Harri CandyIf you’ve ever spent hours, weeks or months even creating fantastic learning resources, only for them to go down like a lead balloon, read on.
Harri Candy shares her hard earned wisdom on why learning materials can fail, and how to get them right first time.

Imagine the scene…you’ve developed some fantastic new learning materials and everyone that you’ve shown them too has given you really positive feedback. The Subject Matter Experts (SME) love the complex activities that you’ve developed and your colleagues marvel at your creativity. You’ve followed all your quality assurance processes, so you launch the course…that’s when the complaints start coming in. People can’t figure out how to work through the activities, and why is there a green polar bear on the page, and what are they expected to do with this information?

What went wrong? Everyone said they loved the materials before the launch… Well the chances are that the project ‘post mortem’ will reveal a shortcoming in the later stages in one or more of the following areas.

Whatever you choose to call this phase – pilot test/learner test/beta test – did you actually complete it? You might say ‘yes of course’, as the module was reviewed by the SMEs, my colleagues in the learning and development department and the other stakeholders. That’s great, but that’s not a pilot/learner/beta test! You need people who are not familiar with the content and have not been part of the production of it to truly test whether the materials are suitable for the wider learner population. It can be difficult to get people to offer their time to test these materials, but it is vital that they do. See if you can get the managers involved and make it a team event.

Are people giving feedback on you or your materials? We see this a lot in face to face training: people may report a more positive learning experience if they like the trainer as a person, and a more negative one if they dislike the trainer. You need to ‘divorce your course’ to get an accurate view of what people think. Use an intermediary to present your materials on your behalf; craft your feedback questions so they are entirely focused on the materials; hide the author; ask for feedback written on a form rather than given verbally. You need to put some form of barrier between yourself, the learners and the materials.

Quantify before you qualify
One of the most fantastic aspects of language is that it is unique to each individual – the words you choose, the way you say them, the emphasis you put on them, is all unique to you.  The individuality of language means that we can find ways to express ourselves in a way that we feel is true to how we feel. However, language is not one sided. We rely on others to interpret the language we use and take meaning from it. So be very careful when collecting feedback forms. Always quantify the learner’s reaction to the learning materials before you ask them to qualify it. Using a standard rating scale 1-5 for each aspect that you want them to comment on helps you (and them) to stay objective, even if the comments you receive are harshly worded. Use the scores to determine whether there is an issue with the materials, then use the comments to unpick what those issues might be.

The designer knows best
It doesn’t matter if you’ve developed the most creative and innovative activities that will test application and understanding in a deep and complex way, and that may revolutionise the way your organisation sees training – if your learners don’t ‘get it’ then it doesn’t work. After spending time developing materials it can be frustrating if others don’t see the brilliance of what you’ve created, but the learners are what matters.  Learners are not wrong. If they say the instructions were confusing, the instructions were confusing; if they struggled to see the point of an activity, you didn’t make it clear enough; if they say you need to change an image to put a jacket on a character in a sleeveless top, as they appear to be visiting a Muslim house and are therefore not respecting the culture (yes that did happen) then you put a jacket on the character in the sleeveless top. None of this should be seen as a criticism or a failing of what you have created, if you can explain and justify why you did what you did, and put in place an action plan to address learner concerns, your stakeholders will have confidence in you.

All of these comments are the result of errors we have made in the past that hindered our progress and caused our learning materials to stumble. Hopefully sharing our learning will help you to get your materials over the finishing line…and maybe overcome some of your mistakes too.

VS logoHarri Candy is Technical Training Specialist at Victim Support, an independent national charity for people affected by crime across England & Wales.