How to Use Experiential Course Flow to Enhance eLearning

Experiential Course Flow

Not to give away all my instructional design secrets, but I’m going to tell you how I’ve been structuring eLearning course flow to enhance eLearning for over a decade. Ready? Here we go!

The Experiential Course Flow is a simple way to think about structuring course flow to capitalize on the adult learner’s natural tendencies, strengths, and preferences.

Here are a few:
1)     Adult Learners enjoy connecting to and sharing their experience
2)     Adult learners are problem-based learners, who need to understand the relevance of content
3)     Most people learn by doing

This Experiential Course Flow can work simultaneously on many levels:

  • Sub-units of a course
  • An entire course
  • A course series

Structuring your course around connecting to (Existing), creating (New), and planning for experience (Future) increases learning engagement and amplifies the effectiveness of their learning.


1. Connect to Existing Experiences

Your first goal in the course you create should help the learner buy into what they can gain through the investment of their attention, retention, application, and eventual performance of a new behavior. One of the most effective ways to help learners realize the relevance of your course is to connect the largest core concepts to something the learner already values or has experienced. To do so, ask yourself these questions:

  • How can I help the learner connect to previous experiences that will help them better understand the value of or importance of this new behavior?
  • How can I help the learner feel the reality of what they can gain by applying this new skill or behavior?
  • How can I help the learner connect to what they will lose without this new skill or behavior?
  • How are these materials, skills, or behaviors relevant to something the learner might already care about, and how can I help them make that connection?
  • How can I bring this topic closer to home for the learner (from an emotional relevance perspective)?

Here are some ideas:

  • Stories: Use stories that are illustrative or larger concepts, testimonials, case studies, allegories, etc. to get learners connecting to their existing experiences or the experience of others through imagination.
  • Short videos: Highlight the problems of being without the skill or behavior that the learner may be experiencing now, or how a situation in the past may have played out differently had they had X skill or demonstrated Y behavior.
  • Analogies: Relate course concepts to things learners have experienced in everyday life, and that will set the stage for them to relate to new experiences and information.
  • Reflection: Invite learners to reflect upon, share, or write down previous or personal experience that you can then connect to the concept of the course. It’s possible this experience may not be obviously related to the concept at first, but it’s possible for you to make the connection later in the course.
  • Questions/Quotes: Pose questions that help to get learners thinking about their opinions, experience, needs, desires, etc.  These can be indirectly or directly related to the course content, as long as you can transition the conversation to a meaningful point.
  • Predicting Outcomes: Tell a story, but put the learner in a position to predict or finish the outcome based on their imagination or previous experience.

Things to Avoid:

  • Scaring learners
  • Asking learners to share things that are too personal
  • Assuming learners have direct previous experience with your content
  • Thinking “learning objectives” will take care of this step

No matter how you choose to make the connection, remember that this stage is meant to help set the hook, get the learner emotionally involved, and connect them to existing experiences and attitudes that will help set the stage for them to experience something new. For example, building on previous experience or because of previous experience.


2. Experience the Success and Failure of a New Skill

Now that your learners are primed and ready, you might be tempted to start “educating” them via several informational slides and then a self-assessment or practice activity. This is where the experience model gets radical, folks! Because eLearning allows learners to practice (and potentially fail) in a safe environment, we can skip the “presentation slides” and let them roll up their sleeves.

Here’s why:

    • Very few people are interested in the content for content’s sake.
    • Most people want DO something, not READ something.
    • Designed correctly, your course can meet the best of both worlds (taking in new content AND experiences that help to build skills).

Still don’t believe me? Answer this question:

Congratulations, you just won a new vacuum! What will you do with it first?

a.      Brag to my friends, then plug it in and see how it works
b.      Brag to my friends, read the entire instruction manual, then plug it in and try it out

If you answered B, good for you! You are the person your family comes to when stuff breaks. If you answered A, you are like most of the learners you are designing training for—problem-based learners. This means that you’re only interested in learning things if it helps better your life (aka has relevance or solves a problem). If that vacuum breaks, you’ll find the instructional manual, search for the exact piece of information you need, and use it to solve your problem (aka Just Enough, Just In Time, Just For Me). Then, you’ll toss the manual back in the dusty junk drawer where you found it and keep vacuuming.

Can you imagine how technical writers would feel if they knew the truth? No one reads the whole manual! As instructional designers, we have to embrace this reality as well. People don’t want to read our whole course, even if the content is good. We must change our methods.

