Is Training the Solution?

Any time a client says “we need a training solution,” my internal alarms start to go off. The first question I ask (internally) is, “will training fix the problem?” Sometimes the answer will be yes, other times it will be no. It’s harder when the answer is no, but who wants to develop a training program that doesn’t solve the real problems? Been there, done that.

What Can Training Do?

By itself, training can’t fix a company’s culture, people’s motivation, or the environment. Training is really only meant to address a gap in people’s knowledge or skills. By conducting a needs analysis, one can start to get a sense of what that gap is, and possibly how to close the gap. Maybe the issue is a combination of a culture problem and a knowledge gap. In this case, it’s best to address the non-training related issue first, so the training can actually be about the knowledge gap. Other times, the gap will be entirely non-training related. The solution could involve something like a change in process or communication strategy.

What Does Training Do?

Cathy Moore developed this amazing infographic to help designers figure out if training really is the solution. There’s a corresponding video that’s equally as wonderful:

A needs analysis will often result in many different factors affecting people’s current performance. As instructional designers, it’s important to identify the problems and zero in on the solutions that training can actually solve. This way, you are clear with the client from the start about how the training will solve a business need related to generating revenue, maintaining revenue, or meeting compliance standards. If the solution doesn’t meet one of these objectives, it probably isn’t training related (Carliner, 2015).

How Can We Connect to Performance?

I recently had an “aha” moment in my Program Design course. If the training is related to performance (for example, you want employees to increase the total number of widgets sold next year), there needs to be connections to performance outside the formal training experience.

It sounds obvious, but I think this is often the missing link in the L&D world. We provide all these wonderful training scenarios and practice opportunities, but then what happens when they leave the training classroom or online portal? What if, instead, they had a follow up knowledge check, or a challenge sent to them, or a new component added to their performance review? And what if it actually meant something? I think we would start to see real performance changes as opposed to a “one and done” training solution. Plus, real adult learning happens when learners can transfer their learning to their jobs.

If we use the flowchart and acknowledge that training could address the real issue, I have one strategy that could help offer this wrap-around approach.

3 Cubed Solution

I learned this strategy from a company called xPan. After training, they follow up with learners 3 different ways, 3 different times: 3 days after the event, 3 weeks, and then 3 months. The beauty is, they build this out so it’s delivered automatically to attendees. The check in can be as simple as providing a scenario and letting learners choose the most appropriate solution, sending a smiley or frown-y face for learners to assess their understanding of a concept, or something a little more complex. It’s a great way to check in with learners, trigger their memories, and prod them to apply what they learned.


Carliner, S. (2015). Training design basics (2nd ed.). ATD Press: Alexandria, VA.

Caution image taken from

Moore, C. (2013, May 7). Is training really the answer? Ask the flowchart [Web page]. Retrieved from

An Interesting Story Structure

A murder mystery article slides into my inbox one afternoon. Sent by my manager. Curious, I click into the article and am immediately mesmerized. It’s one of those long-form, scrolling news articles that weaves in audio, video, and graphics. It’s a work of art.

I can’t read it all at work, so I send it to my personal email to read later. It’s an exceptionally well-written article named Murder, Lies, and a Missing Deer Head. I can hardly wait to chat about it with my manager the next day. I am so caught up in the “Can you believe?!” of the story, that I hardly notice its structure. Thankfully, my manager fills me in. He calls the story structure a “chiasmus.” I remember thinking “it’s a what-us?!”

Let me explain.

Chiasmus Story Structure

Right at the beginning of the article, there are three lines that immediately stand out to introduce a family murder that took place in 2013:  

The crunch and pop of truck tires on a frozen road.

A dog barking.

A gunshot.

Makes your hair stand on end, right? These lines begin the story, but they aren’t immediately explained. You don’t realize they are clues until you find out that the son and his friend worked together to kill the family (sorry, late spoiler alert). The two lines toward the end of the article explain what happened to induce the gunshot after the family was murdered:

When Keela [the dog] came snarling and growling, Josh shot her, too.

They left Gordon’s truck by the Battle River, then Jason drove Josh back to Castor, leaving him in the dark just outside town.

