Learning shouldn’t be too easy

When you try to help other people learn, you have to find a balance between filling them in and weighing them down.

Successful learning seems to require a certain amount of challenge to the learner — creating a need or desire to expend effort. Imagine a graph on which the vertical axis shows learning and the horizonal axis shows the degree of challenge:


Photo by c r i s. CC attributionCC noncommercialCC no derivatives Some rights reserved.

At the left end of the curve, little challenge means little learning. The individual sees the content as too easy. (I already know how to [do arithmetic | fill out expense reports | write email].)

On the right, the challenge is too great, and learning diminishes. (Speak Arabic like a native in just four hours.) For now I’m at the left end, talking about how much challenge is helpful.

One of the largest projects I’ve worked on involved a new sales-force application developed for a client’s 2,400 sales reps and their supervisors. They had been working with a daunting paper-based system: the average sales rep completed 10 store-visit reports per day, mailing the reports to the corporate data center. Every six weeks, the sales rep received an updated “call book” with 200 pages of store profiles, account analysis, and (not all that helpfully) errors found in the last 300 store-visit reports.

The client was replacing the paper with a large sales-force application (SFA) running on notebook computers — but 90% of the reps and unit managers had never used any sort of computer. SFA would make up 80% of their daily work.

In the first phase of the project, with SFA still in development, we trained the unit managers in a two-day, hands-on session that included how to operate the notebooks, how to use email, how to access company mainframe systems, and how to do basic tasks in a word processor, a spreadsheet, and a presentation application. (I was the chief instructional designer.)

In phase two, working with three teams of sales reps and their supervisors, we were piloting SFA. The hands-on training consisted of two sessions.

  • In Session One, the sales reps spent two days learning to use their computers the applications we’d taught the supervisors. This session benefitted enormously from our experience with the supervisors, especially the feedback they provided.
  • A month later, the teams returned for Session Two: three days with the sales-force application, first with a practice database and then with their own accounts.

Our idea had been that Session One gave lots of time to work with email, basic word processing, and some plug-and-chug uses of spreadsheets (e.g., entering travel and living expenses on a preexisting form). The reps would gain skill and confidence. When they returned for Session Two, they’d have had a month of practice, and they’d really be ready for SFA.

Halfway through the first day of the sales-force training, one of the reps leaned back in his seat. “Damn, Dave,” he said. “Why didn’t you teach us this stuff first?”

He was absolutely right. Although SFA was complex, for the sales reps it had by far the highest value and highest priority. The sooner they began working with SFA, the faster they’d move to the productive center of that learning/challenge curve.

We worked intensely with the client to redo the design of the training program. In a sense, we had to figure out how little computer basics to teach — things like click, double-click, drag, enter, edit, scroll — to have a sales rep make sense out of SFA when he or she got there.

I was chagrined at the time not to have seen this myself, but not so chagrined as to put off the revised design.

I’ve thought of this project lately while mulling over the implications of informal and self-directed learning in a corporate or organizational environment.

I strongly believe that design makes a difference, but the definition of “design” is changing so rapidly I’m not sure what form it currently takes.

I do know that form less and less looks like my favorite tongue-in-cheek recipe for “training:”

  • Find a room suitable for 24 people.
  • Put 30 people into it.
  • Turn off the lights.
  • Show PowerPoint slides until the weight of the handouts equals the weight of the audience.