5 ways to create powerful learning experiences

Think back for a moment to your school days. Can you recall any lesson in particular from that time? I’m sure you can. Do you remember the environment, the classroom and the key concepts? Now ask yourself, “What makes it stand out for me?” Was there something specific in the lesson that you related to at the time? What made the message ‘hit home’ and remain there for all these years?

And it’s not just learning in school; the same principles apply to adult learning. Truly powerful learning experiences are impactful because they are both relevant (they apply to you at that moment in time) and memorable (they endure over time). Being inspired to apply what you’ve learnt spurs you onwards along your personal learning journey; from school through to the workplace and throughout your chosen career path.

How are such compelling learning experiences created? Simple, it requires good learning design. Okay… maybe not so simple. Let’s return to that memory of yours. Chances are, you remember it so clearly because you identified with the content, your attention was somehow gripped and held, you were challenged and motivated by your teacher and your peers, and you were provided with an opportunity to apply and reinforce what you’d learnt.

Together, those form the backbone of powerful learning, but how do you apply them to create impactful and enduring learning experiences?

1. Learner-focused

It may seem obvious to say, but knowing your target audience is pretty much the most important thing you can know when setting out to create any piece of learning. Having a sense of where they are before they open their textbook or click the Enrol button, and where you want them to be on completion, will help to identify things like the:

  • Objectives - The desired outcomes as a result of the experience
  • Tone - The appropriate, relatable ‘language’ to use
  • Structure - The order in which the information should be presented and how it should be divided up to give your audience a chance to reflect and absorb
  • Duration - How long the entire experience should be
  • Assessments - The best problem types to use in applying and testing that the desired outcomes have been met
  • Platform - The way in which the experience should be delivered

In a corporate context, the desired outcomes for learners take into consideration the business needs and where employees’ competencies currently lie. Successfully filling these gaps through learner-focused training helps employees to excel in their roles.

2. Engaging

Let’s say you’ve identified the target audience, the desired outcomes, and how best to structure the content. Do you write it up as massive chunks of text? Doesn’t sound very powerful, does it? Throw your audience a creative lifeline through content that is captivating. Splitting up the information into ‘bite-sized’ chunks peppered with engaging elements used at appropriate times will suck the yawn right out of their mouths! We’re talking images, infographics, videos, audio clips, opportunities for discussions with peers, case studies, role-plays of relevant scenarios, simulations, and exercises and assessments.

3. Enriched

So, you’ve got yourself a super-dynamic body of learning that’s tailored to your audience and features next-level engagement, what more could you do? Offering access to supplementary information, such as handouts, online readings, and recommendations for related content, will give your audience the option to enrich their learning experience. The cold-onion-soup truth is; not every learner will want to go the extra mile, but that’s their choice based on where they are in their personal journey, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t allow for and encourage those that do. Enrichments like these will place the learning experience within a broader context and spur your audience on.

4. Motivating

It all started with a gold star. You got an answer right; gold star. You did well in a test; gold star. You demonstrated extra effort; gold star. Like all things in life, learning can, at times, be difficult. No matter how brilliantly the content has been strung together, despite the most creative use of engaging elements, people may still need a little ‘nudge’ to help them stay the course. Although, for most adult learners, motivations are intrinsic, there is still merit in using motivators like certificates for successful completion, progress charts that show how well they’re doing and how far they still have to go, public leaderboards to show who’s blazing ahead and who’s nipping at their heels, and badges that can be shared as bragging rights on social media platforms.

5. Impactful

Tests…ugh, right? But, before you slip off into that nightmare where you’re sitting in a cold hall in your pyjamas trying to recall what you learnt… you’ll be pleased to know learning designers have long since recognised that the effective use of tests, assessments and exams are not an occasion to shine a spotlight, escaped-convict style, on the learner. Instead, these are seen as golden opportunities to provide exercises in which learners can apply what they’ve learnt. This is especially the case for adult learners expanding knowledge relating to their jobs: being presented with real-world scenarios and simulations adds relevance and attaches value to adult education programmes.

Also, and this is really important, assessments and activities help to establish the impact: whether or not the objectives have been met. This is crucial in a corporate context, because effective learning experiences results in more than just the growth of individual employees, but ultimately in the overall performance of the business.

Conclusion

I can clearly recall one Geography lesson in particular in which our teacher was beside herself, because we’d recently had a class test on cartography symbols that most of the class had failed. She decided to make us create our own maps of our school and its immediate surroundings. Seeing as how we knew our school inside-and-out and lived in the neighbourhood, we jumped at the chance to ‘out map’ our classmates. She placed us into teams of 3 or 4 and let us move around the school grounds for the remainder of the lesson, which gave both the opportunity to collaborate with our peers, and a refreshing change of environment. Needless to say, on submission of our maps, we’d all picked up on the fundamentals of cartography and, to this day, I still remember those symbols.

In her book, A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman says that nothing is more memorable than a smell. “One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains…”. It’s the same with learning. A powerful learning experience, built using these 5 principles, can be vividly recalled, and endure in the memory for a lifetime.