Here’s how:

  • Put the learner in a situation where they need to apply your prepared content by practicing the new skill or behavior
  • Use the strength of your eLearning tool to make the aforementioned situation as realistic as possible. Include:
      • Story
      • Emotion
      • Sound Effects
      • Images that clearly show the problem to be solved and help the learner feel it
  • Tell the learner it’s their job to “fix it” by applying the new skill or behavior
  • If the learner does not yet know what they need to know in order to apply the new skill, allow them to access a RESOURCE.
      • The resource is where you have placed the relevant content (not irrelevant content!) that will help them perform the task
      • The learner will be motivated to read this Just Enough, Just in Time, Just for Me piece of content because it is going to help them solve the problem, win the game, achieve the goal, etc. of your scenario

Think back to the question about the vacuum. Whether your learner is someone who would answer A or B, they are covered with the way you designed this. If the learner wants content first, they can have it. If the learner wants to jump right in and try it out, they can. The worst that will happen is that they will fail in a safe environment where:

  • They are provided with a realistic RESULT stemming from their application of the skill
  • They feel this result in an emotional way due to the design of your content, audio, media, etc. and their emotion boosts memory, engagement, and retention
  • They are presented with the relevant content via a coaching opportunity (which they are more interested in now that they have failed and realize they need it)
  • They are allowed to reflect and internalize that instruction before they try again
  • They correctly apply the skill and see a successful result, repeating the emotion and retention cycle over again

By focusing on creating new experiences for learners, rather than “course content,” we can:

  • Create eLearning that is more engaging, interactive, and effective.
  • Allow the learner a chance to use new skills
  • Allow the learner to experience the realistic effects of applying the new skill successful and unsuccessfully
  • Increase the chances that they will transfer this new behavior to the job

3. Plan for Future Experiences

Once your learner has been able to spend the majority of the course practicing new skills or behaviors, you should conclude by helping them connect what they learn to relevant application once they return to the work environment.  This helps to finish your “Experiential” Course Flow:

  • You started with helping them connect to existing experience to establish relevance and prime them for something new
  • You provided opportunities for them to have a new experience and refine their practice of it through meaningful coaching and feedback
  • Now, you are inviting them to plan for how they will use this new skill in future experiences in order to solve problems back on the job and enjoy enhanced results.

Did you know that most learners know, before they ever leave a classroom or eLearning session, whether they are going to apply the information or not? Structure your course in such a way that you can use this time to:

  • Connect their new experiences to how they plan to perform in the future
  • Increase their motivation to transfer the skill back to the job
  • Eliminate personal or organizational barriers they may face in implementing the new skill
  • Provide supportive resources they can use as they begin to implement the new skill

As you strive to focus your instructional design on experience: existing, new, and future, you will be helping the learner to better prepare for learning, engage in the practice of the new skill, and integrate that new skill into their future performance.


  1. Hi,

    This is exactly what I need!

    I just need to try and persuade my colleagues to adopt such an approach!

    Excellent advice again, thank you!

    Dave Dunbar
    Worcester, England

  2. Hi David
    This action research adaptation has been around for quite a while , however hey if it works for you then that’s great. If you are interested some years ago another really great process was being espoused – it too slipped away.
    It was action learning – check it out – if you have difficulties in sourcing info – get back to me and I will see if I can get something together.
    Good luck
    Regards john

  3. I enjoyed “reading” your article and can see how putting it into action is relevant to what I do.
    Can you elaborate on courses such as Art History and how you would approach the delivery of content in an action-oriented way?

  4. My attention was caught by your 3 adult learner’s natural tendencies, strengths, and preferences.

    1) Adult Learners enjoy connecting to and sharing their experience
    2) Adult learners are problem-based learners, who need to understand the relevance of content
    3) Most people learn by doing

    I have found the same thing but phrase it a little differently. I like to call it REAL Learning. (R+E+A=Lifechange)
    R is for relevant As you pointed out learners need to see the relevance of what they are learning
    E is for engagement with others. Most adults learn better as they share and wrestle over new knowledge with others.
    A is for active. Learners need to do to learn well.
    Those three elements will lead to the L for Lifechange. Where new knowledge makes a difference in how learners “do” and act.

    Really good article.

  5. I will check with Sister Misty and get back to you. Thanks for your comment.

  6. How would you apply this for knowledge – not when they are learning a new skill or behavior, but things they just need to know?

  7. Hi Jenn, let me ask Sister Misty and get back to you as soon as she has a free moment.

  8. Hi, David – thanks for your comment. I remember the first time I heard about the concept of allowing a learner to try and fail something on their own – it was a disconcerting thought. I also didn’t like the use of the word “failure.” As adult learning professionals, I think we really take it to heart that it’s our job to completely prepare someone prior to letting them try (and possibly fail) any task. I had to be persuaded a bit myself! But the more I have used this model (as appropriate) the more I have seen that it works. And eLearning is such a great medium for allowing people to fail in a “safe environment” where they are then much more open to coaching and instruction because that failure has established relevance. Good luck convincing your colleagues! I’m glad someone convinced me.

  9. Hi, Joanne – Your inquiry is interesting because I actually just finished a set of Art History courses! We were a little limited in that case due to 508 restrictions, but what I did was to sit down with the SME and identify what the key takeaways for each part of the course was. What we settled on, at a high level, was that we wanted the students to be able to see historical and modern artistic samples and be able to recognize the influence for that piece or the style it was historically created in, and be able to articulate how they knew that. Once we knew that was our objective, we structured the content in a way that would support them being able to practice that objective.

