Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

Serving diverse learner needs

Yesterday I had coffee with a new acquaintance. I’ll call her Deb.*

When I explained what I do for a living (design new training programs for adults; coach subject-matter experts to teach and train better; coach writing), Deb told me about a two-day workshop she attended recently. Here are the salient details:

  • The training was a nationally-known program based on a best-selling book, and led in-house by the human resources staff of Deb’s company.
  • The training involved learning scripted conversations, and practicing the scripts during role plays.
  • Deb’s boss arranged for her to attend.
  • Deb’s an introvert — but not shy. She needs to ponder and process her thoughts internally before speaking.
  • Deb’s intelligent, educated (has a masters degree from a U.S. university), and practical.
  • Deb’s from a country in Southeast Asia, and speaks excellent English.

So…Deb really didn’t like the training.

The reasons Deb disliked the training

1. The scenarios she was asked to practice weren’t realistic to her.
For example, one dealt with what she should say to a colleague she suspected of stealing from the company. She said that was not something she would ever address on the job because she’s not in that kind of role.

2. She wasn’t permitted to paraphrase the script.
She was instructed to read directly from the script. And she didn’t think it was realistic to memorize snippets of language and repeat them verbatim in actual conversations. “What, do I have to pull out the script during the meeting and read from it?” she asked me.

3. She wanted more time.
She didn’t want to jump into role plays without having time to think them through, or to think about the scripts.

4. The less comfortable Deb felt participating, the higher her affective filter grew.
She said by the second day, she was so anxious about participating in the role plays that she couldn’t even hear what the trainers were saying.

5. She may have experienced language and cultural barriers.
Finally, Deb didn’t say much about the cross-linguistic and cross-cultural context for the training, but I saw some potential issues:

  • For example, the scenario about stealing might have dictated a course of action Deb would never have taken for cultural reasons — or a course of action that simply baffled her for cultural reasons. (I’m thinking of about a dozen situations I experienced when I lived in China that followed a wholly different set of rules than would be appropriate in the United States.)
  • Furthermore, if the scripts used language that felt unnatural to her, using that language would seem even more challenging.


What Deb’s experience left me with was a series of questions.

  • What could the trainers have done to make the event more useful and comfortable for Deb? 
  • What could the instructional designer have done to anticipated Deb’s needs? 
  • What could Deb have done to advocate for her needs during the event?

Do you have ideas for how to answer these questions? I do — and will post in the coming weeks! But for now, I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments below. 

*Deb is not her real name, but I asked her permission to write about her story.


Comments on: "Serving diverse learner needs" (5)

  1. I remember when one of my graduate school instructors tried out one of those scripted teachings with us in class. She had a hard time with it and fortunately, since we all knew it was an experiment, the pressure was off (or so it seemed) to get too invested. The whole process definitely did not feel very natural.

    My initial thought when reading this post is that the instructor’s approach goes against everything I learned in graduate school. Learning cannot happen if you try to force it with such regimented rules. It is like expecting everyone to learn in the same way and clearly that does not happen.

    A better approach would have been to have options so the learners could select a way that would work for them. I also can’t speak to the purpose of this strict script and what were the objectives of the class. Regardless, I am sure there were many people who experienced something similar as did Deb and shut down to learning at some point. No one wins in that case.

    The instructional designer could have made the event more useful by having a variety of activities in which the learners had the opportunity to absorb the information effectively, whether they are introverted, extroverted, learn by doing, seeing, or hearing. It sounds like I expect a utopia but it is not impossible.

    The instructor could have also done a pre-course survey to get a sense of how best the students would learn so the instructor could target certain activities to that class. I assume the instructor does not have the luxury of polling the class in advance so the better option is to have several tricks in the bag and to be able to offer up those tricks to get at the learning objectives. The other thought that comes to mind when reading this post: Doesn’t the instructor notice when learners are struggling? Again, you can’t force people to move through a process if it doesn’t make sense to them.

    Considering that Deb is more introverted, with the need to think things over first before acting, and the fact that the workshop was set up with little flexibility, I am not sure if her speaking out would have made a difference. Perhaps rather than be thrown in to immediately taking a turn reading from the script, she could have watched others do it and then take her turn playing that same role. I get the sense that the instructor was not interested in deviation though so there might not have been time for that.

