How to Simplify Content in Complex Training Courses
It’s not uncommon for instructional designers to come out of project kickoff meetings seemingly drowning in content. Subject matter experts (SMEs) and project stakeholders may hand over manuals, documents, slideshow presentations, videos, recordings of both live and virtual training sessions, and any other format of content they have that may help inform the designer about the topic at hand. SMEs are passionate about their subjects, and have a wealth of knowledge to share. The first design challenge of many projects is whittling down an overwhelming amount of information to produce a cohesive, concentrated course.
A 5 step guide on how to simplify and filter your course content to provide learners with exactly what they need.
If you’ve ever found yourself in this situation, you might have wondered where and how to begin. The following 5 steps will help make this seemingly impossible task less daunting, and will lead you to instructional design success.
1. Get to Know Your Learners: Conduct a Needs Analysis
The first step is defining precisely what your learners need to know. As we wrote in our blog series on Building Effective Online Courses, a needs analysis “Is where the instructional designer determines who needs training, and what kind of training will best meet the learners’ needs...A thorough needs analysis helps organizations see the return on their training investment, as it helps to ensure that the right people receive the right information, in the right format so that the information can be retained and put to use on the job.”
Only once you have defined the main characteristics of your learners, and have identified what it is they need to know, are you ready to begin your process of selecting the content you will teach to them.
2. Define Your Learning Objectives, and Stick to Them!
Your needs analysis helped you to discover the gap(s) in performance or knowledge that your course will address; your learning objectives are the measurable actions your learners will be able to perform following instruction. Models such as Bloom’s Taxonomy guide designers in writing objectives that contain action words depicting behaviors the learners will be able to perform, demonstrating their knowledge or mastery of the topic.
Use your learning objectives as guideposts throughout course development. If content does not align with your learning objectives, it does not belong in the course. Your SMEs likely gave you a lot of “nice to know” content alongside all of the “need to know” content, and it is your job as the designer to decide what learners need throughout the learning process. If you find yourself with a long list of objectives or a tremendous amount of content supporting your objectives, consider creating a series of courses where each course has a narrow focus consisting of one to two objectives. Have empathy for your learners’ experiences; if you are overwhelmed by the amount of content in the course, chances are, they will be too and their engagement and retention will suffer.
3. Chunk It: Only Allow One Concept Per Screen or Per Block of Content
The concept of chunking is where designers “Break their text and multimedia content into smaller chunks to help users process, understand, and remember it better.” A similar concept is the old adage of eating an elephant, one bite at a time. As you design your course in your authoring tool, consider how you can present your content in bite-sized chunks, rather than in long sections of text that require scrolling or numerous clicks of the “Next” button. The built-in interactions of many rapid design authoring tools are perfect for chunking. Headings and sub-headings help break up text into smaller, more specific passages, and features like flip cards and accordion tabs work well for presenting vocabulary. A general rule to follow is to reveal content one idea at a time, with built-in pauses and interactions between topics so as to not overwhelm the learner with every piece of information simultaneously. With the creative use of features and interactions, long courses don’t have to feel slow to navigate through.
4. Create a Blended Learning Experience
Award-winning designer Tim Slade advises that once you have sorted your “nice to know” content from the “need to know” content, you can still find ways to make use of all of it. Other formats such as job aids, videos, blog posts on your organization’s intranet, pictograms, and more are excellent ways to present learners with the “nice to know” content without bogging down your course. These micro-learning assets could be attached to your course as optional references, or they could live outside your course entirely. The choice is yours, and your learners may appreciate having this content as an option outside of the truly necessary content found within the course.
5. Design the Training Course with Mobile Learners in Mind
Today’s learners are on the go, and often complete even workplace training on their mobile devices. When you preview your courses throughout the development phase, analyze how they look on both traditional computers as well as on mobile devices. Courses that contain long passages of text simply aren’t mobile-friendly. Squinting and scrolling do not make for optimal user experiences, and if your learners have to try too hard to read your content, chances are slim they’ll complete your course. From a technical standpoint, authoring tools such as Knowbly™ that are responsive (touch-interactive and intuitively work on every device with no extra design considerations needed) make all the difference for learners and designers alike. From an instructional design standpoint, every step mentioned here in this article improves the mobile experience as well. Content that meets learners’ specific needs, is aligned with their objectives, is “chunked” into manageable sizes, and is presented in a blended array of mobile-friendly formats such as images and videos, ensures that complex topics are presented in ways that simply work for learner engagement and retention.