When we design a learning experience, we design a story.
Just like your favorite movie, learning experiences are stories that have a degree of intensity to them, and also a conclusion.
It seems obvious to say out loud, but learning experiences are stories that can scaffold not just what someone knows about a particular topic, but also how they feel about that topic or learning environment.
Not everyone treats it this way—hence, this post.
But looking past this seemingly obvious fact has big implications. When you think of why a business or music student would leave one university to get the same information at a different institution, it has less to do with the material and more about the learning experience; the same goes for professional development programs, which often feel more punitive and legalistic than informative and inspiring.
Sometimes we can design too much intensity into an experience and we can turn learners away. At other times there’s too little intensity and we find ourselves looking to change to a program or place or employment that’s more stimulating and challenging.
Learning experiences don’t have to be unpleasant, anxiety-inducing, boring, or insulting. Nor do they have to be over-the-top interactive comedy-laced workshops that lack depth.
It's a balance.
Think of the lesson or program you’re building as a story you’ll tell. You want it to inform, but you also want it to be valuable in ways that inspire. You want learners to want to retell the story. You want them to share not just what they accomplished or learned, but you want them to share how they learned, and to communicate why they wanted to press on.
The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman identified a psychological heuristic related to learning intensity that he called the “peak-end rule”. With this rule, we see that a person’s memory becomes the average of the peak (the most intense moment of the experience) and the end (literally, the final or most-recent moment).
This is worth thinking about before you build out any more learning objectives. When you’ve run through your first draft on your program or lesson, what is the holistic memory we want the learner to have? We’re selling ourselves short and insulting our learners if all we want them to do is to learn and apply new information. Poor learning design hurts everyone.
Asking yourself the following questions can help you refine everything about the learning experience: learning objectives, assignments, group activities, relevance, curricular cadence, grades…. You name it. Anything and everything the learner touches, sees, hears, tastes, and smells goes into figuring the average of the experiential intensity.
One thing I like to do is to reflect on my work and myself a few questions as I design curriculum and experiences:
- What do I want the learner to feel emotionally about this lesson or program a year from now?
- What’s the story my learner will tell themselves about how to use this knowledge or skill?
- What’s the most valuable thing the learner will experience in this lesson or program?
- How might I make this something that can be made vivid, dramatic, and exciting?
- How might I guide the learner to a place where they can make this relevant for themselves?
- What is the best possible way for this lesson to end? How do I leave this in a place where they’ll find it to be worth sharing with others?
Remember that learning is for the sake of the learner, not the knowledge itself. Your learner is desperate for a good story to tell.