What is good design for leadership development programs? And does modality matter?

By Erin Rondinella and Grace Chang, Ph.D. - September 09, 2020

Given the ongoing need for virtual learning programs, our initial intention was to focus on the elements of what makes good design for virtual leadership development. However, as we thought more about it, it became evident that the basic principles of good learning design are true regardless of whether it’s for an in-person program or a virtual program. The fact is, good design IS good design. This is not to say that virtual programs are exactly the same as in-person programs. We recognize that there are unique challenges to developing and facilitating an effective virtual program. In this blog, we discuss what is important to consider regardless of modality and why it is important from a neuroscience perspective. We’ll also take it one step further to discuss what is distinct about virtual learning and how that influences the design of leadership development programs.

At a high level, there are three fundamental design tips that will help develop an effective learning experience regardless of whether it is in-classroom or virtual.

  • Start with the end in mind. Make sure you have clear and meaningful learning objectives by identifying what you want the learner to know and be able to do at the end of the program. Establishing strong outcomes sets the foundation for the design. You should regularly check your design decisions against these objectives.
  • Map out the high-level end-to-end experience early on and iterate on an ongoing basis. Early in the design process, think through the holistic program experience at a high level to ensure that different aspects fit together and meet the intended objectives. As you get into the details, pressure test your design with others and improve your design with what you have learned from the pressure test.  
  • Always design with the target participant in mind. Who are they? What do they care about? What are their challenges? What learning is most beneficial to them? It is important to create user personas of the target participant and use the personas to influence content design.

Although these tips may seem straight-forward, it takes deliberate effort to do these things and do them well. We’ve all seen lack-luster design because of vague learning objectives or because the personas weren’t clearly identified. These tips are just a snapshot. Read on for more information on what makes good design, good.

DESIGN FOR THE OVERALL EXPERIENCE

  • Provide clarity. While providing clarity to learners is important regardless of the modality, it is especially important in a virtual environment. This is because learners tend to experience more uncertainty when they aren’t physically sitting amongst peers or directly in front of the facilitator. In a virtual setting, participants need to rely on technology. Since our brains naturally seek certainty, uncertainty can detract from the learning by preventing learners from fully focusing on the material. It can even cause learners to feel resistance towards virtual learning because it feels more difficult or unwieldy. To relieve some uncertainty, the learning experience should:
    • Explicitly state the learning objectives for the program and how the program will help learners achieve these objectives at the beginning.
    • Have very clear instructions and best practices for using the technology employed during the program.
    • Employ time cues and visual cues throughout the program to help guide learners and provide extra clarity.

Additional ways to relieve uncertainty and set up an effective learning environment will be discussed in the next blog on facilitation.

  • Utilize technology effectively. Technological tools (e.g., polling or design tools like Conceptboard) can be useful in any learning experience, but these tools are especially helpful in a virtual environment. These tools help to sustain the engagement and interaction between participants and the facilitator. However, designers have to be mindful about how they incorporate these tools into the learning experience. Otherwise, they risk creating too many competing cognitive demands on learners. Too many tools or switching tools too often can pull the participant out of the experience. Technology tools should enable, not hinder, the learning. It is also important to ensure the chosen webinar technology (Zoom, WebEx, etc.) is easy to use and doesn’t distract from the learning. The addition of a producer role is crucial in a virtual setting. The producer can monitor that the technology runs smoothly and address issues related to the technology, which allows the facilitator to focus on the content and delivering a good learning experience for participants.
  • Consider how group size impacts the learning experience. For in-person programs, the number of participants is typically driven by program needs. However, we’ve noticed a tendency to want to include larger audiences in virtual programs than what is typical in an in-person setting. While technology makes it possible for a virtual program to reach a very large audience all at once, that doesn’t mean it makes for the best learning experience. When the group size is too large, there is less participant accountability, and it is more difficult for the facilitator to have a strong connection with participants.

