Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

Archive for the ‘Adult Learning Strategies’ Category

Learn whatever you want

You don’t need a teacher to learn, just a plan.

Photo by Jayel Aheram, Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Jayel Aheram, Flickr Creative Commons

Develop a learning project and create a learning contract with yourself that includes, goals, resources, strategies, and assessment.

1. Describe your learning goals

Make a list of the things you want to, or need to, learn. If you’re not sure what your learning goals are (or should be), ask some experts.

You may have heard of an “informational interview,” often used in the context of a career transition. For a learning project, seek out experts who already know what you want to learn more about. Ask them: “After a month of effort to learn, what should I be able to do, out in the real world?”

For example, you want to learn more about using You might ask, “After a month of effort, what should I be able to do, using WordPress?”

Experts might help you come up with such verb-driven learning outcomes as…

  • Navigate the back end of a WordPress site
  • Author a blog post
  • Design the content and organization of your pages
  • Add and delete widgets
  • Attach a new URL to the site
2. Discover useful resources

Through conversations with your experts, Google searches, a trip to your local library, reading key blogs and Twitter feeds regularly, and other methods, keep a list of resources you can draw on to learn more.

To continue with the example, you might find:

  • A range of books on the topic,
  • and/or Youtube tutorials,
  • Friends who’ll let you look over their shoulder
  • Blogs about blogging
  • Coursera and other free online courses (MOOCs) about writing web content
  • WordPress user forums (where people write and answer questions about using WordPress).

You are limited only by your imagination and savvy!

3. Decide on learning strategies

What steps will you take to learn what you need to know? List the activities that you can realistically undertake, and that will help you learn. Your list will grow once you begin your learning project — because the more you know, the more you’ll see what your learning options are!

Using the example, you might:

  • Play around on
  • Watch and chat with a friend or an expert as they update their own blog
  • Hire a coach
  • Watch online tutorials about WordPress (via Lynda or Youtube, referenced above)
  • Read books
  • Listen to podcasts or audiobooks
  • Go to a conference or training
  • Keep a journal of questions, problems, and discoveries
  • Read other WordPress-hosted blogs to discover what you like and dislike
  • Read blogging experts’ tips.
4. Determine markers of your success

What does success look like? Before you embark on your learning project, think about how you will know you’ve succeeded. Some ideas for assessing and “grading” yourself:

  • Write a test for yourself, asking open-ended questions that you want to learn the answers to (ask an expert if s/he would be willing to read your answers once your learning project is nearing completion
  • Develop a checklist of skills you’d like to be able to execute (and check them off as you succeed)
  • Complete a meaningful project incorporating your learning goals, and ask an expert or friend to assess it for you according to criteria you specify
Execute your project

Once you’ve developed your learning contract, put it into action — use the resources, follow the strategies, and assess your progress. It may help you to set up a schedule for yourself, or get into a rhythm — commit (to yourself!) to try one new strategy a week, or reflect (journal) three times a week on what you’re discovering.

Benefits of a self-directed learning project

Whereas a teacher-led learning efforts are usually time-limited (i.e., a college course lasts a term; a workshop may last an hour or two — time lengths that you have no control over!) — with your own learning project, your goals are focused, but you can keep learning till you’ve accomplished what you set out to.

And once you’re done — celebrate, and then start all over again!


Serving diverse learners’ needs – Part 2 (Conclusions)

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.)

Here are some ideas about how the instructional designer, the trainer, and the learner herself could have done things a little differently, lowering Deb’s affective filter & increasing her engagement and learning.

First — on role plays in general

I love role plays — as an instructor and designer.

They give learners practice simulating a potentially real-life problem, and allow the facilitator to determine if the learners have achieved in-class objectives.

As a learner, I admit I am more resistant to role plays — out of shyness (not introversion) — but I am happy in the end to have had a chance to practice. I especially prefer role plays that I don’t have to stand and perform.


  • What if my relative comfort with role plays has to do with my natural extroversion? I don’t need time to process mentally. I’m perfectly happy processing orally! Do instructors and designers tend to be extroverted? Are we a self-selected bunch of extroverts who design with ourselves in mind?
  • Must role plays be scripted, or can they simply come with guidelines, rubrics, tips? — like, snippets of language suggestions or prompts? I think in the specific program that Deb attended, the scripts were probably trademarked and therefore meant to be used verbatim. Is it realistic to think she will actually memorize and repeat the scripts in real life?

