Resources for the professional development community.
Learning consultant Dr. Will Thalheimer shares research-based design recommendations. His practice is based on applying results from research on learning, memory and instruction.
Dr. Thalheimer: Let’s start with the obvious things. As a CLE instructor, you need to know your audience and provide them with content that is relevant to their work. Don’t bore them with fundamentals if they’re already knowledgeable, but don’t forget to put new and complex concepts into perspective. Avoid presenting a series of bullet points—bullets will kill your audience. Instead, tell stories, show relevance, provide examples, ask questions, ask for questions, and get your audience thinking deeply. If you want to help your learners remember what you’re teaching, you’ll have to do more than just talk. You’ll have to engage them in making decisions. In a sense, you want to give them practice USING the wisdom that you’ve taught—NOT just listening passively. By wrangling with the content that you present—either through answering questions, debating options, or thinking about boundary conditions—you’ll help your learners solidify what you’ve taught. The bottom line is that you won’t have done much good if people learn from you, but forget what you’ve taught in a day or two. To support their retention, you have to get them engaged.
Dr. Thalheimer: Here’s what we most often aim for: (1) good content, (2) attentive learners, and (3) learners who understand what we’ve taught. That’s a good start, but there are at least two other goals you should have: (4) learners who can make decisions with the information you’re teaching, and (5) learners who can remember the information you’ve taught. If you really want to be a superstar, you’ll aim for doing two more things—but please note that these are often extremely difficult, if not impossible, given the constraints of CLE logistics: (6) giving learners specific guidance on how they can take the new information and use it in their work, and (7) motivating learners to engage in additional learning on their own initiative.
Dr. Thalheimer: Yes. It’s called “instructional design,” and people can get master’s and doctoral degrees in it. Indeed, some instructional designers specialize in classroom-based learning, while others focus on learning through technology—for example, from computers or smartphones. Recently, instructional designers have also begun supporting learners as they learn on the job. Instructional design blends science and art. Research from many fields is utilized, including learning, memory, human-computer interactions, organizational psychology, persuasion, and other social sciences. Good instructional designers also bring other skills into their work, including graphic design, aesthetics, web design, writing, advertising, marketing, etc. Very few of us—indeed, even very few instructional designers—are good at all these skills, so for more complex learning initiatives, instructional designers often work with teams of people. Fortunately, when we’re making a presentation, we can follow a few simple guidelines to radically improve our effectiveness.
Dr. Thalheimer: I’ve watched dozens and dozens of hours of CLE programs, and several things have struck me. First, the teachers generally know their stuff and are usually passionate and engaging presenters. That’s wonderful, of course! But I also often see some problems. The biggest problem is that instructors often try to teach too much content. This is, by the way, the biggest flaw in the workplace learning field. We ALL try to cram in too much content. I do it, too! The next time you create a presentation for a CLE program, cut out 40% of your content and drill down deeper into the content areas you do cover. If you feel bad that they’re missing some valuable nuggets of content, you can provide your learners with a link to an article to read. Remember, you’d rather teach 6 topics really well and have people remember 5 of those topics than teach 10 things quickly and have people remember only 2 of the topics. How do you drill down deeper? Provide them with examples of effective and ineffective methods, tell relevant stories, provide hypotheticals, have folks debate the options, have them work in small groups, ask them what they agree with and what they’re worried about. In short, prompt them to make decisions about the content you’re teaching them. Passive listeners may be great in a symphony, but active learners will not only be jazzed by your engaging class—they’ll take more of what you’ve taught back to their work.
Dr. Thalheimer: The future will bring self-driving cars and more intimate learning. You may still be asked to play the role of “sage-on-the-stage,” but you will also be challenged to make classroom learning more engaging, more relevant, and more effective in supporting long-term remembering. Also, as learning technologies get better and better, your learners may decide they don’t want to schlep to a classroom; they’d rather engage with you on their smartphones or tablets or through audio assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s OK Google, etc. Obviously, you won’t have to be live 24/7, but you may be tasked with recording little snippets of video, creating scenario-based hypotheticals, and working with instructional designers to embed these learning morsels into a stream of interactions that feels intimate and personal to your learners. With all the time they’ll gain when their cars do the driving, they’ll be more inclined to spend time learning—and you’ll have more of a chance to help them in their work and careers.
Dr. Thalheimer: I’ve mentioned a few things already. Avoid too much content. Avoid talking too much—instead, get your learners making decisions. Avoid bullet points. Here are a few more mistakes to avoid. Don’t present lots of information all at once or all on one slide. Your learners won’t know where to look on your slides. Use simple slide animations to reveal one thing at a time. Don’t go crazy with fonts or colors. Keep it simple. Don’t use your company’s slide templates—you don’t want to clutter the screen or lose space for more important information. Okay, you can use your logo on the first and last slide. That’s it. Think of it this way--when you go see a movie, is the movie studio’s logo visible throughout the movie? No, of course not. Don’t fall for the biggest myth in learning—learning styles. At some point, you might be told to cater to your learners’ different learning styles. But here is the thing: there is now a ton of research to show that doing so is unnecessary and probably counterproductive. Instead of catering to so-called learning styles, remember to give your learners realistic practice making real-world decisions. And finally, whatever you do, don’t read your presentation. You’ll not only look like a rookie, but your audience will zone out as you drone on and on. Okay, one more thing--have fun! When you have fun, your audience will be more engaged and they’ll learn more. And, well, you’ll have more fun if you’re having more fun!
Help participants in your program learn by aligning your presentation with the human cognitive architecture. Structure your slides to best help them understand and remember what you're teaching.Read the Notes
Avoid overloading participants with content and increase their engagement via questions that enhance learning success.Read the Notes
It isn't enough to know the facts, you want participants to be able to get under the hood. That's why hypotheticals, if well-designed, can be valuable in triggering recall of what was learned and how to apply it.Read the Notes
Use these tips, templates and checklists as building blocks to help improve the quality of your presentations.
Learn how leaders in the professional development community are innovating the field. Drawing from scientific research, leaders share insight on the potential for applying eLearning in the legal education space.Will eLearning work in legal education?
Here's how PLI is applying instructional design in our programs
Learn more about PLI's resources for the professional development community.