Learning Theories Gone Wild – Urban Myths that Hurt Your Learning Designs


I had lunch with one of our team members last week, and she shared a story about her elementary-aged son that made me cringe. The teacher had students take a “learning styles” assessment to determine their learning styles and assigned homework based on the learning style. Yikes! I thought the myths around learning styles had been settled long ago. As I learned last week – there are numerous unproven learning theories still running amok among designers and educators.

Our industry is rife with things that become hot trends – and then fizzle out. It’s also rife with various theories that hang around (probably due to their inclusion in a best-selling book). These theories turn into urban legends that people view as facts. They then make design decisions based on those “facts.” Let’s clear a few up.

Theory Gone Wild #1


“People have different learning styles. We need to design learning to address a variety of them.”

The truth: What a person “needs” in terms of instructional design depends on many factors such as prior knowledge, readiness to learn, motivation, etc… but not on a preferred learning style. This blog post from Guy Wallace in eLearn Magazine does a terrific job of summarizing the issue and the research findings. He reaches out to heavy hitters such as Ruth Clark, Harold Stolovitch, and Will Thalheimer. These are folks who work hard to review the research and assess the validity of it.

How to move away from the myth: Take time to understand the needs of your particular learner group. Learn about your particular audience and factor these things into your design:

  • The amount of prior knowledge the learner is bringing to the learning situation.
  • Their motivation to learn – will they see the learning solution as a huge benefit or as a chore? Do they perceive they already HAVE the skills? Do they see the learning as useful?
  • The complexity of the skill being taught; you need different strategies for a highly complex skill or subject matter area than you do for a simple one.
  • Appropriate contextual cues you can use to encourage transfer to the workplace; we do better when we can scaffold new content onto stuff we already know and know how to do.

Theory Gone Wild #2


“People only remember 10% of what they read; they will remember 90% of what they see, hear, and do.”

Older folks may recall seeing charts labeled “Cone of Learning” or “Cone of Experience” that were widely distributed  in the 1990s. I don’t see the charts as much as I used to, but I still hear percentages quoted.

The truth: Dr. Will Thalheimer tackles this one in great depth. The challenge, according to Thalheimer, is that the premise SOUNDS logical… but the percentages provided aren’t rooted in any quantitative research. In fact, the sources cited aren’t even real. Essentially this stuff is MADE UP but it sounds intuitively right and we accepted it without questioning how percentages were ever derived.

How to move away from the myth: Be very intentional in selecting strategies that are proven to help people remember. I love John Medina’s book, Brain Rules, for its summary of great “brain rules” that truly help people remember. These strategies all can enhance our ability to remember:

  • Space learning out – do it in small chunks, not as one uber session.
  • Provide lots of repetition – if we want to remember, we have to repeat things over and over.  (Yes, those Flashcards really worked in helping us learn things such as anatomy, multiplication, etc.)
  • Deliberately insert attention getters every 10 minutes or so. We get easily bored and we don’t pay attention to boring things. About every 10 minutes we have to re-engage that learner by introducing something that sparks emotion or interest.
  • Provide relevant feedback – Medina doesn’t talk about feedback in his brain rules, but Will Thalheimer does as does other research. (Ruth Clark and Richard Mayers’ book, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction offers nice guidance.)
  • Remember that visuals typically trump text in our memory. We more easily recall a picture than verbiage. Clark and Mayer talk about visuals; Medina does as well, offering compelling info on how we tend to think in pictures…not words.

Theory Gone Wild #3:


We will forget 90% of what we learn within 3-6 days’ time without reinforcement.

The truth: Forgetting DOES occur – the problem is the blanket statement about the percentage of forgetting that occurs. Some people will indeed forget 90%; others may only forget 30%. Way back in 1895, Hermann Ebbinghaus theorized that children in classrooms will forget up to 90% of their classroom instruction within 3 to 6 days without reinforcement. His studies done in support of his theory focused on remembering nonsensical syllables rather than meaningful content. Thalheimer attacks the forgetting percentages voraciously. He identifies research that points to several variables that influence the amount of forgetting that happens (spoiler alert – prior knowledge is a big one), and he puts together a scatter plot of various study results to show how widely forgetting percentages can be.