In line with this last point, my friend and colleague Tracy Schiffmann commented:

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.

So what could have been done differently?

What could the trainer, designer and learner do differently next time?

What could the trainers have done to help Deb?

Given an established curriculum, what could the trainers have done to make Deb feel more comfortable? 

To get more ideas, I consulted with several friends and with my husband —who is an introvert, a teacher, and (therefore) a participant in many work-sponsored in-service trainings. Here were his ideas for what the instructor could do to help Deb out:

  1. Create a safe environment from the get-go. Model a positive attitude, and clarify the reasons participants showed up today. It helps if they create their own goals for learning — especially if they don’t know why their boss made them come.
  2. Time to process. Use a structure like “Think pair share” which offers everyone (including introverts) time to process on their own, time to process again in a chat with someone else, and then the opportunity to share more broadly, if they choose to do so.
  3. Ask learners to volunteer their participation. Don’t insist that every participant take part in a role-play, or have any kind of public speaking role. It’s not that learners have to “get over shyness” — it’s that some learners need more time to think through their responses. Even teachers and public figures who speak regularly love to have time to prepare. If student participation is part of your scoring guide, find alternative ways for assessing participation, such as writing a reflection about the class (ex-post-facto).
  4. Give learners the right to pass. If an activity is structured so that each person in a group does have to speak, allow learners to pass. Circle back to them if they need more time to think of what they’d like to say.
  5. Keep it real. Don’t pressure learners to say something they don’t want to say, or to behave in way that’s not reflective of who they are. A classroom should be a learning laboratory, not a first dinner with the in-laws — or a job interview — where everyone uses their most restrained behavior. Learners need room to struggle and grow — and be authentic.
  6. Listen for, and address, struggles you see in the classroom. Not all learners are going to pull you aside and let you know that they are struggling. Not all learners will resist vocally. Be on the lookout for uncomfortable body language — and listen in on group work to spot people who are having a harder time. Where necessary, take a struggling learner aside and discuss ways to modify the activity to suit their learning needs. Be prepared to listen — and don’t try to be a psychotherapist. Invite them to participate — and accept it if they decline to do so. I admit this kind of side discussion is difficult if you have a large group of learners.
  7. Know thy learners! It’s always a good idea to survey your learners ahead of time, as part of the registration process. My friend and colleague Erin Neff observes:

    “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.”

What could the instructional designers have done to help learners like Deb?
  1. Leave room for the learner’s experience. When designing role plays, leave open the option for learners to come up with their own scenarios, and to paraphrase any script they’re given. Offer (and define) key words and useful phrases, rather than dictating whole sentences. Tracy Schiffmann says: 

    “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. Let learners act on their strengths. When designing any kind of small group activity that includes a teach back or presentation, give the small groups a variety of roles — including roles that need to speak to the big group, and roles that do not (such as small group facilitator, recorder, flip chart writer, etc.)
  3. Offer more options! The course designer/developer might vary the learning activities during the two-day program. Erin Neff says:

    “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.”

Finally, what can learners do to help themselves?
  1. Communicate your needs ahead of time. Ahead of the training, be in touch with the instructor, if possible, and let them know what your specific needs are. Ask them what type of activities the workshop will rely on, and ask them what the goals and outcomes of the course are. Try to figure out why you are going (if your boss asked you to go), what you’re supposed to get out of the training, and come up with your own personal learning goals. Of course it would be nice if the trainer surveyed you and other participants ahead of time.
  2. Stay upbeat. If at all possible, maintain a positive attitude during the workshop.
  3. Communicate your needs during the training. If necessary, speak to the instructor during the workshop to let them know that you are struggling.  Erin Neff says:

    “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.”

     Be as specific as possible: “I find that I am so anxious about the role plays, that I am not able to concentrate on the content of our course. Can you give me some options for participating in alternative ways. Can I take notes for my small group, for example, or paraphrase the script in my own words?”

That all said, it might be hard to speak up during a workshop especially if the trainer seems to have a rigid approach. Erin Neff continues:

“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.”

