What prevents people in the learning-and-performance field from utilizing proven instructional-design knowledge?

This is an update to an old newsletter post I wrote about in 2002. Most of it is still relevant, but I’ve learned a thing or two in the last few years.

Back in 2002, I spoke with several very experienced learning-and-performance consultants who have each—in their own way—asked the question above. In our discussions, we’ve considered several options, which I’ve flippantly labeled as follows:

  1. They don’t know it. (They don’t know what works to improve instruction.)
  2. They know it, but the market doesn’t care.
  3. They know it, but they’d rather play.
  4. They know it, but don’t have the resources to do it.
  5. They know it, but don’t think it’s important.

Argument 1.
They don’t know it. (They don’t know what works to improve instruction.)
Let me make this concrete. Do people in our field know that meaningful repetitions are probably our most powerful learning mechanism? Do they know that delayed feedback is usually better than immediate feedback? That spacing learning over time facilitates retention. That it’s important to increase learning and decrease forgetting? That interactivity can either be good or bad, depending on what we’re asking learners to retrieve from memory? One of my discussants suggested that "everyone knows this stuff and has known it since Gagne talked about it in the 1970’s."

Argument 2.
They know it, but the market doesn’t care.
The argument: Instructional designers, trainers, performance consultants and others know this stuff, but because the marketplace doesn’t demand it, they don’t implement what they know will really work. This argument has two variants: The learners don’t want it or the clients don’t want it.

Argument 3.
They know it, but they’d rather play.
The argument: Designers and developers know this stuff, but they’re so focused on utilizing the latest technology or creating the snazziest interface, that they forget to implement what they know.

Argument 4.
They know it, but don’t have the resources to use it.
The argument: Everybody knows this stuff, but they don’t have the resources to implement it correctly. Either their clients won’t pay for it or their organizations don’t provide enough resources to do it right.

Argument 5.
They know it, but don’t think it’s important.
The argument: Everybody knows this stuff, but instructional-design knowledge isn’t that important. Organizational, management, and cultural variables are much more important. We can instruct people all we want, but if managers don’t reward the learned behaviors, the instruction doesn’t matter.

My Thoughts In Brief

First, some data. On the Work-Learning Research website we provide a 15-item quiz that presents people with authentic instructional-design decisions. People in the field should be able to answer these questions with at least some level of proficiency. We might expect them to get at least 60 or 70% correct. Although web-based data-gathering is loaded with pitfalls (we don’t really know who is answering the questions, for example), here’s what we’ve found so far: On average, correct responses are running at about 30%. Random guessing would produce 20 to 25% correct. Yes, you’ve read that correctly—people are doing a little bit better than chance. The verdict: People don’t seem to know what works and what doesn’t in the way of instructional design.

Some additional data. Our research on learning and performance has revealed that learning can be improved through instruction by up to 220% by utilizing appropriate instructional-design methods. Many of the programs out there do not utilize these methods.

Should we now ignore the other arguments presented above? No, there is truth in them. Our learners and clients don’t always know what will work best for them. Developers will always push the envelope and gravitate to new and provocative technologies. Our organizations and our clients will always try to keep costs down. Instruction will never be the only answer. It will never work without organizational supports.

What should we do?

We need to continue our own development and bolster our knowledge of instructional-design. We need to gently educate our learners, clients, and organizations about the benefits of good instructional design and good organizational practices. We need to remind technology’s early adopters to remember our learning-and-performance goals. We need to understand instructional-design tradeoffs so that we can make them intelligently. We need to consider organizational realities in determining whether instruction is the most appropriate intervention. We need to develop instruction that will work where it is implemented. We need to build our profession so that we can have a greater impact. We need to keep an open mind and continue to learn from our learners, colleagues, and clients, and from the research on learning and performance.

New Thoughts in 2006

All the above suggestions are worthy, but I have two new answers as well. First, people like me need to do a much better job (me included) communicating research-based ideas. We need to figure out where the current state of knowledge stands and work the new information into that tapestry in a way that makes sense to our audiences. We also have to avoid heavy-handedness in sharing research-based insights, as we must realize that research is not the only means of moving us toward more effective learning interventions.

Secondly, I have come to believe that sharing research-based information like this is not enough. If the field doesn’t get better feedback loops into our instructional-design-and-development systems, then nothing much will improve over time, even with the best information presented in the most effective ways.