Solving before Learning: A Case for Inverting the Way Courses are Designed

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In my previous piece, I attempted to make a case for using and promoting Self-Directed / Exploratory Learning, while designing learning for a modern workplace. With this piece, I want to explore and make a case for why learning designers should practice inverting the way they design their courses, by introducing the concept of solving before learning. It’s an idea that many learning leaders and visionaries speak of but, somehow, the design of most of the courses remains unchanged.

One of the prominent strategies that many good learning programs utilize, is the idea of starting with questions / challenges / situations that force you to think deeper about that subject and create a sense of intrigue and motivation for you to learn more about it.

This intrigue and motivation could also be generated organically when you realize that you can’t solve a particular business problem without knowing the details of certain other subjects. Ex: I realized extremely late into my gamification career that there aren’t any great ways to measure the effectiveness of gamified learning programs—which led me to learn more about data, which in turn provided me a direction to now measure the effectiveness of gamified learning programs.

So, whether it’s done organically or inorganically, intrigue and motivation could be generated right at the very beginning—by going through a challenge that makes you contextualize and think deeper about a particular subject. Post the challenge, the content presentation could be done to fill the gaps and holes and the learner walks away with a lot more than a traditional content presentation.

Challenges thus become the trigger to learn deeper, better, faster, and they also fuel curiosity.

Here’s something interesting that Dr. Michael Allen does with his designers—I call it the Switcheroo post the first prototype—where the testing comes first and the telling comes second.

‘Getting novice designers to break the tendency to begin their applications with a lot of presented information (telling) is not simple. Indeed, almost everyone has the tendency to launch into content presentation as the natural, appropriate, and most essential thing to do. I have been frustrated over the years as my learners and employees, especially novices to instructional design, have found themselves drawn almost magnetically to this fundamental error. I have, however, discovered a practical remedy: After designers complete their first prototype, I simply ask them to switch it around in the next iteration. This makes content presentations available on demand and subject to learner needs.

Just a slight alteration of an instructional approach often makes a dramatic difference. This is one of those cases. There is very little expense or effort difference between tell-and-test on the one hand and test-and-tell on the other, but the learning experiences are fundamentally different.

Learners in well-designed test-and-tell environments become active learners; they are encouraged to ask for help when they cannot handle test items.’

If you think about these challenges, they could be a simulation, a puzzle, or a game that tests you or even just plain multiple-choice questions—the point is to challenge the learners.

The difference between the percentages of games that do Test-then-Tell onboarding vs. the percentage of courses that do the Test-then-Tell is too high, even in 2021.

We need to create two extremely important feelings in learners before we prime them for learning.

  1. Intrigue/Interest/Motivation to buy-in to the idea of trading their time for your content.
  2. Creating an ‘Aha! Now I understand it’ moment and not ‘I figured it out’ moment, before they even begin sifting through the content.

These two feelings are foundational to the idea of Test-then-Tell or Solving before Learning. I feel that using puzzles to test the learners at the beginning makes for a perfect/ideal solution. Puzzles, take for an example, even a simple crossword communicates a lot! A puzzle is never just a puzzle. It’s a communication of an idea: especially a complex one from the designer to the player. And solving the puzzle is the players way of saying “I understand”.

Solving puzzles over a period of time will make you realize that there’s a stark difference between “I understand” and “I’ve figured it out”.

And that is exactly what puzzles give you! It gives you the opportunity to create, “I understand” moments before the learners actually delve into the content that dives deeper into that subject, which learners now are already motivated for. It gives learners the first meaningful win, even before they begin going through the content.

‘Trying to come up with an answer rather than having it presented to you, or trying to solve a problem before being shown the solution, leads to better learning and longer retention of the correct answer or solution, even when your attempted response is wrong, so long as corrective feedback is provided.’

‘Knowledge is more durable if it’s deeply entrenched, meaning that you have firmly and thoroughly comprehended a concept, it has practical importance or keen emotional weight in your life, and it is connected with other knowledge that you hold in memory.’

Make it Stick

And this is exactly what Solving before Learning attempts to create, a more durable, deeply entrenched, and meaningful comprehension of the knowledge that is presented. It is something that can only be achieved by inverting the way we design courses. The challenges – organic or inorganic ultimately also help solve for performance goals of the individual and the organization.

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