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Designing Online Courses for Learner Variability

“If a [person] can’t learn the way we teach,
maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

One of the simplest yet most profound findings from the field of educational neuroscience is the fact that each of us learns in a different way. Intuitively we know this. In reality, however, we often fail to design for it. What we do instead is we tend to design for the so-called “average learner,” we teach the way we were taught or we teach the way that we learn best. We assume that this method will work for everyone else, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

As a result, our instruction–whether online or in-person–doesn’t meet the needs of all learners. And when our learners don’t learn, it doesn’t just impact their own personal growth and journey–it has an impact on our business and our potential as well. (Do you think you will receive a referral if a client didn’t feel an impact? Probably not.)

So where does one begin? If there is an infinite amount of variability, then how does one begin to think about how we design for it (especially when there is only one of you and so many people to design for). The easiest way to think about it is to “design for the margins.” We need to proactively think about the learners who need the most amount of support and the greatest level of challenge and offer those tools and supports to everyone.

The bell curve with the outer margins on both ends highlighted. When designers design for learners in the margins and make the tools and supports available to everyone, everyone benefits.

When we design for learners in the margins, we make the learning experience better for everyone.

In your business or online course this means

  • Offering different ways for learners to learn the material
    Information can be represented auditorily (podcast-style), visually (videos or with images and graphics), or in written format. Which format do you rely on most? Why? Instead of offering content in just one medium, consider adding visuals (either images or video content), auditorily (downloadable audio content), or in written format (such as an article). This taps into the Recognition Network in the brain and allows the learner to perceive the information in the format that works best for him/her.
When designing supports that tap into the Recognition Network, make sure to present information in more than one way. Allow learners to choose which medium works best for them: video, audio or text.
  • Offer Checklists and Calendars as Supports
    Even if we offer the most profound life-changing course, if our clients or learners don’t apply the learning then it’s not impactful. To support the implementation process, offer checklists after each learning section so that learners can check off the implementation steps they need to take. You can also embed links or specific steps so that clients schedule specific action steps into their calendars. This taps into the Strategic Network of the brain and helps the learner take action.
When designing supports that tap into the Strategic Network, make sure to embed supports such as calendars and checklists..
  • Share the Why
    Learners want to know why something matters. In fact, knowing why something matters increases our willingness to actually complete the task. For example, if you’re a fitness instructor and you tell a learner to breathe in a certain way, telling a learner why they should do it that particular way and what the impact would be helps the learner understand the value of the technique so they can apply it in their daily practice. Sharing the why taps into the Affective Network of the brain and helps create an emotional investment.
When designing supports that tap into the Affective Network, make sure to create an emotional connection to the learning by sharing why it’s important or relevant for learners.

Your Checklist

· Offer information in more than one medium (visual, written, or auditory)
· Include checklists to support action taking
· Share the why with learners

Remember, when we proactively design these supports, we do less work retroactively — and that means less repeating, less reteaching and a greater appreciation from your clients.

If you enjoyed this post, visit learningkeyworks.com for more content on how to design flexible online learning environments. If you’re ready to revamp your online course and unlock potential, sign up for our online course — Supercharge Your Online Course.

Kasia Derbiszewska

Instructional designer. Speaker. Author. Change agent. I help experts design flexible curricula.


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