Saturday, July 09, 2016

Paint-by-Numbers: Thinking About Types of Content

I have just returned from a really wonderful workshop at the Omega Institute. It was "The Emotional Landscape" taught by a brilliant photographer and amazing instructor, Douglas Beasley. You can find his website here. The workshop was about (in my eyes) about interacting with the physical world as a spiritual being, using photography as a lens to see and share that vision with others. It was much more than I had even hoped when I read the description and signed up. Honestly, my experience with non-trainers teaching has been rather grim up to now. I come with low expectations, usually. If I can take away one or two new thoughts, that's a successful workshop. That was not the case here -- I've got things to think about for years!

But that's not what this post is about.

I observed an interesting phenomena in the session, one you might have encountered if you have tried to teach anything to do with design, soft skills, or decision making. Doug would be talking to us about interacting with our photographic subjects in a spiritual way, about having a "conversation" with our subjects. And right on the heels of this, certain members of the group would be asking about equipment, technology, f-stops. Topics that were about as far away on the spectrum of photography topics as one could imagine. Doug would allow the conversation to veer into this procedural areas, but it must have been frustrating. Why was this happening?

The answer is actually quite easy. We can divide all content into two categories: What we want the learner to be able to DO when they complete the instruction, and what the learner needs to KNOW before they can learn how to DO it. "Doing" content is primarily of two types: Procedural, and Judgement-making (also known as Principals.) Procedural content is the type where if you and I follow the same steps correctly, we will both come to the same correct outcome. Judgement-based content is where you and I will apply guidelines to come to completely unique but entirely correct, outcomes.

Judgement-making is hard to learn, and almost universally poorly taught. It requires particular elements in the instruction, in order to be taught successfully. Here's what you need to include:

  • A clear statement of what the happy outcome will be if the guidelines are applied appropriately
  • Guidelines that the learner should consider/weigh in making their decision or applying judgement
  • An example, with the guidelines called out as they are applied
  • An optional non-example, where the learner can see the result if the guidelines are not appropriately applied
  • Multiple opportunities for the learner to practice with the nuanced, live, feedback of a master
Procedural performance outcomes are easier to teach because all they require is that the steps be clearly described and the learner be given adequate practice in following them. 

The tricky part is that sometimes content can be described as either procedural or judgement-making. Most judgement-making topics can be taught in ways that use some sort of formula to achieve the impression that judgement was used. Do you remember "paint by number" kits? (Do they even make those any more???)  The painter can just fill in the picture chunks with the specified color, and the result is an oil painting. Or think of the self-help articles that are titled "Three-steps to....." The difference between a paint-by-number painter and an artist is that the artist is NOT doing something formulaic. What determines if the content should procedural or judgement-making is who is in the audience. 

In this case, we had a very diverse audience. We had people who understood the physics of their cameras as easily as taking their next breath. And then we had people who did not, who were novices to cameras. And everything in between. 

Although the description of the class mentioned that participants should have a good working knowledge of their camera, exactly what that meant was rather vague. (It is one of those things where if you had a good working knowledge of your camera, you would understand what the comment meant. If you don't have a good working knowledge of your camera, you wouldn't know what it meant. So people who should disqualify themselves can't, and those who could, shouldn't!) And there was no requirement to prove that knowledge before being accepted into the class. (Thank goodness, or I wouldn't have been able to attend!) It was the decision of the organizers or the instructor to allow anyone in, and there are good reasons to do that. But the tradeoff is that you are going to have class members who keep trying to turn every judgement-making content block into to a procedural content block. Or you may have class members who haven't mastered the preliminary knowledge block that is required in order to be able to learner the performance content.

How can we  design instruction so that we can work around this? In elearning, it would be easier. We could add pre-tests before each topic. If the learner can't prove mastery of whatever the preliminary or foundational knowledge is, they can be pushed to additional content. After they complete that, they can move to the judgement-making content. 

In instructor-led situations, it is much more difficult. The instructor can ignore the needs of the unqualified learners, or can require the prepared learners to wait while the less prepared learners catch up. The best thing to do is to try to keep the audience as homogeneous as possible. And there may be very good reasons not to do this. In that case, the instructor may want to have some supplementary materials available, and realize that a certain amount of procedural information is going to be requested. Determining what your boundaries will be ahead of time, and how you will deal with the group diversity may make walking this tightrope easier for you, and make the experience less frustrating for the class. In our case, the instructor used an approach of being very flexible about responding to class members' needs, bringing humor into the situation, and gently but firmly keeping the focus on the the topics he wished to emphasize. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Soft Skills and Learning Objectives

I love my job for a whole lot of reasons, and one of those is because I get to write short pieces for Here's my latest effort! 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Cross Post: What Makes for Great Instructional Design

I was recently published at This was something I wrote for my new job at (Check them out! They are wonderful!) Take a look, and I hope you enjoy it!

What Makes for Great Instructional Design

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Job Search: Writing a Blammo Cover Letter!

For a long time, cover letters were a real throw away for me. I hated writing them, and given half a chance, would skip them all together. Who reads 'em anyway?

But then I realized I was throwing away my opportunity to sell myself to my future employer. This is the place that I can set myself apart from the crowd and also speak to the potential employer about my value proposition. "Value proposition." if you aren't familiar with it,  is a term taken from the marketing and sales world. I define it as what you (or your product) will add to the potential customer, or employer that will enrich the potential customer or employer in some way. Enrich is a broad term, and it could mean increasing their bottom line or it could mean increasing some value they hold or capability they have. It is how you explicitly show then why they want to talk to you.