They are the reverse order of the lines from the beginning of the article, making it a chiasmus. Again, let me explain.

The Story Structure

The way this story is written is called a chiasmus or ring structure because it follows this pattern: ABC…CBA

The beginning concepts or ideas (ABC) precede the thesis/main events of the story (…), and then the concepts are repeated in reverse order toward the end (CBA). In the beginning of the news article, we are given a couple sentences and find out there was a gunshot. Following that, we find out the events that led to the gunshot. Then we are told of the fallout after the gun shot. The chiasmus structure blends these elements together in a fascinating way, forcing the reader to pay attention and connect the dots themselves.

In biblical times, this story structure was quite common. You can see its impact on religious texts such as the Quran. It is a structure well suited for oral storytelling, because it would help orators remember the order and detail of events while presenting a dramatic story.

But it’s also a structure well suited for the digital age. More and more, we see the roots of oral storytelling making a comeback online. By incorporating different media and using oral story structures to make the story “sticky,” we can connect with our audience. We can help them circle back to concepts and keep them interested the whole way through.

My Experience with Chiasmus

I practiced using the chiasmus structure in a Behaviour-Based Safety course I am developing. In one of the modules, we cover the importance of participating in safety culture on the work site. I’ve been researching how companies are inspiring their employees to think about making safer choices while completing their assigned duties. One idea that stuck with me is to relate safety on the work site to their everyday lives.

I started to think of an everyday scenario that would resonate with my female audience. I pictured a hectic morning, a young mother trying to get her kids organized and dropped off before work. This is a situation many women could relate to. I set up the story with these two lines:

All is quiet in the house, except for the faint giggles of a small child learning to test her boundaries.

The smell of burned toast wafts its way through the air.

Then the main events of the day unfold. The main protagonist, Malia, gets to the work site and has to deal with a bunch of typical work stuff. But, she also has to deal with an unsafe situation on the work site by coming to terms with the awkward reality of what it feels like to speak up when no one else will. She makes it through the day, realizing that she makes the choices she does to keep herself and others safe, so they can all go home to their families in one piece. This message isn’t necessarily spelled out, but reinforced when she’s back at home and then the next morning experiences the same events she did the previous morning:

The smell of burned toast wafts it way through the air.

All is quiet in the house, except for the faint giggles of a small child learning to test her boundaries.

It’s not necessary to repeat the same lines for a chasmic structure, but I liked the repetition. I also think it points to the idea that many days are monotonous and routine. On work sites, the repetition of tasks can lead to complacency and the rise of incidents. There are a lot of parallels to Malia’s home life and her work life, which I tried to show through different ways she keeps her kids, her co-workers and herself safe. The ring structure just helped me do it in an interesting way.

Helpful Resources

After learning about the chiasmus, I realized there are tons of other story structures I probably don’t know about! And they can be really interesting ways to tell stories to adult learners, who don’t need everything spelled out for them, but probably appreciate the aspect of using story to learn key concepts. The hero’s journey is getting a little overdone, so it’s good to branch out and see what else is out there!

Here are a few I found:


Bible image from Unsplash:

United Way’s Poverty Simulation

After reviewing our curriculum, the team and I realized we were reflecting a certain kind of learner. One who represented our worldview more than the diverse learners we see in the classroom every day. We needed inspiration. We needed to see what other organizations were doing to incorporate different perspectives and ways of learning. I’m excited to share one step we took, which was attending United Way’s Poverty Simulation.  

The Simulation

The simulation was designed for people to experience what it is like to live in poverty. As someone who has never lived in poverty or been through a similar simulation, I had no idea what to expect. It ended up being one of the best hands-on learning experiences I have ever participated in. I didn’t just learn new ways to teach; I had experiences that changed my perspective of poverty.

When participants arrive, they sign in and are randomly given a character to “be” for the day. I was a young mother with a disabled child. I lived with my father and grandmother, and we shared expenses and responsibilities. We learned this by exploring the package we were given at our seats. Inside the package, we had some money, bus tickets, SINs, and information about our current living expenses.

