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Crafting the Learning Experience: A Guide to Environmental, Personal and Learning Design

By Grant Crow – Managing Director, 3t Digital

This article looks at the necessary ingredients for effective learning and in particular, the interplay between environmental, personal and learning design considerations.

A list of necessary ingredients for effective learning is relatively simple to produce and will, at minimum, include the following:

  • Motivation to learn – a desire to learn and to improve both at a personal level as well as environmental
  • Clear goals – clarity on the reasons for learning and desired outcomes is need to provide focus
  • Relevance – learning is much more effective if it is regarded (by the learner) as being relevant to their needs
  • Active engagement – the more active the learner in the learning process, the higher the likelihood of better outcomes
  • Effective instruction – the instructional design and delivery needs to be clear and well thought through in order to minimise confusion and maximise attention and effort
  • Practice and repetition – the more opportunity to practice the better the retention of new skills
  • Feedback – both timely and meaningful. This is a challenging area which very few organisations get right.
  • A supportive environment – a safe environment that encourages and supports learning as well as experimentation is desireable
  • Reflection – ensuring learners take the time to reflect on the process, their learning and implications. This is also an area in which individual learners need appropriate support from their organisations
  • Adaptability – recognising in instructional design and learning opportunities that individuals have different learning preferences and abilities.

So if these are the basic ingredients, how do we mix them to ensure the best possible learning effectiveness?

In reviewing the ingredients, there are 3 buckets into which they fit – Environmental, Personal and Learning Design. These buckets interact with each other to ensure effective learning.

Let’s start with the environmental elements

The environment in which we operate and work will impact on our motivation to learn. A company that has limited learning budget and where people are too busy to take on learning opportunities will engender very different learning motivations than a situation where learning is encouraged through a range of signals.

The environment also impacts on feedback. Developmental feedback can be challenging to deliver to an individual and many environments don’t provide the tools and/or the encouragement to team leaders to provide regular feedback. If team leaders are allowed not to give feedback, they will typically default to not providing feedback other than the easy stuff – for work well done.

The environment also effects learning engagement. Learners will need support in order to have the discussions and try to adopt new practices post a learning experience. The wrong context can easily shut down this initiative without leadership even being aware of the impact.

Finally, a supportive environment is essential. This not only includes providing the necessary resources and tools, but also the ability for teams to collaborate and learn together. Often, “informal” learning is unwittingly hampered or encouraged by everyday business practices that people take for granted and may not even be consciously aware of.

Learning design’s role

Unsurprisingly, a large number of the ingredients are influenced by learning design. In my view these are:

Clear learning goals – clear goals enable learners to be more focused and also to track their progress. Most learners appreciate some structure around learning and goals is an essential part of this.

Relevance – a common complaint among learners is the lack of relevance of learning content to their roles. The higher the relevance, the more effective the learning is likely to be. This factor is not only a learning design issue, the environment (for some reason) may require learners to participate in learning that has less relevance.

Engagement – even relatively resistant learners can be won over by engaging learning design. Active engagement helps to reduce the common tendency among certain learners to observe and hold back. While it may be uncomfortable for some, discomfort is often useful for learning provided that it is identified and managed well.

Effective instruction – most of us can point back to a specific teacher when we were young that had a big impact on our learning interests and even early career choices and that’s because those teachers were able to reach us in ways that others couldn’t. That’s the real skill of the instructor – finding a way of doing that with a diverse group of learners.

Practice and repetition – particularly important for skills building and where learning is safety critical. Much of our customer work at 3t focuses on this area.

Reflection – Its one thing building opportunities for reflection into the learning design, its another thing for individuals to genuinely engage with these opportunities. This is a good example of how learning design and personal factors intersect.

Adaptive learning – can often be facilitated by technology. For example, our Knowledge Coach app focuses on reinforcement of knowledge areas that individuals are weak at by adjusting testing based on previous experience and results. In this way, no two learners will be presented with the same test.

The role of personal factors

Motivation to learn is an obvious one. At the end of the day, even if presented with amazing learning design, the individual must want to learn and improve.

The role of feedback – in my experience, this is a widespread challenge. There are very few individuals capable of processing developmental feedback positively. When this is combined with poor to average self – insight, the situation becomes more challenging. Poor self – insight is often a function of not having received sufficient feedback but in itself becomes a barrier to one’s willingness to receive and process feedback. Getting this one area right is likely to boost informal learning significantly and is therefore well worth attempting to resolve.

Reflection – this links to self – insight and feedback. Effective reflection becomes a skill in itself and one that, if mastered, will boost an individual’s ability to learn. This is also relevant at team level when one considers the positive impact on agile retrospectives.

Bringing the recipe together

In reviewing the ingredients, it can be argued that learning design has the biggest impact on learning effectiveness. This is due to the fact that many ingredients fit into this bucket as well as the influence that design can have on personal approaches to learning. So design needs attention and investment.

In many cases, the proportion of learners who are self – aware, reflective and motivated to learn are in the minority. The impact of the environment for the balance of learners who are less aware and motivated is significant. By encouraging learning through a variety of means the “massive middle” can be encouraged to participate willingly.

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