Achieving Learning Flow with Your Online Member Education

Learning Flow

Earlier this year, Associations Now wrote an article asking whether “binge learning” will become the new “binge watching.” This references the growing trend among Netflix subscribers who use the on-demand television and movie steaming service to watch entire television series in one sitting. The piece brought up a good point. Technology could easily create similar changes in how learners interact with and consume online learning.

Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow model describes the concept of being so engaged in an activity, such as an online course, that you remain engaged for an extended period of time, completing modules, activities, and assessments without taking breaks. You begin to lose yourself in the activity and experience feelings of devotion, energy, and delight. Whether you know it or not, you’ve experienced learning flow. Maybe you were working on your favorite hobby and lost track of time, or perhaps you found yourself link surfing to learn more after you found something interesting online. Jane Hart refers to learning flow as “a continuous steady stream of social micro-learning activities – accessible from the web and mobile devices.” We’ve talked a lot about self-paced learners and how important it is to let them absorb information on their own time. But, have you considered how important it is for them to achieve learning flow?

Use these three conditions provided by Csíkszentmihályi Mihály, the “father of flow,” in your online education to help your members achieve learning flow:

1) Goals. Our recent blog post on learning objectives reinforces the importance of giving learners clear, action-oriented goals. Seeing the end goal and having something tangible to work towards is key to achieving learning flow and motivating your learners. This can often be achieved by utilizing a progress tracker in your LMS or by allowing learners on-demand access to their dynamically updated eTranscript.

Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Model2) Balance. Take a look at the image Csíkszentmihályi illustrated to demonstrate flow. You will see that it is all about attaining a balance between challenge and skill level. While you cannot control the skill set of a learner, you can design a learning experience that progresses and demands more and more of them over time.

3) Feedback. You can help create balance in regard to skill level by offering feedback so members can learn from their mistakes and enhance their understanding. The easiest way to do this is through “knowledge checks” and learning assessments which contain remediation.  Feedback also helps the learner know how they are progressing toward their goals.

Ultimately, achieving learning flow requires the right conditions – where the learner becomes fully immersed in what he is doing. Getting to know your members is necessary for establishing the balance between challenge and skill and creating the necessary conditions to encourage flow. Most importantly, personalize the learning experience for your members or enable options for the learner to create their own learning path. Follow these tips and pretty soon Netflix won’t have anything on your association’s eLearning.

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Challenge Your Learners By…

In this hectic world of on-the-spot access to information, conversations held in 140 characters or less, and instant picture uploads, Instructional Challenge learners byDesigners are faced with the challenge of designing effective learning that won’t overload learners. The heart of this challenge is finding the learners’ motivational sweet spot. To the Instructional Designer, this means figuring out how to get them to care. There are lots of ways to instill motivation, but even our best laid plans and efforts can fall short. How do we mix it up, remembering that we live in a world where sensory overload and external distractions lurk around every corner? Let’s consider a few ways we can challenge our learners to engage and translate that engagement into learning.

Create a paradigm shift
Let learners be a little selfish about their learning. Ask them to answer the question, “What’s in it for me (WIIFM)?” Incorporating WIIFM creates an emotional connection to the learners’ desired outcome. This ultimately helps them see learning as an asset, rather than a chore or a checkbox. After all, isn’t it easier to adopt something that’s personally relevant, rather than something mandatory that doesn’t actually apply to you?

Try this: Weave honest, conversational feedback and stories from real people who have been impacted (by both having knowledge as well as by lacking knowledge) into the course.

Get them outside their comfort zone
Let’s be honest – change is hard. On the other hand, habits make us feel comfortable, safe, and confident. But situations that create discomfort and conflict force learners to stretch their capabilities by making inferences and assumptions, testing best guesses, and exploring their creativity. This anxiety and stress helps learners develop resourcefulness and resiliency while adding new knowledge and skills. After learners develop strategies for overcoming that discomfort within the safe confines of eLearning, they can return to daily life with their newfound knowledge and confidence.

Try this: Take a cue from the television show CSI (Miami, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans – you pick!). Shock the learner with the solution or outcome first. Allow the learners to “retrace” the steps from end to beginning. This will prompt them to think in a non-linear fashion and consider all possibilities and outcomes. This replicates the complexity of reality and situations they are likely to experience in their roles.

Create a black hole
Curiosity is one of the most treasured assets in an Instructional Designer’s toolkit. When learners discover a gap in their knowledge, especially one which prevents them from getting to the aforementioned “WIIFM?” the natural pang of curiosity kicks in. The search for answers intensifies, the content gains value, and the desire to conquer that black hole turns into a driving force. Another advantage of this approach is that you avoid insulting the learners’ intelligence. Although you expose knowledge gaps, you also give the learner the opportunity to fill those gaps by letting them find the answers for themselves through activities, scenarios, and embedded aids. That way they build confidence from the inside out.

