Here's a closer look at the features of self-paced,
technology-based training that adults say are useful and the
relationship between those course features and the learning
strategies adults consistently use.
The two previous articles in this series, discuss how adults
describe their learning process when taking self-paced,
technology-based training. The first article presented a
model, which indicated adult learning begins with and is
sustained by metacognition, which is a learning strategy that
consists of self-assessment and self-correction. The model also
indicates that reflection, prior experiences, conversations, and
authentic experiences are other learning strategies adults
frequently use. The second article describes the specific
learning strategies adults use when they apply metacognition,
reflection, prior experiences, conversations, and authentic
experiences. For example, adults use conversations in the following
ways to help them learn the content of self-paced, technology-based
- to ask or answer questions about the course content
- to discuss problems the course content helped them solve
- to teach a colleague or subordinate something they learned in the course.
Now it's time to take a look at the relationship between
instructional strategies (or course features) that instructional
designers use and the five learning strategies that adults use.
Most adults find generative learning strategies useful. Generative
learning strategies are activities that help learners construct
their own knowledge. They can be part of the instruction, such as
questions or examples. They also can be strategies learners
initiate, for example, note taking or making connections between
different parts of the new information.
The generative learning strategies that learners find most useful
in self-paced-technology based training are
- questions or self-checks
- diagrams and screen shots
- sections and tables of contents.
This is pretty old news, though. Workplace learning professionals
already know that questions, examples, simulations, diagrams,
screen shot graphics, and sections and tables of contents are
effective instructional strategies. Indeed, a multitude of articles
and books describe their importance and techniques for creating
What it is interesting, and worth discussing, is how these course
features relate to the learning strategies adults consistently use.
In other words, What is the relationship between useful
instructional strategies and the five learning strategies that
adults frequently use (metacognition, reflection, prior
experiences, conversations, and authentic experiences)?
Table 1 indicates how course features that are types of generative
learning strategies relate to the five commonly used learning
strategies. It also provides a brief description of how learners
employ a specific learning strategy using a specific course
Table 1: Useful Course Features and Learning Strategies
Consistently Used By Adults
| Useful course feature (instructional strategy) || Learning strategy or strategies the course feature supports || Discussion |
| Questions || Facilitate metacognition || Self-check and practice questions help learners assess their understanding and correct misconceptions and errors. Learners consistently say that periodic self-checks improve self-paced, technology-based training. A critical element of effective questions is to provide learners with all the answers that are acceptable or "correct" on the job. |
| Examples || Facilitate authentic experiences (practice), metacognition, comparisons with prior experience, and reflection || Like questions, learners have a voracious appetite for examples. Examples help learners understand how they can use their new skills on the job. Examples allow learners to vicariously practice and assess their new skills. Examples also help students make connections between their prior experiences and the new information. These connections are critical, as they help learners understand the big picture or the context within which they will use their new skills (reflection). |
| Simulations || Facilitate authentic experiences (practice), metacognition, and reflection || Obviously, simulations facilitate practice and enable learners to engage in authentic experiences. Simulations also help learners visualize how they can use what they learned to solve a problem or improve something (reflection). Simulations help learners self assess and self correct (metacognition) and they help learners understand the "big picture" of the new information (reflection). Simulations also provide interactivity which learners often find very useful, as well as enjoyable. |
| Diagrams and screen shots || Facilitate reflection ("big picture") and authentic experiences. || Diagrams help learners see the big picture, i.e., the system, within which they will use the new information they are learning. Diagrams that learners will use on the job and that are explained in the instruction enable students to practice using the diagrams. Diagrams also help learners dual process new information, i.e., diagrams provide information that complements the text. Screen shots help learners practice using those screens or menus and more importantly to practice using the procedure for which the screen shots are the tools. |
| Section headings and tables of contents || Facilitate reflection ("big picture") and metacognition || Section headings and tables of contents are more than navigational or organizational tools. Learners often use these course features to understand the big picture and the relationship between the various components and subcomponents. Section headings and tables of contents are therefore often used as advance organizers. Learners also use section headings as part of their metacognition, i.e., at the end of each section, learners often take a break to reflect on what they have learned, how they might use that information, and the degree to which they have understood or mastered the new information. |
Three additional course features that aren't generative learning
strategies but adults find helpful are
- being able to use the course as a job aid
- good navigation
- audio that can be turned off.