    For example, we provided content that called out the key elements of a particular style, gave illustrative examples, and then created activities that allowed them to discern which style, period, expression, etc. applied to a given piece of art. Sometimes this was done through through Hot Spot (having them point to areas of a painting, for example, that represented a certain style or method). Sometimes this was done through showing them three paintings and having them categorize them as early, middle, or late period. Other times this may have meant presenting them with a series of architectural pieces or sculpture and asking them to pick the one that represented the characteristics of a certain period like Archaic. Overall, it was a lot of identification and classification type of work.

    The other note I would make is that this particular subject matter didn’t seem to lend itself as well to the “Here, just go ahead and try” type of a method that I described in my article. Because much of this type of content is not common knowledge or common “sense” it would be difficult to navigate it without a little bit of setup. So we did choose a format that gave them somewhat of an illustrative presentation before having them try anything, but we tried to make sure that presentation was “active” and short. For example in a Roman Art module, we let them “Explore the Pantheon” from an outside view where certain sections of the building were clickable. They could click the Dome and see an inside shot of what it looked like or they could zoom in on the facade or see the interior. We tried to create a bit of a “be a tourist” feel, like they were on the city street and handle the information “presentation” that way. So in short, finding little ways we could help the information presentation feel more active before they got to the application exercises.

    I hope this helps!

  10. Thanks, Dan. I really like that. I think your “E” is the crux of so many of our conversations in recent years about the applicability of social media and methods in learning. We were just talking here today about how so much of general web content, even, is consumed via social media like Twitter because people like to see things vetted by their peers first to even determine value! So much to be said about the “E.”

    I also like your “L” in this model. Someone asked me once to define what it meant to learn and I said, “It means you change.” And of course once you make that change, it does change your life. As an adult learning professional, this is the whole reason I get out of bed in the morning! I want to help people change their lives for the better.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  11. Jenn! What a great question. I don’t know whether this is fortunate or unfortunate, but my answer to your short and simple question is long because I have three answers.

    1: If we consider a model like Bloom’s Taxonomy, “Knowledge” and “Comprehension” fall below “Application” and as such can be looked at as separate goals (meaning Application could be unnecessary if our goal is simply to ensure someone knows something). Knowledge and Comprehension lead us to the ability to do some Application, though, so we’re definitely laying the ground work if our goal is to inform. So the short answer is, if we just want someone to “know” something, we don’t have to adopt (but could try to…) a lot of the things mentioned in this article.

    2. Although my first answer is true, I don’t love it. Instructional Designers are often put in the position of creating training where the only goal is to inform. For example, “Please create X training because we want employees to be ‘aware’ of safety procedures/emergency procedures/compliance requirements.” In these cases Instructional Designers are generally given boring content to work with and a tight time restriction to work within, so we create an “informative” but inactive course. Worse yet, stakeholder is probably fine with it. My challenge to stakeholders is this: what value is there in knowing something if the learner can’t or doesn’t know how to use it? Without application of knowledge, it is forgotten (think back to high school or college – how much of that do we remember?) So in these instances I try to elevate the course to an application level. For example, instead of creating 40 slides that present bullet points about what to do in case of a disaster, I CREATE A DISASTER and put the employee in the center of the story. “What should you do now, learner? Your co-worker just had a heart attack, there was just an earthquake, etc. What’s your next step? If you need some help, consult this resource.” Ultimately, isn’t this the REAL goal? It’s not that we just want employees to be “familiar” with safety procedures – it’s that in the event of a disaster we want people to DO the right thing. And in getting to the heart of our actual goal, we have uncovered that knowing isn’t enough. Familiarity isn’t enough. We truly do want people to APPLY knowledge toward a successful or desirable behavior or result. So I work with my stakeholders to clearly establish this and then structure the training in an application-based way.

    3. If your stakeholder doesn’t want application-based training or doesn’t have time for it, you can still apply some of the methods described here in the way you choose to present information or even do basic things like knowledge check questions. As a small example, instead of asking someone what the three rules to manufacturing cleanliness are, give them a scenario and ask them what action they would take. This gets them thinking less about knowing something and more about how they would apply it. Or in the presentation of information, tell it in the form of a story rather than bullet points. There are tiny ways we can try to elevate even those courses where “just make them familiar” is the mandate.

    I hope this helps! I’d love to know what you think, as well – agree/disagree?

  12. Great information. Thanks so much for sharing

  13. Thanks for sharing your comment Amanda. Glad you think it’s great information. Let us know if you need anything. Have a great day!

  14. This is great info. Sometimes we get caught up in hitting the deadline or making something look cool, that we forget that the user needs to walk away with a new behaviour.

  15. Brother Liao, (love the sound of Brother Liao by the way), thanks for your comment. You have nailed it. Creating a new behavior for the user is so important. Hope you have a great day!

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