Try this: Activate your learners’ curiosity by exposing them to their knowledge gaps at the beginning of your course. Integrate a series of questions which learners are likely to get wrong, or a phased reveal of resolutions to simulated scenarios. Include a guide or mentor to provide feedback and direct them to the resources they can use to fill their knowledge void.

Remove distractions
Following in the spirit of natural curiosity, some of you may remember the days when you could play all day with a stick, a tire, and a cardboard box. And for those who don’t remember, let me tell you, an appliance box is the jackpot! Often, training is comprised of so many bells and whistles, lists of “do this/don’t do this,” and extraneous content that the whole experience just becomes overwhelming, and the learner just shuts down. Giving learners too much direction, too much audio, too many visuals can have the unintended effect of suppressing creativity. Remember – they’re not likely to have all the answers handed to them in real life. Manage distractions and increase creative problem solving by offering only the essentials learners need to achieve WIIFM. So, remove anything that inhibits creative exploration and problem solving processes, but don’t sacrifice usability.

Try this: Give learners the proverbial stick, tire, and cardboard box and let them figure out how to build a car. Translation: strip away all the fancy frills and provide simple tools that allow learners to build their own conclusions. Incorporate feedback mechanisms along the way that encourage or redirect the learner down a path to the desired outcome.

Bury a hidden treasure
Learning is an iterative process, with connections made through cycles of trial and error, reflection, and feedback. There are many ways to help learners build knowledge which may not be overtly obvious during a course, or may even seem counterintuitive. But these hidden “treasures” allow learners to master layers through exploration, discovery, and even hitting the occasional “dead end,” which ultimately helps the learner re-calibrate and get back on course.

Try this: Practice means improvement! Allow learners to “bank” bits of knowledge from each module that will be relevant to success in subsequent modules. Plant cues and thought-provoking tidbits throughout the course to encourage the learner to build a mental foundation. Creatively reveal the next layer of information when a learner successful completes a section. Make successive modules layer, build, and apply the initial concepts. This way, the learning process allows learners to revisit ideas and reflect on the implications.

Remember there is no one-size-fits-all solution that applies to every learner and every learning style. People are motivated by different factors. While this may pose a challenge to the Instructional Designer, it is not an impossible problem! By tapping into innate human inclinations like WIIFM, natural curiosity, and the drive for meaning, Instructional Designers have access to invaluable tools that require just a bit of “creative treatment.” Before you begin challenging your learners, take the first challenge yourself. Ask: “Who is my learner, what makes them tick, and why should they care about this?”




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Using PDF Job Aids for Just-in-Time Training

PDFs for eLearning

When someone is on the job and needs an answer fast they don’t have time to go through a whole eLearning course. They need an answer they can get to just-in-time. This is where job aids come in, especially PDFs since they can be printed out or accessed on a device without giving the viewer the ability to edit the file. They don’t replace in-depth learning, but the support they provide helps boost knowledge retention and self-sufficiency.

Examples of Job Aids

We actually use aids a lot in daily life. The contacts list in your phone is a great example. You have all the numbers available but you don’t have to commit them to memory. GPS systems help you get from one place to another by providing step-by-step instructions and grocery lists let you keep track of what you need to buy. The types of aids a learner will find helpful are going to have different content but they follow the same principles. Useful aids include:

• Reference Sources (collections of data, such as price sheets or phone numbers)
• Step-by-Step Instructions
• Checklists
• Decision Tables (use “if” and “then” criteria to guide decision making)
• Flowcharts

When to Use Them

Albert Einstein allegedly said, “Never memorize what you can look up.” I’m going to qualify that by saying, “Look up what isn’t worth memorizing.” If a learner is going to be using a process or piece of information frequently, it might be good to have it memorized. But if it isn’t needed often or takes more brain power to remember it than it does to use it, it’s time for an aid. It’s also a good idea to provide aids for new learners. Once they know the material they’re likely to stop using the aids, but having help available as they learn the ropes is crucial. The American Society for Training & Development has a handy PDF resource for matching up needs (consistency, decision making, process order, etc.) with the best format.

How to Design Them Effectively

• Ensure that all content is current.

• Give brief context. Learners retain and process information better if they have context for what they’re doing. This can be incredibly short, possibly just a clear title such as, “How to Log in to Track Your Hours.”

