Learnception: Learning Learning Theories for Instructional Design, & My Philosophy of Instructional Design

As I’ve mentioned time and time again, I started my career at a STEM e-learning startup (expii), first designing meaningful high-school level biology quiz questions to really help students ace the material, then designing images/infographics and explanations to simply explain topics in that same level of biology. More recently my career has taken me further into tech, where I continue to design learning materials but more along the lines of training workers for a specific internal purpose. Turns out there’s something called “instructional design” that spans these experiences – a friend told me recently she thought it would be something I’d be very good at, and it turns out it’s been something I’m known to be good at – I’ve been hired to do it, twice.

I wanted to reach a bit further and hone the skill, so I’ve been reminding myself of learning theory/theories. I’ve run into such theories before; my undergrad is in neuroscience which means I took quite a few psychology/behavior courses in my day, and these theories of course came up. Basically what I wanted to get out of this pseudo-research was: How can I help people learn what they want to learn? How can I design materials in a way that works with people’s brains?

How can I help people learn what they want to learn? How can I design materials in a way that works with people’s brains?

The first thing I noticed is that there are a lot of theories of learning. Some sources say 4, some 5, some 7, some 15. And then we’ve all heard the “theories” of being a visual learner, or a kinetic learner, or an auditory learner. Education is a huge industry so it makes sense that there would be all sorts of frameworks. But how to study something so vague?

Well, each learning theory seems to be broken down into four main tenets or sections:

  1. What is knowledge?
  2. What is learning?
  3. How are people motivated to learn?
  4. What are the implications of the first 3 for methods of teaching?

Depending on the learning context, some of these considerations may not matter. For example: When I create informational documents for my job to train other folks to do their jobs, I know their motivation to learn the info – it’s their job. So in that context I would not consider how people are motivated in the design of my instructional material. On the other hand, when writing blog posts on botany, it’s important that I consider what motivates my audience to read that article. If I think, Local city dwellers will want to learn some botany basics from me because they want to help the local native pollinators by planting native gardens, then I’ll be sure to include information that pertains to that topic. Or, when designing a course froms scratch I might consider why someone would be taking the course. Are they intrinsically motivated by a want of knowledge? Then perhaps the course focus could be more on not just the knowledge, but also on a knowledge community. If I expect people using my course to be extrinsically motivated – I will make more money if I learn this material, for example – perhaps I can focus on making sure the class is acreddited and comes with a certificate of knowledge at completion.

With motivation, there is also always reinforcement to consider. (There is also reinforcement with regards to holding onto information; that’s a different use of the word, and more on that later.) When I worked at expii desinging quiz questions, each answer had an ‘explanation’ section that would pop up when a student chose that answer. For the incorrect answers, we wanted to focus on pointing the student toward the correct answer. And, equally important, in the explanation for each correct answer I included some positive reinforcement! I don’t know about you, but getting a 100% on a test is even more rewarding when you get a lollipop with it – or, in the case of e-learning, a sweet little pop up that says “Fantastic job!”

There’s also reinforcement in terms of reinforcement of learned material in the mind. Again how I expect learners to go about this depends on their motivations, as well as the type of information I’m trying to teach. For example, let’s say I’m writing an article about the Apiaceae family of plants, with two goals. After reading, (1) Readers will understand what makes different plant species fit into one family, and (2) Readers will be able to identify different plants as being part of Apiaceae or not.

The first goal of understanding taxonomy is more abstract; this takes more consideration in the mind and not so much procedural reinforcement, i.e. going out and doing things to gain a skill. On the other hand, goal (2) is more procedural and I might expect that without going out and practicing, a reader isn’t going to be able to identify plants very well. So I can design my writing in a way that offers both of these types of reinforcement.

To help the reader learn goal (1), I might have a section explaning, in simple, definitive terms, what makes a taxonomological family. At the end of that section I might give examples and ask open-ended questions that nudge the reader’s curiosity, encouraging them to further consider what makes up a taxonomological family. To help the reader learn goal (2), at the very end of the article I might include a quick, fun quiz with different plant images and ask the reader to identfiy whether they are in that family or not. I might also, after the quiz, suggest an activity where the reader goes out for a walk in a local park and tries to find 3 apiaceae-family plants.

In short, I consider not just what’s motivating someone to learn when designing but also what’s going to help them hold onto the kind of knowledge they’re trying to learn.

Across all the types of instructional design I do or have done, there is one main thing I try and keep in mind: I teach the way I would want to learn. Of course, my style is not going to work for everyone, but if I start from a place where I can see both sides (I can see the material as the teacher, and as the student) I can adapt to what’s needed. For instance, when I’m writing about plants or design I generally try and keep things light – funny, even, if I can, as well as colorful and casual – because I am easily overwhelmed by too much heavy information. When I’m writing training materials for my job in tech, I don’t really have the option to write with my usual style. But I can still be wary of information overload and, when training in person or on video call, I keep things casual and light. That allows me to be a better instructor.


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