The End is the Best Place to Begin

Needs assessments are one of the first things we learn about in Instructional Design education and certification programs. But I’ve come to realize that many of my training industry colleagues have not had the luxury of formal education. Often they are developers, HR professionals or subject matter experts who are thrown into the instructional design world through interest or necessity.

How does a professional in this position know what they don’t know? Savvy folks often figure out a needs-assessment-like process along the way. But for the absolute beginner? Where do they even start?

When asked for advice, I always tell new IDs that basic needs assessment looks like this: start with the end in mind. I feel like this is a great reminder, even for seasoned designers. After all, it’s easy to get sidetracked from the original intent of training when we’re presented with a client’s or employer’s epic training wish list!

Starting with the end in mind simply means: what should learners be able to do, that they couldn’t do before, when they have completed the training? If we don’t have a specific, focused answer to that question, we are not on track.

On the other hand, knowing very clearly the knowledge we expect learners to gain means we can easily reverse engineer the design process. In other words, if I want learners to know how to perform “skill XYZ,” then I must present them with “instruction A,” “activity B,” and “quiz C” in order to facilitate that result.

I realize this simplistic approach to instructional design may not fully stand the test of formal learning evaluation models (sorry Dr. Kirkpatrick!), but it’s a solid rule of thumb that sure beats the disorganized and overly complex courses I’ve seen throughout corporate America.

Bottom line, we serve learners when we design educational content. If they walk away from a course without new skills because they were confused, or were presented with material that was irrelevant, we simply haven’t done our job!

Image by ComputerGuy – Wikipedia User Nico Cavallotto / CC BY

Engaging Clients in Instructional Design Process

Being an Industrial Trainer working for a community college, I am frequently asked to provide instructional design and training to address specific problems for my clients. Not being “educators” these clients know what the problems are, but not the necessary instructional pieces required to address the learning and skills needed to meet those challenges. I usually spend sufficient time with clients discovering specific information so that I can write a proposal or scope of the learning project. The Project Proposal / Scope will become the document that defines what the finished product will be.

In my initial proposal for client consideration, I keep the learning outcomes specific to the declared problems but leave vague the instructional methods to be used. My proposals always include a statement concerning the necessary client input in every step of the development / training process. Wishing to keep my options open, I also suggest possible delivery methods to the client (Face-to-Face, Computer-Based, Live & Interactive Distance Learning, etc.).

I find that by engaging clients in all aspects of the instructional design process (asking for input, clarifications, and critiques), clients are not surprised at the finished product nor are being asked to pay for something they didn’t want. Clients who may have been vague about what the learning content will look like, should recognize it when they see it.

Do You Know the Learning Outcomes?

The best tip I can share with instructional designers is to focus your efforts on learning outcomes first before you get wrapped up in how you’re going to develop the learning. If you could do that you’re already setting the course for your design work, making a difference, and faithfully supporting the industry.

My first set of questions are:

  • What is it the learner is supposed to do better as a result of the training?
  • How do you know he or she has accomplished that?
  • What does success look like after the learner has attended training?

If you can’t get your stakeholder to answer those questions then most likely training isn’t going to solve the problem.

Too often stakeholders already know they want an eight hour training class and they ignore figuring out what the training is supposed to solve. As Lewis Carroll eloquently said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”

Image by Robert Couse-Baker / CC BY