• Keep it concise. Only include critical information that’s directly related to the task at hand. The PDF should be short so it’s easy for the learner to find the information they need. A page or two is often a good maximum. Individual points should also be bite-sized so they can be absorbed quickly. When possible, start directions with action verbs and use simple wording. Do not add images purely for decoration, only include visuals that aid the learning process.

• Use good visual design principles. This is a topic unto itself, but basics include using consistent fonts, colors, and alignment. Related elements should be placed near one another on the PDF.

PDFs are a great tool for providing learner support. They can be formatted a number of ways to help with different tasks, are easy to access when they are needed, and they are easier to create than a full blown course on the same subject. To conclude, here is one of my favorite learning aids, a checklist:

Read “Using PDF Job Aids for Just-in-Time Training”
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The Four Stages of Learning

I recently had an interesting conversation about life and how life lessons occur in stages. We compared it to learning to ride a bike. It was so difficult to learn, yet now you find it so easy you’ve forgotten how you learned it in the first place. It got me thinking about what those stages actually are. It turns out I’m not the first one to theorize about this.  Technically, the term is “Four Stages of Competence” and was originally established by Gordon Training International in the 70s.Four Stages of Competence for eLearning

The idea is that learners are not aware of how little or much they know. They go through the four (or five) stages listed below, depending on how much they know about a given topic or skill. In the end, the learner will be able to use the knowledge or skill without having to think about what they’re doing. It is important to keep these stages in mind when developing eLearning because different learners will be at different stages.

1)      Unconscious Incompetence

In this stage, the learner does not have a skill or knowledge set yet. They do not see any reason to learn it because they don’t consider it a need. You don’t know what you don’t know. For example, as a very young child you do not yet realize the usefulness of riding a bike. As an educator, it is important to work with the marketing department on how to best market learning offerings to those in this stage. (Check out this blog post on how education and marketing must work together in eLearning). They may or may not realize the benefits of your education yet, but the objective is to reveal that there ARE benefits.  If you introduce potential learners to your offerings, they may realize that they CAN gain value from those skills and knowledge sets and reach stage two, conscious incompetence.

2)      Conscious Incompetence

By the second stage the learner is aware of the skill that they lack and can understand that there is a deficit. Ignorance is no longer bliss. Ideally, this is who should be signing up for the majority of your online courses.  In this stage, the learner wants to learn because they are aware of their lack of knowledge and it makes them uneasy. Selling courses to this demographic should be easiest.

3)      Conscious Competence

The conscious competence stage takes place when a learner has acquired a skill but has not yet mastered it to the point where it comes naturally. Imagine you are have learned the steps to riding the bike, but you still need to go through the steps when getting on the bike, or you need training wheels. This is when the learner usually needs testing, instructors, or other tools to hold their hand through it, or even talking themselves through the steps. At this point the learner uses your online courses to gain fluency in the skills and become an engaged learner who wants to reach the fourth stage. Think of this learner as a student studying for a test. They feel prepared but sometimes still rely on flash cards.

4)      Unconscious Competence

You know the phrase, “It’s like riding a bike. You never forget how to do it.” The fourth stage of learning encompasses just that: you know it so well you don’t even realize you are doing it. The skill is so embedded that the learner doesn’t even need to process what they are doing. Issues can arise when you combine unconscious competence learners with unconscious incompetence learners because neither of them can articulate the skill.

5)      Fifth stage

Some theorists believe there is a fifth stage as well — “conscious competence of unconscious competence.” In this stage the learner is able to relate to learners in stages 1-4 enough to teach them. A stage five learner has reached a point where they can reflect on how they reached their level of mastery. This means that they can empathize with learners in other stages. In your organization, your super volunteers or SMEs are the most likely to be “fifth stagers.” They can be useful in mentoring new members or providing guidance.

Remember, knowledge is power. Understanding the stages of learning can help you become a better educator. Learning makes the world go around, so be sure to help your members reach their full potential by making them conscious of their level of competence. Did you just move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence by reading this? Add your thoughts to the comments section.



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Putting Members’ Needs First: Working with Subject Matter Experts

Member Needs and Subject Matter ExpertsSubject Matter Experts (SMEs) may be from Mars, and Instructional Designers may be from Venus … but at the end of the day, your members are the actual center of the universe! The working relationship between Subject Matter Experts and Instructional Designers (IDs) is often portrayed as antagonistic, challenging, and “like pioneering a new frontier in the universe.” But designing learning for your members does not have to be the kind of painful undertaking that makes all parties involved prefer a root canal over working together! When Subject Matter Experts and Instructional Designers come together for the common good of creating sound, member-centered objectives and experiences, it is possible for the stars to align as stellar learning outcomes.

