Every learning designer has their own set of strategies they use when crafting learning experiences. As an enthusiastic Learning Designer, I’m constantly absorbing industry best practices and on the lookout for new creative ways of helping people learn more and better.  I pick up some principles from the learning design community (for example, the book Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen), and others I develop through my own design experiences, challenges, and successes.

Below, I have included my favorite strategies to address what I believe is arguably the most important design consideration we need to have in mind when designing meaningful learning experiences: Lesson Structure.

1. Capitalize on Natural Human Curiosity

Make the first 10 minutes of your film truly great, and the audience will likely watch the film to the end with interest. Fail to grab the audience’s attention within these first 10 minutes, and you’re more likely to lose your audience completely.

I like to think that the same analogy applies to learning. I keep that in mind when I design, and always make a concerted effort to capture the learner’s attention very early on in the learning experience. Here’s my process:

Start with a hook

The hook provides an overview, motivates the student, and doesn’t require a lot of prior knowledge.  For example, this interactive article from TheUpshot about Intergenerational Mobility in the United States doesn’t require any upfront knowledge about American sociology. The hook gets students’ attention, and it also allows students to begin developing, and then share, their personal mental models of the issue at hand.

Include varied learning environments

We want students to form a deeper understanding of concepts by interacting with content in several different “learning environments”, i.e. the way in which they’re learning. By embedding a variety of challenges or problems into lessons or modules, we can spark longer-lasting interest and increase engagement.

Challenges you include could be:

  • Implicit: Let students play within an environment, build something, test it, break it, and do it over and over again until they understand the underlying concepts. Give learners room to “play” with what they’re learning.
  • Explicit: Students can’t progress unless they have fulfilled a specific task given to them, e.g.  playing a game, solving a problem, earning a certain number of points, etc.

The ultimate secret is to get students so engaged with what they’re doing in the lesson that they learn and internalize new information naturally. This is why some instructors really appreciate gamified learning environments — it’s a way to encourage excited participation by engaging the natural instinct to win.

End with a challenge

One way to end a lesson on a high note is to design the ending so that it makes use of knowledge that was just acquired by students during the learning experience. In other words, the final exercise should be something the learner wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate just hours ago. For example, this Earth courseware from the Smart Science Initiative ends with an interactive simulation about global warming that students can only fully understand once they’ve learned about the driving forces behind it in the lessons.

2. Start Small, Build Big

A learning experience should be envisaged as a story with a natural progression. Related concepts need to be introduced in a way that makes sense and serves the defined learning objectives. Learning designers should think about the overall learning experience as a carefully crafted series of learning sequences (i.e. a succession of informational and activity screens that focus on a specific learning point).

Consider starting a lesson by feeding students simple concepts and then increasing the complexity as you go. Specifically when explaining complex concepts such as systems, models, or networks of causes and effects, learning designers should break up lessons into smaller learning chunks. By creating more digestible and flexible learning blocks, you can teach unique concepts in isolation and then later combine them to create larger, more meaningful connections.

This design pattern is very common, even often used in the video game industry. For example, in Super Mario 3D World’s level design,

they teach players how to use moves or defeat challenges small step at a time, and then slowly add more complexities, step by step, to make more complex moves or challenges. For example, they could teach you this sequence:

  • A button: Teach “jumping” in isolation
  • B button: Teach “punching” in isolation
  • A+B button: Teaches you to jump and punch at the same time.
  • C button: Teach “climbing” in isolation
  • A+C button: Teaches you to jump on a rock and climb it.

3. Tell, Show, Do, Apply

The Tell, Show, Do, Apply strategy is fairly self-explanatory. The first half is on the instructor: learners are told the important information related to a concept, and then shown examples. The second half is on the student: they perform an action to model the examples they were shown (while getting feedback from the instructor), and then apply what they’ve learned in a real-world (or simulated) environment on their own.

In this Impulse Momentum simulation, students literally get to simulate car crashes. They can pick the vehicle’s mass, size, and velocity, which are key factors when estimating damage to the vehicles and the driver. This specific simulation is used in an adaptive tutorial that started by covering (tell, show) the principles of impulse and momentum. The sim then gives students an opportunity to interact with the concepts (do, apply) they just learned firsthand; and if they play enough times, they begin to internalize the underlying dynamics at play and form longer-lasting connections.

4. Author-Guided, Player-Driven

An actor can perform lines of a play in their own unique style, but the playwright still guides the plot. A sailboat can sail anywhere it likes, but it must still follow the whims of the wind and the river. In both situations, there is a sense of freedom and discovery — which we can model in learning experiences.

Learning designers can craft lessons that provide several possible routes on their way to the meeting a learning goal. A common example is the “Choose Your Own Adventure” learning environment. Students have the freedom to decide if they’d like to go down path A, B, or C (all of which were created by the learning designer). The student gets to learn however they like, but we (as learning designers) still guide them using research-backed pedagogy, explicit goals, implicit goals, or merely an opportunity to make a choice.

5. Cognitive Gates

Paradoxically, sometimes by withholding an explanation a learning experience can be more effective. Scaffolding is commonly used in cognitive gating; it’s used to building up blocks of information in a logical manner to make sure the student doesn’t accidentally stumble across learning activities they can’t yet fully understand. Students feel properly supported throughout their learning experience, and are motivated to continue with a lesson or seek out more answers for themselves.

Talk to Learning Designers About Lesson Structure

I hope these tips gave you some ideas on how  you can structure your lesson to engage student interest and create better learning experiences.

If you’d like help with the structure of the lessons you’re designing, or have other ideas on lesson structure, our Learning Design Studio would love to talk to you. Contact us and let’s create a great experience for your students.