Learning by Design

Here’s the standard operating procedure in the training business: Subject-matter experts (SMEs) reveal the content, instructional designers package it, trainers deliver it, and learners master it. In this article, I would like to discuss a procedure for transforming learners into instructional designers--and explain the benefits of doing so.

The Double-Cross Experiment

Let me recap an "experiment" that I conducted last year. Like most of my field-based research, the design for this experiment evolved from serendipitous happenings in the field.

It all began when I designed a crossword puzzle for the final review at a workshop on project management. I had great fun in packing 46 project-management terms into a tight crossword-puzzle grid. But I got bored when it came to writing clues for these terms. Since I believe that laziness is the father of invention, I put aside this dull task and went into an incubation state by reading a murder mystery. The next day--the day I had to use the crossword puzzle with my 12 participants--I printed two copies of the solution grid with the correct words in the proper boxes. I took one of the copies and randomly whited out one half of the words. In the other copy, I whited out the other half of the words. For example, the first version had the solution for 1 across but did not have the solution for 2 down. The second version had the exact opposite: It did not have the solution to 1 across but had the solution to 2 down.

This is how I used the two partially-completed versions of the crossword puzzle:

  1. I divided participants into two teams of six each and gave different versions of the partially-completed crossword puzzle to each team.
  2. I gave the teams 7 minutes to create clues for the solution words printed in their crossword puzzle grid.
  3. After the 7 minutes, I asked the first team to ask for a clue to a missing word in their partially-completed grid. For example, this team asked for a clue for 1 across represented by five blank boxes. The second team gave the appropriate clue.
  4. The second team now asked for a clue to a missing word in their grid. The first team supplied the clue.
  5. Teams alternated between asking for clues and giving them. Although each team began with the goal of completing their grid before the other team, they quickly shifted their focus to solving the puzzle.

During the activity, I recorded the clues supplied by each team, and identified which clues were too easy and which ones were too difficult. After the activity, I edited the clues and prepared the crossword puzzle, complete with a set of clues.

But this was not the end of my experiment.

The next time I conducted the project management workshop, I gave the crossword puzzle (and the clues) to participants. They solved the puzzle in a reasonable period of time, but the amount of enthusiasm and the amount of learning were not as much as in the previous approach (in which participants created and exchanged clues). So with the third group of participants I ran the original activity (which I now labeled Double Cross) for the final review. At the end of this play, I ended up with a new set of clues.

Here are the conclusions from my field-based experiment:

  • Getting participants involved in the creation of the instructional material (clues for the crossword puzzle) increases the effectiveness of learning.
  • A by-product of this approach is instructional content that can be used with future participants.
  • The ensure the efficiency of using participants as instructional designers, we should give them a partial-design responsibility rather than the total-design responsibility.

Let me elaborate on the third conclusion: If I had asked participants to create a complete crossword puzzle from scratch, they would have spent a lot of time selecting the words and fitting them in a puzzle grid. They would have ended up becoming experts in crossword-puzzle construction—which had nothing to do with my instructional objectives related to project management. Since my training purpose was to review project management concepts, I used an activity with a partially-completed crossword puzzle and required participants to define some terms and supply other terms when given the definition.

Other Applications

Classification card game. I have used the partial-design-by-participants strategy with several of my other games and puzzles. In my classification card games, the participants play with cards that belong to different categories. Recently, I have been working on a classification system related to different types of change. In oneof my activities, I briefly explained five different categories to my participants and give them a couple of sample cards with statements associated with each category. I then asked teams of participants to create additional classification cards with statements related to behaviors, actions, feelings, decisions, and outcomes associated with each category. (This partial-design activity is where most of the learning occurred.) I then collected the cards from each team, redistributed them to the other teams, and had everyone play a rummy-type card game. I ended up with ready-to-play decks of cards for future games. But, whenever there is sufficient time, I ask teams to create, exchange, and play with their own decks of cards.

Interactive lecture. We can apply the partial-design-by-participants strategy to interactive lectures. Recently, I asked a SME to give a compressed lecture on how help-desk people can delight their customers. I stopped the lecture after 5 minutes and asked teams of participants to create a poster that can be used to support the presentation of the same content during a lecture to the next group. I gave the teams freedom to prepare any type of poster. When the task was completed, I taped the different posters to the wall and invited everyone to review them. I then returned to the SME’s current lecture and repeated the process. As a by-product, I ended up with a collection of posters for use as review after future lectures.

Textra games. Here’s how I have used the partial-design-by-participants approach with printed content. This activity started when I interviewed several SMEs for their technical suggestions on how to increase the reliability of ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) design. I ended up with a list of 98 ideas from six different experts. I spent a lot of time reviewing all suggestions, removing duplicates, and organizing them into logical clusters. When I finished the task, I had a well-organized list of 57 suggestions—and a deep understanding of the ASIC design flow. During the training session, rather than giving participants my well-organized list, I gave them the original disorganized list of 98 items. I asked participant teams to review the items, remove duplicates, and organize them into a logical categories. Not surprisingly, the final list from different teams were organized differently from each other and from my final list. But that did not matter because the process of working with the items gave participants a deep understanding of the content. As a follow-up activity, I distributed copies of different final lists (including mine) and invited participants to compare and contrast their logical structures.

David Meier points out that knowledge is not to be consumed by learners, but to be created by them. That principle lies at the heart of the partial-design-by-participants strategy.

Let’s help people learn by design!