We aren’t the center of the universe?

Build the relationship. Respect their time. Create a communication plan. Thank you very much every article, book, and blog out there offering this advice for working with SMEs. Unfortunately, this is old news and essentially the basis of any good working relationship. If you are not doing this already, you may have bigger problems. I want to talk about a dichotomy shift akin to the discovery that the Earth was not actually the center of the universe. I’m talking about the very frightening concept of each party accepting that both are experts in their own right. The SME has likely spent years of their life perfecting their craft, and are proud to share every fascinating detail with anyone who will listen. Similarly, the Instructional Designer, quite possibly obsessed with all things learning, has analyzed every learning theory, design strategy, and delivery mechanism known to humanity. The beauty of this Big Bang in the making is that both the SME and ID possess very valuable assets. When they come together they have the potential to create a great impact on member learning and development. In short, if they can respect each other’s passion for what they do, share their enthusiasm, and apply their expertise in a targeted training program, the learner receives the best of both worlds.

Let the learner be the star

Assuming the learner’s perspective is essential to building effective training experiences. It is not unusual that the perceived tug-of-war can obstruct the overarching objective, which is to understand the learner’s needs and design learning opportunities to meet those needs. Remember that your members not only want to learn, they want to be successful learners! This means helping your SMEs find how the content is directly relevant to the learner. Do this by sharing your design strategy with your SME early and demonstrating the relationship between the content and the stated learning outcomes. Also, ask your SME how they themselves acquired their vast knowledge. Did they become an expert in a two day class or a one hour eLearning? Remind them that their experience came by way of an iterative process over time. Allowing learners to experience this development through “ah-ha” moments will resonate better than a fact-dump and ultimately facilitate the learner’s journey to proficiency.

Avoid eclipsing the real goals

Instructional Designers must also help SMEs recognize that creating positive outcomes means not overwhelming or stressing the learner. Extra information that is not germane to the learning objectives may distract and overload learners, overshadowing the learning objectives. Involve your SMEs by asking them to help with brainstorming and scaling back information into three categories: essential to know, important to know, and nice to know. Focus your lens on the first two topics and reserve a “Resource” section of your learning for “nice to know” items. Does your SME think everything is essential? Naturally. Here’s some help:

Essential to know… Important to know… Nice to know…
• Speaks to the heart of the topic

• Is critical to performing the task being taught

• Will be assessed through evaluation or is directly linked to performance
• Keys to understanding the topic

• Links to essential understanding (foundations)

• Needs to be assessed
• Interesting points which add value

• Helps make links to other concepts

• Thematic to topic being taught


Keep your members at the center of the design universe by remembering that the reason you’re undertaking the project is because you recognized a need that they have. You are their representative and spokesperson. It is up to you to allow SMEs and Instructional Designers to maximize their talents, while simultaneously keeping everyone united and focused on your members’ needs. Although they may never know the effort you put in to ensure the success of their learning journey, you can take satisfaction in knowing that you have followed through on your promise to always put member needs first!

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When CEs Aren’t Enough: How to Engage and Empower Learners

Engaging Continuing Education HoursMy husband works in the emergency medical and public safety field and is required to complete X number of continuing education (CE) hours per year to keep his certifications. He can obtain his CEs by attending meetings, reading journals, and taking instructor-led or online classes. But like a lot of professionals whose job requires them to earn CEs, he often sees these activities as simply “checking the box.” Activities and classes are often selected based on ease and convenience to complete, not because they sound interesting or appeal to his learning style. Why is that and what can continuing education providers do to make their offerings more appealing and fulfilling for their learners?

I believe the majority of CE providers are missing an opportunity to engage and empower learners. Just because a course or reading is required, doesn’t mean it needs to be generic or passive. Learners want to feel challenged, they like “disruption,” which requires them to apply their knowledge and skills to complete an activity.

Recently, my husband attended a specialized training course which was taught at a local university and facilitated by subject matter experts in his field. Each evening my husband came home from his class and he couldn’t stop talking about everything he had learned, the feedback he received, and what he hoped to do better next time. Hearing him go on about this particular class got me wondering, “What is it about this class that is getting him so excited? What are they doing right that so many other CE activities have failed to do?”

