Amy Potthast | Instructional Coach & Designer | Learning Design Studios

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?


Instructional gifts for the teacher in your life — Part One: For Instructional Designers

Like any teacher, adult educators love apple-shaped Christmas tree ornaments that say World’s Screen shot 2012-12-13 at 10.50.09 PMBest Teacher. But in case the teacher in your life already has one, check out these gift ideas (and add your own!).

The tools of the trade for an instructional designer include things like large surfaces for group & solo brainstorming, post-it notes in all colors, good pens, copy paper, and writing resources like a good thesaurus. That said, consider these gifts:

1. Table-top dry-erase easel pad. 

Screen shot 2012-12-13 at 10.52.58 PM

Convenient — for brainstorming and storyboarding with subject matter experts and clients!

These portable writing surfaces offer designers luxurious writing and scribbling space, the ability to erase!, and all in a compact package (with a handle!) that makes carrying easy whether you’re going by foot, car, or public transportation.

Stocking stuffers:

2. Colorful sticky notes. Lots of them. In lots of colors. These lined ones are cool.

To run a good affinity process (the process instructional designers use to come up with learning outcomesScreen shot 2012-12-13 at 10.57.02 PM for new instructional programs or courses), it’s helpful to assign each subject matter expert their own color Post-It note pad — so when all is said and done, you know who said what during the brainstorm.

To that end, you can never have enough Post-It notes. In enough colors.

Stocking stuffers:

3. Gift card to a favorite bookstore


One of the best parts about being an instructional designer is learning! Instructional designers work alongside subject matter experts to create new instructional programs, courses, and workshops in an endless array of topics.

Only because library cards make for an awkward gift, consider a bookstore gift card.

Inspired by Halloween, I thought I’d tackle some frightening things I see in workshops I attend. And some antidotes.

1. Mistake: Leaving chairs & tables in rows, classroom-style

Actually, this is perfectly okay if you are planning to talk the entire time — like a famous author giving a lecture or reading.

If you plan on learners’ talking to each other, choose boardroom-table seating; round tables with no backs to the front of the room; a U-shape; fishbone; rainbow or horse shoe. Check out the Learning Design Studios’ Quick Guide to Seating.

Allow learners to face each other — show that you’re the guide on the side (not the sage on the stage), and set a tone inviting participation.

If possible, arrive early to set up the room the way you’d like it. Alternately, tell your client (the person who’s asked you to speak) specifically how you’d like the room setup. It’s really frustrating to imagine round tables when you’re designing a workshop — only to find rows when you show up in the classroom.

2. Mistake: Ignore participants as they enter the room.

I know, you’re shy! Or you’re busy setting up! Or you’re refilling  your coffee before the workshop begins! Or…or…

Greet participants when they enter! So that you can:

  • Learn their names
  • Introduce yourself
  • Initiate a rapport with them
  • Make sure they are in the right place
  • Answer questions
  • Find out why they came and what they already know
  • Network!

Especially in settings when you haven’t been able to do a pre-workshop survey, it’s crucial to learn where your participants are coming from and where they are headed, and how your workshop fits into their needs. If they’ve been told to attend, do they feel it’s a punishment? (Is it a punishment?) Do you have a range of levels in the room, or do participants skew toward expert or toward beginner?

3. Mistake: Focus on your content, not on their outcomes

You’ve been asked to teach a class on a topic.

What do you do next? If you are like many people, you’ll brainstorm all the content you need to cover in the workshop, then create a PowerPoint with slides that include all the content you brainstormed (organized neatly, of course).

A better reaction would be to ask your client or another expert what learners must be able to do, out in the real world, as a result of your workshop. (You might be the expert!)

Once you have a clear idea of the outcomes, you can create objectives — tasks that learners can do during the workshop that allow you to assess their readiness for achieving the outcomes, after the workshop.

Then once you’ve listed the objectives, you can figure out what concepts & skills they must discover & practice during the workshop — and what prerequisite skills and knowledge they should enter the room with.

Outcomes help you make decisions about what to cover, and allow you to focus the learning experience.

Check out theLearning Design Studios’ ISD Model At a Glance.

Last night I watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk from 2008 (seems I am a bit behind the times) and loved it so much.

Taylor suffered a stroke in her late 30s, and because she’s a neuroscientist had a very unique perspective on the experience, even while her (left) brain was still hemorrhaging.

Here’s the talk:

After you watch it, what questions does it bring up for you?

For me, questions arise such as:

Implications for Icebreakers and Energizers?

If it’s the right brain through which we feel most connected to others and most aware in the present moment, and it’s the right brain that governs our kinesthetic experience of the world, what does that mean Read the rest of this entry »

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 Read the rest of this entry »

Next Thursday, Aug. 23, I’ll be piloting a new workshop called What’s Your Story that I designed for a San Francisco-based career services company.

Thanks to Sustainable Sanitation's Flickr stream

Thanks to Sustainable Sanitation’s Flickr stream

I’ve invited job seekers and adult educators in my networks to participate, and in two days we’ve almost filled all 15 workshop seats.

Why pilot a workshop?

Though piloting may be a luxury in terms of money and time, it is incredibly helpful when it’s possible to do it!

Both educators and learners benefit from pilot workshops —

  • Instructional developers test out a new lesson plan, assessing timing and flow, and evaluating holes in content and practice — and then revise the workshop’s design and materials before distributing it!
  • Pilot facilitators get to hear feedback from a friendly audience who have volunteered to give feedback.
  • Pilot participants get to learn for free, network, and hopefully have some fun — plus a chance to influence the final version of the workshop!
  • Future facilitators get to deliver tried and true materials, even when they’re relatively new.
  • Future participants (ideally) experience stronger learning outcomes as a result of workshop revisions!

Finally, just like a comic who tries out new comedic material on audiences in smaller markets, educators who beta testing their instructional materials can risk learning in public Read the rest of this entry »


Laptop keyboard for online learning

From baddog_ on Flickr

Having just finished grad school, I am in the habit of studying at the feet of masters, and learning amazing new things. So I am thrilled to discover a surge in new elearning platforms whose aims are to expose me to new knowledge.

Coursera: is a platform offering over 100 courses from major universities on a wide range of topics. With Coursera, you register on the site, then you can sign up for any courses — most of which look to be five to eight weeks long, and are scheduled through mid-2013.

For example, I signed up for a stats course that’s to begin in September.

What’s refreshingly unique about Coursera is that you actually get readings and homework — in addition to watching lectures by your professor.

Some courses even send you a certificate of completion at the end.

iTunes U:

Many universities have uploaded audio and video recordings of course lectures on a huge Read the rest of this entry »