If you’re not active in L&D Twitter, you might have missed the big debate recently about whether and how research is relevant to the work of instructional designers and corporate training professionals. While some of that was likely deliberately controversial to generate traffic, the discussion raised some important points. Sometimes, we perceive a disconnect between research and practice. In my work, research isn’t just for “fun” or a side project. I may not spend a lot of time reading peer-reviewed journals, but nearly everything I do includes some practical application of research. These are my reflections on some of the ways research informs my work on a nearly daily basis.
Much of my work as an instructional designer involves writing–and we have a lot of research to guide us on how to write to support learning. Essentially, any time you do instructional writing (scripts, online text, instructions, etc.), you have an opportunity to create something informed by research. Good instructional writing is “practical application that is grounded in theory,” to borrow a phrase from Judy Katz.
Research supports writing with a conversational tone, including using second person (you) to address the learner directly. Specifically, this is the personalization principle from Mayer’s Principles of Multimedia Learning. Using contractions is also part of conversational language.
What does that mean? Every single time I write a voice over script, I aim for that conversational tone. Ditto for most of my writing for online reading.
Technical writing, with step-by-step instructions to complete a task, isn’t something I do much in my work. However, that tends to have a slightly different tone. Technical writing is usually designed for finding information, where training is designed for learning. That’s a separate body of research.
Readability and ease of understanding
You can find a number of formulas and calculators for the readability of a passage of text. In Microsoft Word, it’s built in. For my blog, a plugin tells me the Flesch Reading Ease for each post. If I want more analysis, I use the online Word Count Tools.
Improving readability could be a whole topic on its own. For purposes of this discussion, anything you do to make your writing easier to understand and more readable improves learning. There’s research to support that idea.
In addition to the writing tone, how we organize content can be informed by research. In her book Write and Organize for Deeper Learning, Patti Shank lists several tactics that help us organize training content. Using these tactics makes content easier to remember and use. These include:
- Connect to what people already know
- Design for scanning
- Tell people where they are going
- Move less-essential content to non-prime space
Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey! I already do a lot of that!” Congratulations! Your practice is informed by research.
Do you write multiple choice questions in your work? If so, are you using the research to guide you?
One big revelation for me from research was that we only need 3 choices in multiple choice questions. Writing distractors is the hardest part of writing these questions. Therefore, if I only need to write 2 distractors, my job is easier.
I took Patti Shank’s course on writing multiple choice questions a few years ago. Even though I was already pretty good, my skills are better after that course. I’m more familiar with the research on best practices. Patti also has a new book on multiple choice questions. I haven’t read it yet, but I know it’s based on much of the same content from her course. Those are good sources for learning the science of multiple choice questions.
Check out Cara North and Sean Hickey’s Multiple Choice Mayhem project for another way to learn about writing effective multiple choice questions.
In addition to writing, you can use research to inform your elearning development. Visual design principles and UX principles are both relevant and supported by research.
I’m hardly an expert in visual design, but I do try to follow some basic principles. For example, grouping objects together on a slide helps learners perceive the objects as being related or connected. Connie Malamed explains this more in The Power of Visual Grouping.
If you follow visual design principles, chances are your work is informed by research–whether you consciously think of it that way or not.
The field of user experience has ample research on how to make things easier for people to use. If people don’t need to spend much cognitive effort figuring out HOW to access and navigate training, they can expend more effort toward actual learning. Every time I tweak a slide to make it more obvious what needs to be done, following UX principles, my work is informed by research.
Justifying design decisions
In writing and development, I often apply research without necessarily being conscious of it. I’m at the point where writing with a conversational tone is my default, for example. I’ve internalized the research in that area so it’s often automatic.
However, sometimes I need to be conscious of the research, and to know it well enough to justify my design decisions. If a client asks me why I did something a certain way, I need to be able to articulate a reason, either from research or my own experience.
That’s also true when clients or stakeholders make requests. What do you do if a client says, “I want to take this 60 minute lecture video and just chop it into 5 minute segments”? I want to be able to respond intelligently about better strategies for microlearning and learning with video.
Compromises and reality
That doesn’t mean I win every time, of course. Sometimes I compromise with SMEs. When everything was an emergency to shift to remote in 2020, many of us worked to just get something online, even if we knew it wasn’t ideal.
Plus, the politics of working with organizations aren’t always straightforward. If the VP with political power really wants something done a certain way, maybe you can change their mind…and maybe you can’t. Sometimes you have to pick your battles. If the legal department says you need the full text of the drug and alcohol policy in the orientation training, you’re probably not going to convince them otherwise.
On rare occasions, I have asked a client to explicitly sign off on their choices. That means they acknowledge that I informed them that a certain approach is less likely to be effective, and they accept responsibility for the outcomes. At that point, they’ll either sign off, or they’ll back down.
Nudging stakeholders to better choices
But mostly, I don’t want to be that heavy-handed about research. More often, I work to nudge organizations toward better design a little bit at a time. So, they’re not ready for a spaced learning campaign with multiple authentic scenarios reflecting complex decision-making heuristics? Then maybe I can convince them to use some one-question mini-scenarios for assessment instead. It’s a baby step, but it’s a step in the right direction. If I build trust with one project, I’m more likely to be able to push a little farther next time.
Plus, even on less-than-ideal projects, you can still use research to inform your writing and development. One of my current projects is compliance training. The explicit goal of the training is to keep the company out of court and reduce their legal liability. If we actually train people on anything, it’s a bonus beyond the risk mitigation. But even for compliance training, I write scripts and multiple choice questions in ways grounded in research.
Do you need research to inform your work?
Maybe someone would claim that they can do the vast majority of their work without any study of the research mentioned above. But do you really want someone creating training who brags that 90% or more of their work is completely disconnected from research?
Can you do your job as an instructional designer or corporate training professional without being informed by research? You can probably do enough to avoid getting fired, and that’s enough to be successful by some people’s definition.
But my guess is that you want to aim higher than just “not getting fired.” Plus, if you look at the examples above, you may realize that you’re already applying theory and research in your work. It doesn’t have to be a far remove from practical instructional design or only for the big, strategic decisions. Research and theory can inform your day-to-day work in writing, development, and justifying design decisions.
If you’re interested in better understanding learning science, check out these resources.