Being able to use the course as a job aid is an important course
feature because it facilitates metacognition and authentic
experiences. Adult learners continue to assess the effectiveness
and efficiency of their new skills once they complete a course.
When they're uncertain or confused about their new skills, they
often return to the course to refresh their skills. Courses that
are designed to also serve as job aids, such as courses with good
navigation or those that learners can easily print, support
self-assessment and self-correction on the job.
Good navigation also is important because learners typically like
to focus solely on what they need to learn. In doing so, they may
want to move around in the course rather than take a linear
approach to the instruction. Good navigation often isn't noticed by
learners but cumbersome, inadequate, or ineffective navigation is
so debilitating that it can completely shut down the learning
Finally, audio can be an asset and learners often enjoy it, but
they're quick to criticize audio if they don't have the option of
turning it off. Typically, adult learners can read the text quicker
than their PC can play the audio file. Even though it's sometimes
effective to have learners watch a procedure or process while
listening to a companion audio explanation, many adult learners
prefer reading the text and become impatient with instruction that
doesn't offer text-only versions.
Two common features that adult learners consistently find
ineffective are clip art and descriptions of software features.
Clip art typically looks cheap and takes up valuable screen space
that might better be left blank. Blank space, which is sometimes
referred to as white space or negative space, can
be beneficial because it gives a sense of openness, which in turn
implies that the content is accessible and easy to read. Blank
space also can help learners identify important information because
it makes it easy for them to identify and separate specific groups
of instructional information.
Descriptions of software features is useless information unless
there are a lot of examples or simulations that demonstrate how to
use the feature. Simply being made aware of a feature, without
knowing how to use it, is worthless to most learners. Learners
frequently indicate that without examples or simulations of a
software tool, they''re left asking, "So, why would I ever do
this?" or "Why would I want to do it?"
Adults teach themselves how to use the following learning
strategies: metacognition, reflection, prior experiences,
conversations, and authentic experiences. Instructional designers
can support and enhance the effectiveness of these five learning
strategies by using appropriate instructional strategies.
Accordingly, it's important for designers to know the relationship
between instructional strategies and learning strategies. They need
to know not only how to apply various effective instructional
strategies but also why those strategies are effective. For
- questions facilitate metacognition
- examples facilitate authentic experiences (practice), metacognition, comparisons with prior experience, and reflection
- simulations facilitate authentic experiences, metacognition, and reflection
- diagrams and screen shots facilitate reflection ("big picture") and authentic experiences
- section headings and tables of contents facilitate reflection and metacognition.
Effective training includes the following instructional strategies:
- frequent opportunities for learners to self-assess and self-correct
- table of contents, searchable index, site or content map, section summaries, headings, search capabilities, and a glossary so learners can use the course both as a training intervention and as a job aid, reference, or EPSS
- print features so learners can make paper copies of some or all of the course
- numerous and relevant examples
- reflection questions to help learners create personal relevancy
- definitions of all acronyms and technical terminology
- an advance organizer that addresses both the big picture of the content and the structure of the course
- support for the preferred learning strategies typically used by the target audience
- clearly defined course goals or objectives in both the course description and at the beginning of the course
- rhetorical questions that ask learners to think about the implications or consequences of the course content and examples of how they might use the content on the job
- different approaches to a process or different opinions about a topic
- visual aids that show how the various pieces of content fit together to create a whole; use this visual as part of section and course summaries, a printable job aid, and practice exercises
- recommendations to learners that they discuss the course content with anyone who will listen to them. It's particularly important for learners to discuss the course with their supervisors both before and after they take a self-paced, technology-based course.
Two additional recommendations:
- It's sometimes effective to provide historical information about the course content with timelines showing other relevant historical events.
- As part of the analysis task, be sure to identify the range and type of prior experiences the target audience brings to the training and then use this information to develop examples, analogies, practice questions, and definitions that are relevant to the learners.