Your cover letter needs to do this in a way that they reader can feel the passion you have for the work. And I've found that if I can't write a compelling cover letter, then probably I shouldn't apply for the job. Yes, you read that right. I strongly recommend that you NOT apply for a bunch of things, but only the few that you feel strongly about. When your value proposition maps to the employer's need, you will make the sale - that is, get the interview.

So hear are my five steps for writing a "blammo" cover letter:

1. Write a introduction that "hooks" your reader.
2. Describe how one of your core values matches the core values of the hiring organization. Job duties come and go, but core values last for ever!
3. Describe why you want this job with this organization. Be specific. Hint: because you need the money is not a reason. Nobody wants to be just a "booty call."
4. Ask a question if you have one, especially if it points out a qualification you have.
5. Make a nice ending.

So let's take a look at a strong cover letter to see how I used these steps. Here's one I wrote the last time I was unemployed. The position was with a local community college. They were looking for someone to help local businesses see the value of partnering with the college. It was a part instructional designer, part sales job that sounded like it was just up my alley. Here's the letter I wrote:

Dear Search Committee:
Recently I was speaking with a potential employer. When I learned the
details of the position, I realized that the job was not the one for me.
But I did know someone I thought would be a great match. So I gave
the interviewer that person’s contact information. Then I followed up
with a email to help both parties make a connection.

Why would a person do such a thing? Because I’m a bridge-builder.
That’s just what I do.

So I was thrilled to see your Product Manager position posted. Here is a
position that combines client-centered development of training
solutions. An opportunity to combine my strong entrepreneurial bent,
my original and well-proven needs assessment and development skills,
in a community college setting.

I note that the posting asks one specific question: Do I have a
Bachelor’s Degree in business, marketing, communication,
management, or a closely related field from an accredited institution.
As you will see on my resume, I have a BS in Education. However, I do
hold an MBA from the Simon School, in Operations Management and

I’d very much like to discuss this opportunity and my skills and
experiences further. And I do appreciate your consideration.

Best wishes,
Clare Dygert

So how does it measure up? I got the interview, by the way. In fact, if I follow these guidelines, I almost ALWAYS get the interview! Try them out, and let me know how it goes for you!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Cognitive Load Basics ... or... Let's Not Make This Harder Than It Has To Be

Cognitive load is one of those things that makes a huge difference to your e-learning. But, unfortunately, not a lot of instructional designers have a good grasp on how what they do impacts the cognitive loads their learners must bear.

Human beings have a limited amount of working memory to use, period. How much working memory they have to use when interacting with learning materials depends on the cognitive load demands of the instruction. There are three kinds of cognitive load: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane.

Intrinsic load is the load that is caused by the student having to understand what the content is about. When  a student is new to the subject area, content will have a very high intrinsic load. Why? Well, the student doesn't know what any of the terminology means. So she will have to learn all of that. And she probably doesn't have a schema in place, so she had to figure out what is important, what is repeating, how things should be organized. And she might have to do this at the same time as she is trying to learn the content. When you see a student furiously taking notes -- no -- not taking notes, taking dictation, you are looking at a student who suffering under a huge intrinsic load.

Extraneous load is load we add to content that really needn't be there. Poorly designed UIX is a major culprit. If the student has to decipher the interface, she is using processing power for that that she can't use for learning. Other things that can add extraneous load are poorly organized content, graphics that just are there to be pretty, but don't add anything to the content, and extra content that doesn't support the learning outcomes. Extraneous load is something we can definitely do something about.

Germane load is the load caused by the student actually learning. It's the good load. The idea is to reduce intrinsic and extraneous load to make room for germane load.

The big names in cognitive load theory (CLT) are John Sweller, Jeroen  J.G. van Merrienboer, and Fred G.W.C. Paas. One of their early works was "Cognitve Architecture and Instructional Design". If you would like to read it (and believe me -- you WANT to!) you can see it here:

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Daily Standup Meeting

Wow, it's been a long time! I've been having the time of my life at my new job. My wish for you is that at some point you also will have the job of your dreams -- I can't believe how wonderful it is to come home everyday and be able to report that I had a great day at work.

I'm managing a super group of folks in my new gig. One of the things we are experimenting with is a daily "standup" meeting. Every morning, after everyone gets into the office, we have about a 7 minute meeting, standing up. Every person says what they are working on today. This gives us an opportunity to celebrate the tiny milestones that make up our lives, and to hear about obstacles as they appear. It gives me the opportunity to call to mind some aspect of our mission that I'd like to have people focus on.

Today we did it a little bit different. I asked people to quantify what they were going to accomplish today. As they reported, I wrote it on our white board. Then, at the end of the day, before they left, I asked everyone to either put a check mark next to their names if they accomplished it, or if they exceeded it, to strike out what they had and write the new information above it. If they didn't make the progress they had planned, I asked them to note that too. Tomorrow we will look at what we did today and see if we can draw any conclusions.

This kind of situational awareness is one of the ways that we understand what we are doing collectively, and also understand how what we do makes an impact on the rest of the team. This kind of intelligence is invaluable!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Top 5%?

Today I got an email telling me I was in the top 5% of LinkedIn profile views for 2012. Is that crazy or what? I did decide I wanted to have 1000 contacts by the end of 2012. I decided this around 10/1/12, and I think I had about 500 contacts. I was able to achieve my goal pretty easily. I'm sure that has had something to do with my number of views. It will be interesting to see if I can maintain this status in 2013.