    Another idea could be to approach the instructor during a break to explain the challenges she was facing and that she was having a hard time learning the material in that environment. Honestly, I’m not sure if her saying something would make a difference. If it got that bad she could ask to leave, but I doubt that was an option either.

    Those are some of the ideas that immediately come to me, but I will be curious to hear what your thoughts are Amy. Thanks for posting this story and getting my mental juices flowing! It is also a great reminder to evaluate my courses to be sure I am varying my approaches in an effort to allow learning to happen for everyone and not just a select few.

  2. Tracy Schiffmann Consulting said:

    Hi Amy,

    Interesting scenario you present. A couple of thoughts that come to mind for me are as follows:

    1.The adult learning literature demonstrates that participant-generated scenarios are better for not only engagement but also for transferability of learning to novel situations. Had participants been able to generate their own scenarios, the issue of relevance might have been better met.

    2. Instead of scripts (although examples are always helpful, but perhaps they may have been used as just that, examples), the skills and concepts might have been taught through principles of effective communication. This could have even been done through a Thiagi type “envelopes” framegrame in which teams study the principles on a handout, then generate relevant scenarios and then use the framegrame (along with the handouts and maybe a scoring guide for the use of the principles) to respond to the scenarios – a different one in each envelope. A few rounds of this (in which teams write out their response and put it in the envelope without looking at other teams’ responses) with the final round being an evaluation round of all responses in the envelope using a scoring guide, might have been more meaningful for folks. It also allows for truly owning the communication principles as they are filtered through one’s prior knowledge, culture, personality etc. Envelopes framegrame link:

    3. I think we all struggle with too much content (or at least we may struggle with well-intentioned clients who want too much content) and always have to remind ourselves that less is more. The literature is clear here too, less content, more depth = more time for your friend Deb and her colleagues to really dive in to the scenarios. Providing time for reflection and thinking before team sharing and writing their response to submit to the “envelopes” probably would have met the needs of both internal processors like Deb and external processors (those who think by talking) to give their best, most engaged effort.

    Thanks for sharing and inviting us into conversation with you!

    • Wow, thank you, Erin & Tracy!! I love both of your responses. Tracy, thanks for letting us know about the Thiagi envelopes framegame ( — I hadn’t seen that before. Looks versatile and useful. I agree that mastering the underlying concepts and rationales is far better than trying to memorize and recite dialogue — and I love the idea of learners coming up with their own scenarios. (Of course!) I’m guessing that the workshop content triggered memories of many participants — such that they might have even had appropriate scenarios in mind. I also think it would have been an exceptional opportunity to allow (during a debrief) observations about how people handled situations differently, based on different perceptions and assumptions.

      Erin, I too, struggled with how Deb could have responded differently. On the one hand, she’s the only advocate she’s got in that situation, so if she doesn’t speak up, it’s kind of like expecting the trainer to read her mind. In a sense it’s unfair to complain if she doesn’t give the trainer feedback that could made a difference. On the OTHER HAND, Deb is an introvert so asking her to speak up, in the moment, is exactly the problem. My husband (who is both an introvert and a teacher) says he goes into in-service trainings mentally preparing himself to do things he doesn’t enjoy, like spontaneous public speaking (i.e., participating in a group discussion). So maybe there’s something about preparing ahead of time that could help, although that might not lower Deb’s affective filter.

      I’ll post something new with my other thoughts on the subject — I really appreciate your insights, Erin & Tracy.

      • Lynne Tilley said:

        Sorry for the delay in responding, this issue has really made me think about scripting presentations. I personally have never liked scripted trainings or felt comfortable doing role playing scenarios. I fought this feeling when we were working on our projects for class. I understand that by scripting a training every trainer gives the exact same class, but it does not leave any room for accommodating differences. This would be differences in learning styles, cultures, and even students with disabilities.

        My suggestion for curriculum designers is to give the trainer the guidance that is needed to present the information required, but also to give them the flexibility of being able to adjust the presentation to fit the needs of the attendees.

        I am surprised that the trainer in this instance could not see that Deb was not only uncomfortable but also not participating. The trainer should not have waited for feedback from the student, they should have sought out the student in private and communicated with her to find out what could be done to help Deb participate.

  3. […] Last week, I posted a puzzler of sorts — an acquaintance Deb* had some issues with a two-day training she’d been compelled to attend at work. (Read that post here.) […]

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