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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.

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