To be an effective learning designer it helps to understand how people learn

In the course of my work, I get to meet hundreds of l&d professionals every year, not just the managers, but those who work day in day out designing, developing and delivering courses for their organisations or their clients. Almost without exception I find that they’re enthusiastic, intelligent and great fun to work with. Unfortunately (and you knew there’d be a ‘but’), very few of them are remotely up-to-date with what we know about adult learning. I’m not claiming this is a global phenomenon, but I’ve certainly experienced this consistently across Europe.

Does this matter? I certainly believe so. Without this knowledge, a great deal of unintentional malpractice continues:

  • unrealistic expectations about what can be learned through a single experience
  • overloading learners with unnecessary information
  • providing insufficient opportunities for new skills to be practised
  • assessing knowledge when it’s performance that matters
  • treating novices and experts as if they were the same
  • underestimating the importance of experiential and collaborative learning
  • making poor use of text, images, audio, video and animation 

I’m not stupid enough to believe that we suddenly know all the answers about adult learning. Yes, we have had some breakthroughs through cognitive neuroscience and perhaps also through new perspectives on learning such as connectivism, but thinking will inevitably shift again as we discover more. All you can do is keep an open mind and work with what seems to be the best proven practices of the day.

There’s book a I’ve been meaning to write which I hoped would address the problem. I tentatively called it ‘What every l&d professional needs to know about learning’ (not so catchy I know). But I’ve been beaten to the gun by Julie Dirksen.


Design for how people learn is available as a paperback but I read it on the Kindle (which was fine, except some of the diagrams didn’t reproduce so well). Julie is a consultant and instructional designer with more than 15 years’ experience of creating highly-interactive e-learning. She also has a very readable Usable Learning blog. Although Julie appears to have specialised in e-learning, there is nothing about this book which limits it to the design of self-study materials. Practically everything in this book applies equally well to classroom and blended interventions.

Like Cathy Moore and Connie Malamed, Julie knows how to write for the l&d audience. She’s engaging, witty, clear, concise and grounded in the realities of workplace learning. My measure of how useful I find a book is the number of clippings I make on the Kindle. In this case it was 83. Not that this was new stuff for me particularly, but I wanted to capture the refreshing way that Julie was expressing the ideas.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who feels its time to get up-to-date on adult learning and doesn’t want to wallow in theory.

P.S. I’m still going to write that book, only now I’ve got to up my game.

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