Participants sit with their families in the middle of the room. Along the room’s perimeter are volunteers who are in charge of different services (school, employment, social services, pawn shop, government agency, child care, etc.). The host welcomes everyone and provides a brief description of the simulation. You aren’t given much information before the simulation begins. Every 15 minutes is equivalent to a week in “real life.” And let me tell you, those minutes go fast and slow all at the same time.

My family couldn’t get food until the third week. Something always came up. Forget about going to community college or getting a paycheque. I spent most of my time trying to figure out child care, and when that didn’t work out, I had to leave him at home by himself. I felt forced to make uncomfortable decisions, and I was seriously in a cold sweat 99% of the time. The pressure was real! Random people walked around selling “drugs” (i.e., splenda packets) and there were even robbers. It was terrifying because you never knew what you were coming home to.

The Experience

I still can’t believe the impact of the simulation. Of course, I will never understand poverty the way people who live in real poverty do. But the experience gave me empathy and a better sense of what people in poverty experience every day. One of the best parts of the experience was the breakout discussions and the room host.

After the simulation ended, the families got into groups of about 20 people. A volunteer led the discussion, which was so powerful! Afterwards, we all got together (there were hundreds of us), and the room host went into more depth about the power of the experience we just shared. Some people shared their experience of living in poverty, or stories they had heard.

Up until that point, I had found the entire simulation energizing. My blood was bumping and adrenaline peaked. But afterwards, I felt completely exhausted. I couldn’t believe how much the experience influenced me somatically. It was all I could do to go home and process the morning’s events.

The Takeaways

It would be an amazing experience to design a simulation one day. But that doesn’t mean I can’t incorporate some of the lessons I learned from that day to the present:

  • Understand where learners are starting. I realized that in some of our financial literacy courses, we share strategies that don’t apply to learners. In the poverty simulation, I liked that the organizers didn’t assume we knew anything about poverty. They also didn’t over-explain. Instead, they just let us try things out and learn from our choices. It would be interesting to give our learners an opportunity to “build” the curriculum. Are there financial concepts most people are interested in and are relevant to where they are in life? Why not start there to make learning relevant?
  • Connect learning to real life. Any content can become stale, but e-Learning especially can become cooke cutter and dry very easily. Even though I have never lived in poverty, I still had background knowledge on most services available at the simulation. And when I didn’t know something, I had a team to answer my questions. I’m going to work on building shared understanding among learners by not dominating the conversation (or the screen) with content.
  • “Guide” students and debrief when necessary. I loved that the simulation had a host for the room. When she did share stories and research, it didn’t feel intrusive. It felt like the perfect time to share and debrief. People were ready to ask questions, and if they weren’t, they could bring them up during the breakout discussions. Having these opportunities to reflect were really important, and I think would strengthen my curriculum.
  • Don’t do the learning for students. We discredit learners when we try to learn and process for them. We may also assume they are processing the same way we are, and have the same ideas about the topic. It is far more interesting and enlightening to support learners in their self-discovery.

This is all I can think of for now, but I know that I learned so much more. Sometimes the most impactful experiences are the ones we can’t quite put into words.


Train Image from

Make Photos Great Again

Picking a photo to accompany learning can be a straightforward process. It basically involves searching for it, scrolling quickly past the clip art, finding the right fit, downloading the jpeg or png (just copying a photo takes up more space!), making edits, and inserting the photo just so.  

When I first began in the industry, I thought it was that simple. It was only after I started reading books by Nancy Duarte and Connie Malamed, and finding hidden gems like Echo Rivera’s blog, that I understood how images can convey powerful messages. And if we’re not careful, we can convey unintended messages that turn away existing and potential learners. In this post, I’ll share a helpful tool that helps expose cognitive biases and find photos that fit the context of the message.

The Chart

Sometimes, the best tools are the simplest tools. In this case, all you need is a word processor or a pen and paper to create a tool that will transform your practice, as it did when my manager first shared this strategy with me. First, create three columns. Label the left side “What does the visual communicate?,” the middle “Positive,” and the far right column “Negative.”

The following method works for any type of delivery method with visuals. Here’s what you want to do. Look at one photo at a time. As you look at the photo, consider what the visual communicates. Maybe it’s teamwork, strategy, dedication, or transformation. Then consider if the image is communicating a positive or negative message about the subject. Make a checkmark or note to yourself in the appropriate column.

