Well, it might not have been a long, hot summer, but it’s certainly been an exciting one! From the drama and heartbreak of Andy Murray’s Wimbledon journey to the thrill of Team GB’s success at the London 2012 Olympics, the last couple of months have been a bit of a whirlwind. While some of us have been soaking up the excitement at home (and others have been soaking up the sun in warmer climes) the GoodPractice Book Club has been on a bit of a summer hiatus. But now September is upon us, we’re ready and raring to resume our reading of Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn.

Before the summer break we met up to discuss chapters three and four: ‘What’s the Goal?’ and ‘How Do We Remember?’ Here are the highlights of our conversation.


We kicked off our discussion by considering how helpful learning objectives are to us as learners. We all agreed that the standard list of bullet points at the start of a training course tends not to have much impact. Relevant, well-worded objectives that clearly articulate how the learning intervention will help us in our wider roles, on the other hand, can often be very useful.

As learners, we’ve sometimes wondered if some of the less effective learning objectives we’ve encountered have been written for the benefit of the person delivering the learning, rather than for us. So the explanation of different types of learning objectives in chapter three – supported by Will Thalheimer’s taxonomy –made a lot of sense to us. Indeed, Julie points out that one of the reasons new instructional designers find writing good objectives so difficult is because they often try to fit every type of learning objective into a single statement.

According to Julie, the more learning designers know about the nature of the learner’s learning gap (as well as the goal in question) the more relevant and effective they can make the learning objective. Here at GoodPractice we do everything we can to understand the challenges leaders and managers face, and where their learning gaps might lie. Our recent report, ‘The Learning Habits of Leaders and Managers’, for example, revealed that having difficult conversations was the most common challenge faced by the leaders and managers we interviewed.


The question of what we remember, and why, is an intriguing one. In chapter four, we learn that to get past our short-term memory, learning material either has to be something significant to the learner, something the learner needs to take action on, something that surprises or confounds the learner, or something the learner is looking for. From our research, we know that our users tend to access our learning resources when they are looking for information, guidance or advice on a particular leadership or management topic.

We began our discussion on memory by talking about what types of learning experiences tend to help us remember the material most successfully. For some of us, repetition holds the key while for others, solutions we’ve worked out ourselves tend to stick in our minds the longest. Many people agreed that learning that triggers an emotional response of some sort– either a ‘Eureka!’ moment when we’ve achieved something, or feelings of unease when we’ve been asked to step outside our comfort zones – is often particularly memorable. And when it comes to practical skills, we all agreed that the sooner we can get our hands (literally) on the material and start practising, the better. Simply watching someone else do the task for us is not really going to help.

We found the passage on in-context learning particularly interesting. The best place for us to learn (and remember the material) is the place that most closely matches the environment in which we need to apply the learning. This got us thinking about our own learning resources – should we be encouraging leaders and managers to use them in context? For example, should we suggest that users work through our material on preparing for a performance review meeting in the room where the meeting will take place, rather than at their desks?

Our first session after the summer break focussed on chapters five and six: ‘How Do We Get Their Attention?’ and ‘Design for Knowledge’. This is what we covered:

The elephant and the rider

In chapter five, Julie draws upon one of psychology professor Jonathan Haidt’s ideas. In his 2007 book The Happiness Hypothesis Haidt proposes that we are driven by two distinct forces. One, Haidt argues, is like an elephant – instinctive, emotional, and reactive – and the other is like a ‘rider’- rational, conscious and controlled. The image below  is reproduced from page 126 of Design for How People Learn with Julie’s kind permission:

Elephant and rider

The challenge for learning designers is that when the elephant and rider are in serious conflict, it’s usually the elephant that wins out. So while our learners’ ‘riders’ might know that it’s important to focus on the learning material, we will probably lose their attention if their ‘elephants’ become distracted. This really struck a chord with our group; we all agreed that we had experience of our own elephants leading our riders astray! This compelling metaphor helped to remind us that, as learning designers, we are competing for our learners’ attention and need to keep both their elephants and riders engaged.

‘I already know that’

In chapter six, one of the points that really got us talking was that information tends not to be remembered if it doesn’t stand out to the learner, particularly if it is something the learner already knows, or thinks they already know. The image below is reproduced from page 165 of Design for How People Learn with Julie’s kind permission:

Brain image

This poses a bit of a dilemma for us at GoodPractice, as we know many of our users access our toolkits in order to brush up on their existing skills or to refresh their memory. While our material is likely to include some stuff our users already know, we don’t want them to miss out on any of the information, advice or guidance provided in our resources. The solution, according to Julie, is to create some friction, ‘something that requires learners to chew on the material’, as she puts it. We discussed what this might mean for us, and played around with a few ideas for injecting a bit of friction into our ‘top tips’ style documents to help our users truly engage with the material, even if some of it is already familiar.

So that brings you up to date! Let us know what you think about the key themes and ideas of these chapters by leaving a comment here or joining in the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #gpbookclub. Next time, we’ll be discussing chapters seven and eight: ‘Design for Skills’ and ‘Design for Motivation’. See you then!

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