Thalheimer emphasizes that what matters most is recognizing proven strategies that help people REMEMBER and incorporating these strategies into the learning design .Effective strategies include the use of spaced learning and retrieval practice, repetition, feedback, and novelty.(See page 7 of Thalheimer’s white paper on forgetting.) These are a handful of the effective strategies that can enhance remembering.  Clark and Mayer’s book identifies others. John Medina, in Brain Rules, also expounds on what helps people remember.

Moving away from the myth: See the strategies under Theory Gone Wild #2.

Theory Gone Wild #4:


“Learners know best. For maximum engagement, let learners be self-directed. If we “force” learners down a linear path, we will de-motivate them.”

The truth: Many learners do a very poor job of learning and try to skip through with minimal effort and attention. One of Thalheimer’s most recent blog posts does a terrific job of blowing through this myth. He goes through numerous research studies and concludes, “WE CANNOT ALWAYS TRUST THAT OUR LEARNERS WILL KNOW HOW TO LEARN.” (His all-caps emphasis, not mine).

If you want to pay $39, you can get a terrific report from Educational Psychologist on three urban myths that all link to this one. My favorite is the one related to digital natives – and how they will intuitively learn better in online formats than “non-digital natives.”

Moving away from the myth:

If the learning matters, then employ research-proven instructional design strategies and don’t assume people “will get what they need.” Also don’t assume that anyone with some subject matter expertise can craft the learning experience. Most people do not plan their learning well and they are not intentional in their learning. The instructional design has to save them from themselves.


Asking the right questions during design to track down elusive content

As a first-time BLP blogger, I was very eager to lock down my e-learning topic and join the ranks of my fellow bloggers. Last week, I determined my three blog topics for the month, all focused on curriculum design and development. I felt good identifying my first topic: designing an e-learning course with little to no content in sight, and then…do you know what happened next? Ironically, I had created the topic and struggled with…the content. I can’t escape!

So, I did what I always do…begin the “content inquisition.”

Don’t get me wrong! I never start designing an e-learning solution from a content-driven approach. My first step is to focus on desired outcomes: what do learners need to know and/or know how to do after completing the course? What should they believe? What will success look like? Will they do their jobs differently, and if so, how?

Once I have the answers to all of these questions, I begin the content discussion. If you want learners to DO this, what content should we share with them? Why? How will THIS content help learners DO that? It is the battle between the “must-include content” and the “nice-to-include content.”

Dr. Ruth Clark wrote about removing the “nice to have” content (and avoiding cognitive overload) in her book, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction and in an article called Design Strategies: Efficiency in e-Learning: Proven Instructional Methods for Faster, Better, Online Learning she co-wrote for the E-Learning Guild’s e-magazine. Although the article is about five years old, it is still one of my all-time faves. Check it out at:

My goal, after the dust settles, is to have a clean, concise list of content that obviously supports the desired course outcomes. Then, the real fun begins…finding this content! The inquisition continues….

  1. Can we review any of this content before we finalize the course design?
  2. How many different “sources” should we rely on? (Websites, books, existing training, subject matter experts, etc.)?
  3. What % of the content exists in a written format and just needs to be inserted “as is” in the program (existing procedure, for instance)?
  4. What % of the content exists, but is from existing training, guidance documents or other written sources and needs to be edited and/or repackaged?
  5. What % of the content exists, but is not in a written format (i.e., a subject matter expert knows it)?
  6. What % of the content needs to be created from scratch and may not need to be discussed and agreed upon prior to “releasing” for use in the program?

If the majority of the content is already available and easily accessible, I feel really good about finalizing the design with the help of a content map. If I can map the existing content to the course objectives, I’ll have a clearer vision of the course overall course structure, length, and types of learner interactions. I can also easily identify content gaps and “nice-to-have content” that might try and sneak into my design!

If the majority of the content does NOT exist, I recommend incorporating a content gathering step into the design phase of the project. I’ve learned that a more robust design leads to an easier and more successful development phase on an e-learning project.

So…how do you create a solid e-learning course design when the content you need to support the course objectives is…mysterious?

Are Learning and Entertainment Mutually Exclusive?

Jennifer’s post titled Corporate Training – Journalism or Entertainment, really got me thinking about learning versus entertainment. Are they congruous or exclusive? I want to believe training can effectively be delivered in an entertaining way. I for one want to be entertained. However, is it possible that I may learn more from something on the boring side? Possibly, it is a fine line to follow.