For example, I surveyed an online course to practice using the chart. The first few images were of men on the construction site. This didn’t seem too peculiar, until I reached the end of the course and realized only two women were pictured in the entire course. In one instance, the narrator talks about an accident that happened on site. Pictured is an older, white man confronting a younger female. This probably seems harmless. But since this was only one of two photos with women pictured, and it’s one of the only times an accident is discussed, it communicates a negative message about women being on the job site. It also creates an unnecessary power dynamic between men and women.

So What?

As you are selecting photos and considering how they fit into your project, use the chart to consider what the visual conveys about the subject. (A good time to do this is during storyboarding!) Consider the audio and any other cues that may shape that message. In certain learning scenarios, you may need to share a negative situation. But it’s important to consider the visual representation of how that message is communicated (especially more than once.) Does it reinforce old stereotypes? Does it “other” certain people?

A good strategy is to use the chart as you collect photos, and then at the end when the project has come together. And remember, we all have cognitive biases. Most times, we’re not even aware they exist. Using tools like this simple chart helps make those biases become visible and consider what we are actually saying through the visual.

Final Thoughts

Sharing the chart with people who will be reviewing your product is a good idea. It can be an awkward thing when you realize you’ve unintentionally conveyed a negative message. But that’s why we iterate and test products before we launch! Be open to the process, and your visual design will be better for it.

Also, don’t over rely on stock photos (pictured above) because you’re scared to make a mistake. Challenge yourself to share visual metaphors and other ways that communicate an idea in interesting ways!


Fist Bump Image from

How Long Does it Take to Build eLearning?

Have you ever been in a meeting, and someone asks the dreaded question, “So how long will this project take?” Of course you have. We all have. As instructional designers, we often feel “put on the spot,” like we have to answer the question immediately. Sometimes before we have clearly defined the objectives, project scope, budget, resources, and so on!

This is a mistake. As Julia Roberts would say in Pretty Woman, “Big mistake. Huge!” And while I can’t offer the silver bullet solution that will allow you to confidently answer this question every single time, I can offer some research. And a few tips and strategies to handle this question in the future.

“How Long Will this Take?”

I know this isn’t like everyone’s experience, but when I worked at a university, I was the instructional and graphic designer, researcher, and subject matter expert (SME) all rolled into one. In my current role, one significant thing has changed. I’m usually not the SME, unless I am designing instructional content. Industry partners, internal staff, and people in the field are now my SMEs.

When I worked at the university, I could reasonably lay out my schedule and switch things around if a project took just a little longer than I expected. To be honest, I had never really given much thought to “how long something will take.” Since I was usually the SME for writing and peer mentorship, I could take care of the research on my own schedule.

Now, that’s all changed. SMEs lead busy lives. They like to know when they need to provide input and content, review curriculum, etc. Project managers like to stay on schedule and know where the project is standing. So when people in a meeting ask “How long will this take,” they really do expect an answer.

What the Research Says

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to a crystal ball that dictates exactly how long a project will take. All projects differ to some degree, even if you have worked on a similar project in the past. However, in 2010, Chapman designed a research study to study how long eLearning really takes. I have found the research to be very useful, especially when explaining to clients (roughly) how long a project will take.

As you can see below, Chapman found that the average eLearning project takes roughly 43-490 hours to complete. For every ONE hour of eLearning! When I first came across this research, I could hardly believe it. But when I stopped to think, it made a lot of sense. It takes time to design and deliver a needs assessment, interview SMEs, schedule meetings, build and test prototypes, get feedback…*finger cramp*

When I have shared this research in client meetings, people’s eyes have literally bulged. They had no idea it took *this* long. But I think it’s important to share with people real expectations for building online curriculum. Personally, I think it’s pretty on par to build f2f curriculum, but it could be a bit lower. The point is not to scare clients with this number, but to ground the conversation and manage expectations by saying: “In the industry, research says it will take approximately _____ long to build _____. This could change depending on our direction, but it can help us gain a sense of how to build out the project.”

I kept track of how long it took me to build my last two projects, and Chapman’s numbers were fairly accurate! I’d encourage keeping track of how long it takes you to build curriculum, because then you will feel more confident using the research.

