff for a student about to sit a big exam. Funnily enough, designing an evaluation for your students can feel just as stressful as taking tests used to feel. Creating an evaluation tool that accurately assesses your learners’ competence can seem challenging – but it doesn’t have to be.

The best tip for designing an effective evaluation also happens to be the simplest: write your evaluation at the start of the course, not the end. That way you can make sure you’re actually teaching the skills and concepts you’re planning to test.

In fact, reconsider the idea that evaluations happen at the end of a course. Certainly, it’s useful to have a test or evaluation once your course wraps up, but it’s equally important to sprinkle opportunities for feedback throughout the course. That doesn’t mean setting a formal exam every week. Instead, provide informal feedback on tasks – you can do this in-task if it doesn’t disrupt learners’ flow, or at the end of the lesson. Encourage peer-to-peer feedback by asking students to correct each other’s work. And build in opportunities for self-evaluation by asking students to reflect on their progress and performance.

When it comes to setting formal assessment tasks, test for recall, not recognition. Here’s an example:

Based on this summary so far, what is one way teachers motivate learners?

  • Tell them that the course material is actually extremely interesting;
  • Tie course content to their interests and ambitions; or
  • It’s not the teacher’s job to motivate learners.

No prizes for guessing the correct answer is b. Even without prior knowledge, it’s easy to recognize that this answer is the most plausible of the bunch. So, to actually test your learners’ knowledge, ask them to recall information instead of handing it to them.

For an evaluation like this, your question should be more like this:

The learners in your class are lacking motivation. Write down three teaching strategies that might get them excited about the course material.

This will get them thinking about the actual steps they’d take using the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Lastly, don’t forget that feedback is just as useful for teachers as it is for students. Setting a short, anonymous survey at the end of your course will allow your students to share what’s working and what’s not. But be prepared – if you’ve followed the advice on lesson design in this summary, you may well be swamped by effusive praise from satisfied students!

Final summary

The most important thing to take away from all this is:

If you want to design effective, exciting, practical learning experiences, begin by focusing on your learners. Share new concepts in a memory-friendly way. Adhere to the key principles of educational design. And don’t neglect to evaluate your learners – or yourself.

And here’s some actionable advice to get you started: 

Don’t stress attention spans.

In the digital age, attention spans are apparently shrinking. But ignore statistics about the average adult’s attention span – after all, the average adult can binge Netflix for hours at a time. If your material is varied, absorbing, and exciting, you’ll have no problem holding the class’s attention, even for long periods of time.

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