Book Review: Design for How People Learn

Julie Dirksen’s Design For How People Learn is a great book for instructional designers because it actually is written using the principles taught. Some instructional design books use a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of approach: they talk about chunking content into manageable amounts, using effective visuals, and motivating learners, but they are filled with long, unbroken blocks of dry text. Design for How People Learn is an easy, fun read, with lots of visuals and realistic examples that touch on frustrating problems instructional designers face.

Julie says, “I recently heard the advice for authors that you should write the book you want to read but can’t find. That’s basically what I did.”


This review is for the first edition (blue cover).


The second edition is now available (yellow cover).

Lots of Images

Images are interspersed in every topic. It’s a lot of stick figures, but you’d be surprised at how effective stick figures can be at conveying a concept. For example, chapter 2 “Who Are Your Learners?” includes a series of stick figures facing different inclines representing the challenge of a course. It’s five variations of a single stick figure with a single angled line depicting a hill, but it still gets the point across. You can see how a novice learner is facing a steeper hill than an expert. I was a little surprised to not find any screenshots of actual courses, but the book doesn’t feel like it’s missing them.

When I was reading this book, I realized that I suddenly started using a lot more visuals in the course I was developing. The way the images were done in the book gave me more inspiration for my own course. Even if you’re an experienced instructional designer who is already familiar with most of the research and principles, this book is valuable as an example of well-done graphics for learning.

Stories and Examples

Although the book doesn’t include screenshots or examples of actual courses or training materials, the stories and examples do depict actual problems instructional designers face. For example, there’s an example of a new manager who has gone through training but isn’t applying the coaching skills taught. You’re given a description of her performance and asked to consider whether this is really a problem that can be fixed by training. It’s very realistic; you’ve probably seen or experienced a similar situation yourself. You can connect it to your experience, and it’s easy to see how this applies in your work. Julie explains benefits of using stories later in the book, but she applies the principle throughout.

Accessible Research

The book includes lots of research about how we learn and remember, but it’s very accessible. The language is approachable and often humorous. The research is always framed in terms of “OK, so what does that mean for me when I’m creating a course? What do I do with that research?” I admit that there weren’t a lot of surprises for me in the research; it was mostly information I was already familiar with. I expect anyone with a masters degree in instructional design or who does a lot of independent reading and study would find it to be the same. However, those who are just getting started in the field or are accidental instructional designers will find to be a good foundation of research principles. The references at the end of each chapter are a good resource to dig deeper.

More Info

The Table of Contents and a sample chapter on motivation are both available on Julie’s site.

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