Other Strategies

Show a sample: Aside from discussing research, I also like to show people samples of previous work. Let’s say they are interested in creating an Articulate Storyline learning object. If you have built something similar, you can pull up the project and say “This took me _____ to build. I anticipate it would be a similar number for this project.” This way, you can explain why it takes that amount of time to produce a learning object. Seeing is believing!

Create a SWOT analysis: Considering the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to a project can be a useful exercise. There will be threats that no one can control, but at least by identifying them and considering mitigation, we can develop a project with clear expectations and timelines that help keep the project on track.

Share the “Quality Triangle”: Explain that the quality of the project is most important. Aspects such as time, money, and scope impact the quality. If the project scope changes, then time and money need to be considered. If people suggest big changes midway through a project, it can be useful to show this triangle and share what needs to change to ensure the quality is not diminished. How will one of the factors, which may include time, be influenced?

Work backwards: If the project is already on a tight deadline, start from the end and work to where you are at now. If the client is asking for a product that is unreasonable given the deadline, you can show that by mapping backwards to what you would have already needed to complete at this starting point.

Put the question on pause: Sometimes we feel like we have to have all the answers during an initial meeting. The point of this meeting is usually to discuss the preliminaries, not to hammer out all the details! If you feel put on the spot, say “I need a few days to consider how long it will take to build ____. I may need to consult ______ on a few items. I’d feel comfortable circling back on ____, so we can ensure our time expectations align.”  

These are just a few strategies to get you started–hope you enjoy!


Brainstorming Image from

Chapman’s Research from

Quality Triangle Image from the University of Glasgow:

What I Learned from Orange Theory: A Lesson on Motivation

I began taking Orange Theory workout classes at the beginning of 2018. My goal was to get in a bit of shape. Little did I know how much they would transform my view of motivation and learning.

The First Class

I’ll be honest. My first Orange Theory class was pretty rough. I got a stitch in my side about 30 seconds into running on the treadmill. (The treadmill block usually lasts 25 minutes.) Then I didn’t know the proper rowing technique. Then I had to receive a lot of adjustments during the weight training block. Thankfully, the class motivator was super encouraging and didn’t make me feel bad about being slow as a tortoise.

The Theory

Orange Theory’s claim to fame is their heart rate monitor system. People wear the monitor around their stomach or wrist. This monitor provides data including heart rate, calories burned, and number of splat points. It’s encouraged that people earn at least 12 splat points per class. The more splat points, the greater number of calories burned for a longer time. All of this information is displayed next to your name in a block on a tv screen. Your block changes color depending on how hard your heart is working. The more times your block turns orange, the more splat points you earn. The red block signals people to slow down.

The whole class, I worked my buns off. Yet, I couldn’t make it to the orange zone. I would watch my block turn from grey to blue and then green. Then it would just stop. And I didn’t earn a single splat point. I felt a bit discouraged after that first class. I had never sweat that much during a workout in my life! The next class, I reasoned, would be better.

10 more classes, and I still couldn’t make it to the orange zone or earn a single splat point. I nearly vomited one class when a new motivator realized I was the only one without any splat points and pushed me too hard. After that class, I decided not to wear my monitor anymore. I haven’t worn it since.

A few months later, the company announced they were changing their formula so the monitors would display more realistic data. OT realized some of the numbers were making people like myself work too hard. They probably also realized it was super discouraging.

What Now?

To this day, I really enjoy the classes. I love challenging myself and having an encouraging coach there to help with my form. I don’t think about my calories or splat points, but I can see how this could be encouraging for others. Even though there’s a new monitor formula, I still feel burned by the whole experience. It took a long time to believe that I was capable of doing a killer workout, despite the contrary (misleading) data.

This was a huge lesson for me. The inability to earn splat points left me discouraged about my abilities. And then it struck me that many learners probably feel this way, especially when they are novices. As an instructional designer, we have a lot of power. We design the learning experiences for students, and sometimes we include systems that may be more demotivating than motivating. What can we do? Here is my brainstorming on the topic…

  1. Get feedback early and often, especially from students. Are they motivated by the way content is presented? Is there a system in place that rewards students for certain things? Do they like it?
  2. Recognize that not everyone is motivated by the same things. Consider encouraging students in multiple different ways such as direct feedback, personal messages, etc. Find out early on how learners are motivated and then tailor curriculum when appropriate.
  3. Have students provide feedback during the experience. Do they experience certain pain points that decrease motivation? Why?


