When Learner Perceptions Are at Odds with Instructional Design Principles

A group inside of our firm started coming to me about a year ago asking for help designing their webcasts to make them more compelling. They chiefly wanted help with visual appeal so I started there, focusing on taking their text-heavy slides and trying to create visual analogs–substituting, for instance, descriptions of a process with a flowchart. I tried to focus on slides that complemented the speakers rather than competing with them, creating slides that were much lighter.

I tried to argue in favor of packaging all of that wonderful elaboration they put on the slides into a dedicated participant guide, though I couldn’t convince them that the value would be worth the development.

I didn’t notice right away that after a few webcasts, they stopped asking for help. I was dismayed to hear recently through back channels that they believed that I’d dumbed down the content too much, and had gotten that feedback from participants.

That hurt! There were a couple of things to unpack there. One: what had I done or not done that caused the group to just stop coming to me rather than having a conversation? How had I failed to build trust?

Two: I’m confident that my prescriptions were instructionally sound, but I have to take seriously the charge that what I provided didn’t match expectations. There are three possibilities here. One is that one or more of the team believed what I was doing was not in their interests, so any negative feedback they got fed a confirmation bias. Two is that I’m wrong and really did make their instruction less effective for their target population. The third is that we were both right, that while I made the instruction theoretically better, because it didn’t match the learners’ expectations, they found it distracting and thus learned less. All three possibilities are interesting to think about.


2 thoughts on “When Learner Perceptions Are at Odds with Instructional Design Principles

  1. instructionaldesign552

    A year is good amount of time and I would thing this is ample to time to build rapport with your clients. Although your prescription was instructionally sound from your perspective. How much elaboration was contributed and how often did you and your client elaborate? As a new Instructional Designer, this is just one concerns I would like to be prepared for. So, as a novice these would be a few question I would ask for myself. Are you both on the same page when it comes to elaboration? Where you given information regarding the learner? What kind of instruction, theories or methods are the clients interested in using? I appreciate your articles because it has given me a new perspective on elaboration and how working with others you may not always have a positive outcome yet you may learn and grow for the experience.

    Thank you,
    Elanna D

    1. robertmulcahy Post author

      Thank you, Elanna. In my years as an instructional designer, I’ve worked with course owners across the spectrum, from those who were happy I was there even though they didn’t know what I could do, to individuals who see instructional design as an unwelcome road block. Happily, I’ve worked with many course owners and subject matter experts who see instruction as an investment, and who realize that I can help them increase the return on that investment. We’ve developed wonderfully collaborative relationships, and learned a lot from each other. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.


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