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The “Wow Factor” in Instructional Design

Bob Little 

June 29, 2018

We’ve all heard about technology-enabled gamification, and about how we can increase engagement by making learning “fun.”

But how much value does this really add to your learning program? Will people be persuaded to learn only if they’re entertained? Does technology always make your message more memorable, understandable and accessible?

Skilled instructional designers know that while technology can be useful, it doesn’t take precedence over a well-balanced learning environment. But the fact remains: we need to grab the learner’s attention. That’s the first of Robert Gagne’s Nine Levels of Learning – and, if we don’t succeed, we may never reach the second!

How to Get the “Wow Factor”

One way to do this is to build a “wow factor” into your learning design, which can positively influence your learners’ emotions and motivation. The “wow” doesn’t have to come from a virtual reality headset, or from the latest touchscreen device. If the payoff is high for the learner, and you have understood your audience correctly, you can get it from the learning itself.

“Wow factor” responses that you can aim for include:

  • “That’s clever!”
  • “At last, something that talks my language.”
  • “How did they do that?”
  • “This’ll make a difference to my results.”
  • “Did I just do that?”
  • “They’ve been listening.”
  • “Someone asked what I think.”
  • “I get a certificate.”
  • “It only takes 10 minutes.”

If the “wow” that you expected doesn’t materialize, it may be because the learning experience didn’t deal with the key issues. It may not be the right response to the problem, or it could be unsuitable for your target learners. Or, if you are supporting your learning with technology, it could be that your technology isn’t quite up to the job.

ID specialist Frank Troha says, “Designers must know the limitations of the software, hardware and systems at their disposal. For example, which aspects of the proposed learning can display and function properly on the devices currently used by the audience – and which can’t? Learners want to be able to quickly log on and off without missing a beat.”

What’s in It for Me?

Instructional design principles tell us that learning programs must be structured, but flexible, enabling each user to adapt the program to his or her needs. They should be realistic, based on plausible situations that the learners could encounter; and they should allow learners time to absorb and reflect on what they’ve learned.

Effective learning also needs to be interactive – at the thinking level, not just at the “click to continue” level. So, prompt your learners to take action – by solving problems, for example. Provide feedback on their solutions, and remember that they may not be the ones that you anticipated!

To increase engagement, learners need to have control of their experience, so that they can answer the question “What’s in it for me?” at every level of the program. And drama, stories, humor, and surprise enable them to connect emotionally with the learning.

Designing Experiences

Frank Troha comments, “It’s important to make use of the affective or emotional domain of learning. Humans normally think, feel and act, in that sequence. You can provide the right knowledge for the audience to think about but, if that audience doesn’t feel like taking the desired action, it won’t – at least not voluntarily. Ignoring the emotional aspect of training can greatly diminish return on investment because the learners may leave the training with no desire to apply it.”

In other words, we must design experiences, not just content. Designers need to understand three things: the learning problem; the way in which learners need to change; and the experience that can bring about this change. Only then can they produce the content that will support this experience.

Values and Culture

An organization’s values and culture also have a part to play. Corporate cultures exist on several levels, including representations and symbols, norms and behaviors, and beliefs and assumptions. Designers need to understand the organizational characteristics that encourage or prevent the development and use of engaging learning materials.

“You can have great training that falls flat because the organizational culture fails to reward, check up on, or, unwittingly, thwarts the on-the-job application of what was learned,” says Frank Troha. “In such organizations, management tends to misunderstand and underestimate the potential value of the L&D function. On the other hand, you can have a great culture that’s highly motivational and collaborative. In this culture, even with lackluster training, employees are likely to help one another out through informal, on-the-job learning.

“I would opt for organizational culture and values being more important than the learning materials’ content and application when it comes to learning success. However, the relationship between organizational culture and values, and learning materials’ content and presentation, should be hand-in-glove – as it is in full-functioning organizations.”

Does your organization understand the importance of learner engagement? How do you create the “wow factor” in your learning programs? Leave your comments, below.

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