Blog March 06, 2019

What does learner experience really mean?

- By Ioannis Lagoudakis, Training Consultant

“So, are you a trainer yourself?” I asked the person sitting next to me during the last training conference I attended. “No”, she replied. “I design learning experiences”. Pompous? Vain? Perhaps. In recent years however, there’s been a lot of discussion about “learner experience” (LE). In parallel to the ideas of “user experience” and “customer experience”, LE shifts the focus from the provider to those consuming the learning content. LE is more than attractive design. It is about identifying the needs of the learner, the relevance of the content, the channels and the time appropriate in order to help them acquire knowledge and skills when they need it and at their own pace. LE is also about a different mentality. In the conventional model of learning, the participant was amongst the ones to blame when learning did not happen. In the concept of LE, failure to learn is because either the learning goals are not relevant to the learner’s experience, or there is no concrete motive or the used tools are not right.

Why does learner experience matter?

Although the terminology may be recent, the idea is much older. Kirkpatrick’s typology (1975) - arguably the most popular model for the evaluation of training and learning - sets the reaction of the student as its first level: what the students think and feel about the training after the end of it. According to Kirkpatrick a good learning experience is expected to generate an immediate, positive emotional reaction - like curiosity, accomplishment, and a sense that the people who created the experience understand the learner, his needs, challenges and aspirations - in other words that they “care” about him.

What to look for nowadays

Never before a learner has had so many learning options available at a small cost or even free: MOOCs, online video tutorials, learning apps, podcasts etc. The learning process has been democratized and it is understandable that many classroom learners look for experiences similar to what they can encounter every day online and on their mobile, as they want to learn instantly and fast.

On the contrary, many employees are asked to attend a training course no matter what they think of their own development needs. In the last “Time Management” program I ran, the participants were happy with the facilitation and the material, they confirmed that they found it interesting and fun, but “Time Management? No, what we need in our company are more people!”

In order to satisfy the contemporary learner either in a classroom, during a blended training or when designing an e-learning program, some elements are required. They are especially important when participants aren’t taking the training course voluntarily:

• Efficiency: information limited to what is necessary to support learning activities and performance
• Clarity regarding content and instructions
• Relevance to team and individual goals
• Grabbing the learner’s attention by providing the right context and interaction
• Overall a positive experience

Blended learning offers more opportunities through a variety of features, such as social-media interactions, in-class interactions, asynchronous learning and different touch points. Participants can fit the learning into their busy days. They have one place to go to access the content and prepare for the live sessions, they have opportunities to engage and share ideas with peers, practice skills like feedback and reflect on their personal style.

A word of caution

Learner’s experience is not always the ultimo criterion. A good example is spaced and interleaved practice. Spaced practice is inserting periods of practice between different modules, while interleaved learning asks participants to practice X and then Z and then Y and then X again. Both practices aim at strengthening retention of knowledge and behavioural change (levels 2 and 3 in Kirkpatrick’s model). However, some participants feel differently. They find the practices “confusing” and “difficult”. Another common example is the explicit or the intuitive request for trainers to be “performers”. The assumption in both cases is that learning has to be easy and fun.

So, a word of caution for learning professionals: Learner’s needs are important but learners’ intuitions do not always agree with science. In my opinion, learning experience is here to democratize the process, not to overrun it. My advice: “Respect the “happy feedback sheets” and listen to your learning expert.”


Evaluating Training Programmes (1975), Donald L Kirckpatrick

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