Let’s consider a couple examples. How frequently does an instructor lead training have a lively and entertaining facilitator, is fun to attend and popular with learners? In reality, the course, while entertaining, provided minimal knowledge transfer on the job. Or, how about an e-learning course full of slick graphics, videos, and audio – it has it all. Very entertaining, but it overwhelms the learner’s cognitive abilities to process information and suppresses learning. (1)

Where is the balance? One key lies with the audience’s knowledge of the topic. A more savvy or knowledgeable learner can process more sensory data than a learner who is completely new to the topic.  So, you may be able to provide more entertaining visuals, audio, etc. But what does this mean for our courses developed for greener audiences? Balance is the key. Present information graphically where possible, but ensure the message isn’t lost in the aesthetics. Use audio to support a narrative, but don’t go overboard with the characters. (2)

As learning tools progress in the use of technology the balance between learning and entertainment is increasingly difficult to maintain. As we use more games and videos for learning how do we ensure that we maintain the balance of the learner having fun while ensuring appropriate knowledge transfer?

1,2:  Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer, e-Learning and the Science of Instruction,  (San Francisco, CA, Pfeiffer Publishing/John Wiley & Sons, 2003)

Learning outcomes versus content

We posted a podcast today that demonstrates our technique for getting subject matter experts to shift from a content focus to an outcome focus.  It’s a five-minute version of how we do a design meeting with our customers.  Click here to check it out:

Getting to Learning Outcomes

This content focus vs outcome focus is a very common – and very frustrating issue. When people roll out a new product, process, or system, they want to tell you ALL about it. They want to cover history, interesting details, what it does, how it does it, etc. They do not stop to consider what information out of their content list will actually be USED once someone is back in their job post-training. They confuse training and communication.

It seems like common sense to say that we only want to include what’s most relevant and that if we include both relevant and irrelevant material, learners will have trouble distinguishing…and learn less as a result.  (Ruth Clark is my hero, though she’s not everyone’s. Click the link and you’ll get an interesting dissenting viewpoint of her work and her principles of learning efficiency, one of which is the principle of relevance.)

People who live and breathe something for a long time (i.e. the folks who launch a product) know everything thing about it and they are passionate about it. They have a very hard time figuring out what’s important…and what’s just important or interesting to them. Our job as learning designers is to help get these folks shifted away from content and focused on outcomes they need for training to achieve. There are 5 key questions we ask to help subject matter experts make this transition:

1) What is your vision of success – what will the workplace look like if you are successful with training?

2) What do learners need to know and do to achieve this vision?

3) What do learners need to believe/feel? (Gets to motivation)

4) What common mistakes are learners likely to make?

5) What do learners already know? (This information is useful in helping you 1) dump unnecessary content and 2) figure out how to link to prior knowledge).

Hope the podcast is a useful support to this post and I hope the 5 questions are useful in your discussions with subject matter experts.

Are learning agents worth using in e-learning?

Many of you have heard the buzz on learning agents or “pedagogical agents” (if you have a PhD in education). These on-screen personas serve as guides for learners. Their intent is to personalize the learning experience and help learners focus during an e-course.

But…do such agents actually increase learning? According to my favorite researcher, Ruth Clark, they do indeed. Clark has co-published two different books on learning efficiency – one that is general and one that is specific to e-learning. Both books cite the effectiveness of these on-screen agents in improving “learning efficiency,” or the speed at which learners learn. Clark cites two different studies. Learners in the “agent group” generated 24 to 48% more solutions to problems posed as part of the course.

Research published by Amy Baylor of Florida State University delves into the specifics of the most effective appearance for an agent. Her findings – gathered across six separate studies – are fascinating – and a bit disturbing. One example: Learners generally learned more from female agents than from male agents – but the reason is because they perceived the female agent as “less competent” than they, the learner, were. They did not have the same view of male agents. To see greater details and more fascinating findings, check out the actual paper –

One interesting question that I have no clear answer for is whether the agent itself – or the use of audio – is the driver for increased learning efficiency. Clark admits that agents used without any audio (text only, in other words) didn’t generate increases in learning efficiency. Clearly, if you use an agent, you need to use audio (See Clark’s book). Audio + engaging agent (whether human-looking or some sort of animated object) seems to be the ticket.

Okay…now for the “audience participation” portion of this blog. Tell me if you are using learning agents. If you are, tell me what kind of reactions/results you’re getting from your learners.