Orange Theory image from Wikimedia Commons:

A Lesson on Productivity

As a designer and teacher, I love the thrill from a flash of inspiration. Here is one of those moments…

How Do you Teach Productivity?

The last couple days, I have been shadowing a facilitator to learn how she delivers instruction so that I can support her and the team with future curriculum builds. It’s been one of the best experiences I’ve had as an instructional designer. I’ve gotten to know the students and better understand the struggles of teaching in this context. I should have done it a lot sooner.

But, here I am! The first day, the facilitator covered topics including work ethic and absenteeism. After I had finished shadowing her, she shared with me an idea. She had heard of another facilitator using a paper bridge-building activity for students to learn the qualities of productivity. But she wasn’t exactly sure about the logistics, and the other facilitator was no longer employed there. Since our students are entering the trades, she wanted to emphasize that working productively takes time, effort, feedback, and many other factors. The point is to approach a task by working cooperatively and asking questions when needed to produce the most efficient results. *Cue lightbulb moment*

The First Try

After some discussion, we mapped out how we could “teach” productivity with minimal lecturing. I wrote a lesson plan in lightning speed (when motivation strikes, it strikes!) so she could review the plan before class the next day. Below is the first draft:

I designed the lesson plan very simply. In the past, lesson plans were designed for the training team. The team doesn’t use them because they didn’t have input and now find the plans difficult to read. I could tell the lesson plans were created with NAIT’s templates, which I quite like. But I stripped away some of the clutter, and focused on the basics.

I am a big fan of William Horton’s mantra for designing e-learning lessons (which I believe applies to any lesson): “Absorb, Do, Connect.” When I designed the lesson, I focused on 1) information students would need to absorb the learning experience, 2) an activity that put learning in students’ hands, and 3) a method for connecting and reflecting on the experience of using different skills they would need in the workplace.

Reflecting on the Lesson

I’m happy to report that students really enjoyed creating the bridge structures, and the facilitator and I had a blast supporting the learning experience. It might sound strange that pre-trades students are spending time “crafting,” but it’s these types of hands-on experiences that put theory to practice. Why not give students an opportunity to practice soft skills in a low-stakes environment?

We tweaked a couple minor things in class. After, we reflected on the lesson, and I made some adjustments. Here is the revised version:

What I like most is that the lesson incorporates game elements (time limit, restriction of materials, competition) while instilling cooperation and play. Many of the students had never worked with their group members, so it was a good opportunity for students to work with students who they don’t naturally gravitate toward.

Here are the four finished products:

It was difficult for most students to provide constructive feedback to their peers, but I think this was a good opportunity to practice!

Final Thoughts

In my initial planning, I thought it would take students 15 minutes to build the bridges. I’m glad we changed that number to 30 minutes before the class started. This lesson took a solid hour and a half. While this might sound like a long time, we covered so many concepts and hands-on skills in this block!

Once again, this affirms that it’s more important to design a learning experience than cover content. To be honest, students won’t really remember the content. But they will remember what it felt like to connect with their peers, give and receive feedback, be vulnerable and share their ideas, and contribute to a team to finish something. The process was as important as the final product!

Finally, I’m so glad that I sat down once again with the facilitator after I adjusted the lesson plan. We changed a few points, and made sure each point was as clear as possible, so that someone who had never taught this lesson could do so by themselves. It’s clear to me that designing something isn’t enough. Buy-in and being included in the process are musts!

For Next Time

  1. After reading Cult of Pedagogy’s post on discussion strategies, I realized the “discussion” aspect of my lesson plan is lacking direction. It’s important to consider how all students can contribute to the conversation, and also consider strategies ahead of time so the facilitator doesn’t end up discussing the topic for students. I like that I applied reflective writing in the lesson, but next time I would consider adding a discussion strategy from the link above. This would help avoid fisheye syndrome.