I’ve been collaborating on a course with my colleague, Tanis. An unexpected benefit has been the ability to float an initial idea, talk about it, and have it improve from the discussion, from feedback, and from new ideas these things engender.
I want to talk about one of those engendered nuggets. I’m a bit hesitant, because when you get to the end, you may well think “Yeah, so?” For me the path was well worth following, and I might not have taken it without the back-and-forth with Tanis. So this is another form of working out loud.
The topic doesn’t actually matter much. If you’re curious, see the following aside; otherwise, just skip past.
About the topic:
Many pension plans allow purchase of service, a way for a person who hasn’t contributed to the plan (for example, during a leave of absence) to pay additional money into the plan. That payment is the purchase. The person then gains credit for the corresponding work time–that’s the service. Purchasing service can increase the amount of your eventual pension.
Different plans have different rules and coverage, and within a plan there are usually several types of purchase of service. You can see typical examples here (for an Ontario plan) and here (a Pennsylvania plan).
Some pension plans use other terms, but purchase of service is the one we use.
The nugget emerged as we juggled three goals for the first part of our course:
- Introduce a new type of purchase
- Connect this new type to what people already know
- Provide a framework to show what the various types of purchase have in common
Employees taking our course would already have learned how to handle certain purchases, like the leave of absence mentioned above. In the new course, they’ll learn the details for purchasing arrears (payment for a period when contributions should have been made to the pension plan but were not–for example, because of clerical error).
Version one: framework → known → new
Working with internal documents and with our subject-matter experts, we discovered a pattern that seemed to apply at a high level to all purchases:
- Circumstances occur that make a purchase possible.
- The plan receives an application for the purchase.
- Plan staff analyze the application to see whether the purchase is permissible.
- Plan staff calculate the cost of the purchase.
There’s a lot more to it, and there are nuances and conditions for each of those, but it didn’t seem like a bad framework. Having laid it out, we could ask participants how a leave-of-absence purchase would fit into this, since they’d already know how those purchases work. Then we could start talking about arrears purchases, to show how at this level they’re like other purchases the participants have worked with.
On second or third glance, though, this version felt abstract. Our plan staff don’t work directly with frameworks; they work with the specific purchases. And so we moved to…
Version two: known → framework → new
In the revision, we decided to start by describing out a leave-of-absence purchase according to our framework: a person goes on maternity leave; she later applies to purchase the service; the staff evaluate the application; we provide a quote for the cost. We’d make sure participants saw how at a high level thus was how the LOA purchase worked. Finally, we’d introduce arrears purchases using the same framework.
This felt better, in no small measure because we began with the specific and not the abstract. And we felt we were doing a better job of connecting to what people already knew.
As we worked on other parts of the course, we’d revisit the intro. Gradually we began to feel that we were explaining for the sake of explaining.
I’ve been in the instructional design field longer than Tanis has, and I feel as though I should have known better. It’s always tempting to try and make things clear. As we poked at this, though, we realized that the key point is not that a leave-of-absence purchase follows these four stages, and so does an arrears purchase.
What was important? Knowing about LOA helps you to learn about arrears.
Version three: known → new
Here’s the sequence we now have–and in the course, the sequence takes much less time than you’ve spent reading this post:
- Ask participants to describe the phases of a LOA purchase, from the member’s point of view, in 25 words or less. (We don’t care about word count; brevity encourages big-picture summary.)
- Show a diagram with LOA information illustrating our four phases: the maternity leave, the application, our research, the cost estimate. Discuss how the experience of the participants aligns with this pattern.
- Redraw the diagram with an arrears purchase replacing the LOA one.
We really like having the participants start by sharing their own ideas about the processes involved in the purchases they already work with. We then show our summary (the LOA in the four phases) and make sure they see their own experience in that summary. Finally, we can start talking about arrears.
So now we don’t belabor the four phases; they’re just stepping stones between the familiar and the new. We’re inviting participants to build the connections that work for them.
What comes next? We use this intro as a springboard to what’s different about purchasing arrears. We ask participants what they think might trigger an arrears. If they already have an idea, great–we can reinforce that. If they don’t, that’s okay, too; their interest level is higher as we move into the explanation.