As it turned out, the class was structured to be a series of scenarios carried out through role play and the use of simulators. They were learning by doing. Rather than sitting back and watching videos or transcribing notes from an overhead projector, learners were encouraged to get up out of their seats and participate in the learning. With each activity the scenarios grew more unpredictable and challenging. Learners worked in teams and strategized the best course of action before acting out their parts in the scenario. Empowering learners to make decisions and put what they were learning into action completely changed the level of engagement for those in attendance.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t settle for just providing training that meets CE requirements, strive for engagement that empowers and motivates learners to test their skills and enables them to “fail forward” in a safe environment. In this example, scenarios and the use of simulations elevated what could have been boring “page turner” lessons into something these learners will likely never forget. When designing your continuing education activities, whether it be a journal reading, a facilitated meeting, or an in-person or online course, challenge yourself to think outside the box. Incorporate knowledge checks, learning activities, team challenges, scenarios, and other proven methods for increasing engagement and knowledge retention. Remember, your learners have choices when deciding where to obtain their CEs, give them a reason to choose you!

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4 Tips to Writing eLearning Scripts That Sing

eLearning Script WritingIf you’re getting started on a new script for an eLearning course, you probably aren’t planning to create a “musical” experience. But maybe you should. A great song is relatable, the lyrics that get stuck in your head and you can recite them years later. Wouldn’t you like to write a script with that kind of impact?

In a recent article in T+D magazine, author Cammy Bean provides several tips on scriptwriting that really resonate with me. Here’s my take on the top 4 ways to make your eLearning scripts sing:

1. “Make it human” — Bean

According to Bean, the first tip to writing a great eLearning script is to write like a human. When we’re sitting down to write a script, how many of us have caught ourselves actually writing words like:

“Upon successful completion of this module, you will be able to identify when sexual harassment occurs in the office setting.”

Yuck. Now imagine it’s a year from now, 9:30 am, and tucked away in a cubicle somewhere, we meet Frank. He’s an over-worked, somewhat distracted, 20-something computer programmer. He’s just been told by his boss that he needs to take this required sexual harassment eLearning you wrote. And the second screen in Frank hears, “Upon successful completion…” Or, even better, he hears and sees this text onscreen! If you were Frank, how motivated would you be to click next to continue?

Okay, now back to your eLearning script. First, when you’re writing, remember “Frank” – the human not the “learner.”  Frank will be taking this course in another year, so the writing needs to connect with him. Knowing how this content will affect him is important too.  Instead, how about this objective screen:

“Have you ever listened in on an office conversation? Marc just said something really offensive to Ariana, and he didn’t even realize it! Awkward. In this short module, you’ll find out three ways to make sure this never happens to you.”

Did you see what I did there? Use a specific situation to make the topic concrete. And personalize the situation to make it relevant to the human being on the other end of the eLearning.

2. Lighten up

The next suggestion for writing better eLearning scripts is to avoid heavy language and an overly serious tone. Is sexual harassment serious? Of course. But notice how you can still reinforce the seriousness without the dense language. Keep it “short and snappy,” and relevant.  If you re-read the first example, doesn’t it feel like you have to plow through it? Now read the revised example.  Interestingly, the revision is twice as long. But it flows more “singingly,” because it’s direct, uses several short sentences instead of one long one, and it sounds like a conversation rather than a textbook.

Also, notice how the revised “objective” mentions the three ways to avoid this. Admit it. You want to know what those three ways are. Social media marketers will tell you that lists create some of the most engaging content on the internet.  Still reading this post?

Consider lightening up your scripts using list organizers. Think of these as verses in a song. They provide symmetry and order which, like great art, we are naturally drawn to.

One note of caution for lightening your scripts. You’ll notice that my revision includes: “Awkward.” This might be okay depending on your audience, but if your eLearning will be translated or localized, these informal phrases can be misunderstood in other cultures. If you’ll need to internationalize, avoid them.

3. Edit, edit, edit.

Bean’s next tip is to edit your scripts down to the essentials. As Mark Twain advised over a hundred years ago, the fewer words you use, the clearer the message is.

Also, remember that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Instead of describing an idea with text, could a visual communicate it more succinctly? Use diagrams, tables, and animations when they’re appropriate.

Interesting side note: A recent Atlantic magazine article by Julie Beck cites research showing the fewer words you use, the more intelligent you appear.  And, counter-intuitively, the bigger words you use, the less intelligent you appear.

4. Less cowbell.

Have you ever sat through eLearning where content just kept hitting you over the head with disconnected points like an annoying cowbell? The chorus in a great song provides a transition between the verses. Transitions create flow and help connect the objectives in your learning. Here’s an example:

“So, now you know how to avoid saying something really inappropriate. But what if you were Ariana? How should you respond to Frank’s inappropriate comment? That’s what we’ll cover next.”

I’d argue that these tips can also help your eLearning scripts become more musical, communicating ideas that will stick in our heads for a long time. And that’s the point of learning.

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