Have you ever tried to pull a door open only to find that it won’t budge? You pull again … nada. You then look down and see a sign that says “Push.”

The sign wasn’t helpful. If, instead, the door handle had been designed so people would assume they should pull, you would have avoided that moment, and there would be no need a sign at all.

Don’t Blame the Learner

Focusing on the design of the door handle to change default behavior is an application of user experience principles. The term “user experience,” or UX, is typically applied to web design, but its principles have wide applications. Consider the goal of UX design: to use an understanding of what drives behavior to create a system that encourages the desired outcome, rather than telling the user how to succeed (often despite the system). Similarly, learning and development (L&D) professionals can use UX principles to enhance the experience of their learners.

You’ll often hear from UX professionals, “Never blame the user.” This statement is based on a core tenet: that the user is capable of accomplishing a task but may be hindered by the design of the system. Learning and development professionals should adopt this principle: When learners fail, it isn’t the content that they are struggling with but the way it is presented. Thus, L&D professionals should design instruction in advance to promote learning rather than assuming later that learners are struggling with understanding the content itself.

The Problem With Lecture

Lecture is a common content delivery method that can benefit from simple changes based on this tenet, but you can adapt it to any form of content delivery. Research has shown that actively processing information is better for recall, yet learners in a lecture commonly write down what’s on a presentation slide, word for word, without thinking much about what they’re writing. They have been trained to do so through years of formal education. To them, the presentation slides are the primary information channel, and the spoken portion of the lecture is a supplemental channel.

Although there is some benefit to writing down important information verbatim as a reference for later, it does not promote actual learning in the moment. For learning to occur, participants would need to write down notes during the lecture and then take some time later to review them. However, in the corporate setting, learners rarely have that additional time.

A Time-traveling Organ?

Trying to change the way learners experience a lecture by telling them not to take notes verbatim is like using a “pull” sign on a door: It won’t work. Instead, L&D professionals should create a lecture in which learners’ natural tendency will be to process the information. How? By using a simple principle: less is more.

Keep lecture slides sparse (e.g., just a statement of the topic), and don’t include irrelevant slides that will distract learners. Lectures should deliver the majority of the content orally, and looking at slides diverts attention away from what the instructor is saying. Verbal presentation of information takes advantage of a unique feature of how humans process auditory information differently than visual information: Auditory information is temporally constrained. If learners want to read something again, they can just move their eyes back over the information. They can’t, however, rehear information. There is no time-travel organ.

What’s more, auditory information can only be retained verbatim for about two seconds, which is not long enough to write it down. This constraint means that the only way to take notes is by condensing information before writing it down. This act of condensing it is a deep form of processing, and learners are, therefore, much more likely to recall the information. In other words, designing instruction so that learners are required to process information creates a user experience that encourages learning.

Lectures may seem like a dated and unengaging learning method, but they are only unengaging because of the way they provide information. By incorporating a UX mindset to your lecture design, you’ll increase both engagement and retention.

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