*Deb is not her real name. That said, I asked her permission to blog about this issue.

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 (more…)

Spaced learning and one-off workshops

How to encourage learners to spread out their learning, when you have one shot to teach them.

According to John Medina’s Brain Rules, you’ll learn best through re-exposing yourself to new information at specific intervals.

This kind of learning is called “spaced learning” and is in contrast to cramming, or a study method I call “How I Passed my Freshman Computer Programming Course at CMU”—memorize a lot of code, then type it in the right place on the exam, then go home for winter break and never think about it again, ever.

So, if spaced learning is the ideal, how do you encourage it, when you’ve only got a one-hour workshop or presentation (instead of, say, a semester-long college course)? The following are some ways that I have tried — I’d love to hear what you’ve tried! Leave a comment below.

Close your workshop with a review

If you don’t already, review the workshop content as part of your wrap up. There are lots of ways to do this, depending on how much time you’ve spent together. An easy way is to look back at the objectives for the workshop and quiz participants on how well they’ve met them. Learners will remember the end of the workshop better than the rest of it, so reviewing the content at the end sends them home with the key points fresh in their minds.

Ask learners to explain new ideas to a friend

The best way to learn is to teach. Task your learners with explaining a new concept, teaching a new skill, or discussing a new issue with a friend. Reviewing content orally is a kind of elaborative rehearsal — repeating the content in a relatively complex way that anchors it in long-term memory better.

Give a homework assignment

Clearly optional, homework assignments invite learners to take their interest in your subject one step further. Ask learners to read a specific book from the library, reflect on the topic in writing, interview an expert to learn more, watch a film, create something new.

The homework assignment will allow your learners one more exposure to the new skill or content area, helping them review and revisit what they learned from you during the workshop.

Encourage learners to take & review their notes

Leave space in your handouts for learners to take notes. Encourage them to review their notes during the week following the workshop.


How do you encourage your learners to deepen their knowledge of workshop content?

Attention and Learning

Some things we know about attention:

This graphic includes the image and the explainer text together, focusing the learner’s attention.

1. Attention doesn’t multi-task.

I might think I’m multi-tasking when I am “listening” to the Slate Political Gabfest and writing a blog post at the same time, but I’m really doing one thing…then forcing myself to stop…then focusing on the other thing. John Medina says in Brain Rules that it takes 50 percent longer to do anything if you’re trying to split your attention with something else.

Of course you can multi-task — for example, you can walk and talk. Your working memory isn’t engaged in walking so it’s free to help you keep track of what you’re saying.

2. You can learn only when you’re paying close attention.

Ever been to a workshop with side-talkers? People who chat throughout the workshop, then complain they’ve not learning anything?

Well, there’s actually a scientific reason that they didn’t learn anything.

Turns out, you have to pay attention in order to learn.

When you learn something new, your brain’s wiring changes a bit to accommodate the new thing you learned. But if you’re not really paying attention while you’re learning, your brain’s not really going to rewire itself.

The learning you do while your attention is divided might stick with you in the short-ish term but not in the long term.

Norman Doidge writes in his book The Brain that Changes Itself about Merzenich and Jenkins‘ research on monkeys’ learning. They found that automatic learning did result in some remapping of neuropathways, but the remapping didn’t last long unless the monkey paid close attention during (more…)

5 ways to help learners discover what they already know

One key to helping adults learn is getting them connect new information to what they already know.

As educators, our role then is to get our learners to realize what they already know — through written and oral reflection.

We can do this in lots of ways — here are a few:

1) Pre-workshop questionnaires.

Learners can start reflecting on their own prior experience with a topic (and you can whet their appetite for rich content) when you ask them to answer some questions before the workshop.

Using a free online survey site like SurveyMonkey, you can ask learners to respond to (more…)

Revisiting the panel discussion

This spring I’ve had the privilege of taking part in several conferences.

Towards the end of one conference I heard heightened evidence of Panel Fatigue.

I can see why conferences rely on panel discussion — why people propose them, and why conference organizers select them:

  • Panels ask relatively little of the speakers (unlike other speaking or training sessions),
  • Several big names on a panel look great and attract participants, and
  • People like to hear from experts — the more the better.

Why Panel Fatigue?

After listening to a series of experts — and another series of experts — and another series (more…)