Tell me or let me learn for myself

Which works best?

One of my earlier postings was all about trying to create interactive training whether the learner is encouraged to uncover the information themselves, rather than simply having it presented to them. This is a conversation I have regularly with some of the people I have worked with. My inclination is to go with the higher levels of interaction but is it worth going to all that trouble to create something where they have to complete an activity when you could have just told them? I thought I would reflect upon the pros and cons of each approach.

It’s worth pointing out right at the start that an effective e-learning module can (and probably should) contain a mix of the two but what should the proportions be like?

Let’s begin by looking at presenting the learning.

My first question would be how well can the information be retained.

The answer is dependent upon how well the information has been presented. Masses of text is likely to slide off the eye balls, but perhaps if it is presented in a more engaging manner; a video, for example; and a script that has been well-written then it is more likely to work.

The second question I would ask myself is how well can it meet an actionable objective.

If the training requires the learner to be able to do something differently afterwards, telling them might not be enough. It might be necessary to in some way replicate the activity. This is not just the case for task based training; it is also appropriate for when trying to change behaviours or attitudes. An exhortation, if well presented, might work but allowing the learner to experience (as far as possible) why they should change their behaviour or attitude would be much more effective.

To present information effectively, the subject needs to be presented in a simple and engaging way and it needs to primarily relate to information awareness objectives (“I know…”, “I have been told…”).

Has the instructional designer fully engaged with the content?

One other risk is that sometimes just presenting the information might mean the instructional designer has not fully engaged with the content; they are doing little more than a simple copy and paste job.  No-one reading this will have produced such material themselves but I am sure we have all experienced examples of e-learning where the interactions seem to consist of clicking on multiple buttons to display pop-ups, the sole purpose of which is to cram as much text as possible on the screen (with the occasional bit of clip art thrown in).

So what about interactive? Is it better? Well, it can take a long time to develop and can be technically demanding but then so can a high quality video or animation. The ID needs to really engage with the content provided by the SME – not simply re-present in a truncated form – in order to repurpose it for exercises or games but a good quality ID will do that anyway.

Are learners more likely to retain information they have found out for themselves?

Surely the learner is more likely to retain something they have had to uncover for themselves rather than simply be told it? You would think so but the jury is out on this one. One of my favourite books at the moment, “Urban Myths about Learning and Education” devotes a whole chapter to the subject and suggests that it might not always be the case. Sometimes the learner is so busy doing the exercise they fail to take it in.

If you want to change behaviours simply telling them might not be enough.

An activity can be more easily mapped to actionable objectives. “I can…”, “I am able to…”. Arguably this is what training in a corporate environment is all about. Your job as a trainer is change how people do things so it affects the bottom line of the business whether this is to sell more products or services, or do something in a more efficient manner. If you’re trying to get people to do something differently simply telling them might not be enough; it might be better to create an activity that puts them in the situation.

As an example I can, as a former cycle instructor,  tell you that the safest place to ride a bicycle on a road with no high quality segregated cycle facilities is the middle of the road, right in the eye line of the driver behind you. In my experience most people’s reaction is to disbelieve it. However, have a look at this. It was a simple online game I created for a cycle training company. You may not still be convinced but you may now be more open to the possibility. (Note it was published in Flash).

Keep the presentation short and sweet

So upon reflection, both have their place and to create training that is exclusively one or the other would not be effective. However, when presenting information, it should be done in an engaging manner and it should not be a short cut for the instructional designer to avoid engaging with the subject. And it should be kept as short as possible. Most of you are probably fully aware of Cathy Moore’s contention that the information should be the minimum required for the learner to be able to successfully complete an activity which matches their real world experiences.  And finally, make sure the approach is appropriate to the subject and the objective; if the learners just need to be aware of something there is really no point creating an activity (although a part of me wonders if all the objectives are simply awareness raising whether that is a job for a department other than learning and development) but if they need to be able to do something then an activity would be the best solution.