DESIGN FOR ENGAGEMENT

  • Make sure participants can answer WIIFM (What’s in it for me). Not only can presenting learning objectives early help ease uncertainty, but it also provides an opportunity for participants to answer what’s in it for me. Neuroscience research shows that people think a lot about themselves and care greatly about things that impact them. So, consider how you can make the learning personally relevant or even personalize the experience for the learner. Participants will more likely pay attention when they think something is applicable and useful to them. Neuroscience research has shown that people need to pay attention in order to learn. It is also true that when participants see how the learning is relevant to them, they are more likely to experience deeper levels of processing and can better retain information.
  • Vary the type of activities. Activity variance is important in design, so participants don’t get bored or lackadaisical. Activities should be varied, appropriate, and meaningful for the learning goals. However, avoid activity whiplash. Too much variation can not only confuse participants but can also result in too much cognitive effort trying to figure out the activity, ultimately detracting from the actual learning. When considering activity variation, think about how you can immerse participants in the experience. There are many different types of immersive experiences. Here are a few:
    • virtual or in-person simulations
    • role playing activities that provoke honest reactions and feedback
    • perspective taking activities
    • scenario planning real business problems
  • Vary the intensity of activities. The cognitive intensity of activities should be considered. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), the brain area that is important for critical thinking, needs breaks to function at its best and should be considered when designing. Similarly, designers should be mindful of the emotions elicited at different points of the learning program. One way to do this is to map participants’ expected emotions at each point in the program to make sure that the experience has a balance of emotional highs and lows.
  • Capture attention at the beginning of each day. It can be difficult to keep the engagement high across multiple days of a learning program, especially when the program is virtual. Consider creative ways to capture participants’ attention at the beginning of each day. Here are some ideas:
    • An engaging icebreaker
    • An impactful “call to action” video message from leadership in their organization
    • A challenge (e.g., a change in a case study they are working on)
    • A relevant story related to the learning

DESIGN FOR OPTIMAL LEARNING

  • Scaffold and reinforce the learning. Participants learn best when learning is scaffolded and spaced out over time. Building a basic foundation of knowledge and then incrementally layering more can prevent learners from feeling overwhelmed, which causes cognitive shutdown. Scaffolding fosters a strong foundation of knowledge and skills that can be further developed and reinforced over time. For example, during a multi-day workshop, participants should acquire foundational knowledge and then have opportunities to apply and practice knowledge on real-business problems. Even more important, is that the learning doesn’t stop once the workshop ends. Consider having a quarterly session with participants to reinforce learning concepts and to allow them to showcase how skills have been applied in their day-to-day work.
  • Challenge your learners. Beyond learning new information, most leadership development programs also strive to drive behavioral change in their participants. This requires that participants’ current thinking and behavioral habits are challenged. One way we challenge learners’ existing thinking and behaviors is through simulation. Simulated real-world situations and experiences enable learners to realize their typical thinking and decisions don’t always result in the outcomes they expected.
  • Provide opportunities to reflect and generate insights. Rather than informing learners of key takeaways, encourage learners to generate their own insights when possible. In order to do this, designers have to create space for reflection and opportunities to jot down key ideas, so that participants can expand on those ideas.

DESIGN FOR EFFECTIVENESS, NOT TIMING

  • Make learning a priority. In a virtual setting, there is often an emphasis on shortening the learning time in order to “keep participants engaged.” One concern with this approach is that shortening the learning time can lessen the value the learner puts on a program. While it is difficult to commit to full days of a multi-day in-person workshop, the commitment makes the workshop seem more important and, in a sense, gives participants the permission to turn away non-critical daily tasks so they can focus on the program. When learners know they have to get back to work after a short virtual session, it makes it difficult to focus completely on the learning session, especially across multiple days. Not only is it cognitively difficult to shift between learning and the daily competing pressures and tasks of work, learners will be tempted by encroaching distractions. This would be true in any environment, but is especially true in a virtual environment when participants are not as accountable because they are not physically in a room with the facilitator.
  • Design toward the learning rather than a time limit. While we do want to consider time elements to keep things moving forward and provide brain-friendly breaks from intense thinking, the focus should be on good design. The emphasis should be on learning that engages participants, spurs deep thinking and meets the learning objectives, not how long the program is each day. In fact, when learners are deeply immersed in an activity, they often report that even in lengthier learning sessions time seems to fly by! This is true for any kind of learning program, not just virtual programs. There is no clear-cut answer for how long learning should last each day, but we would argue that it is difficult for learners to get fully immersed in the learning during a very short time period.
  • Cut the fat in design where possible. Even though a time limit shouldn’t be the primary focus of your design, you should always take opportunities to streamline programs and be intentional with every activity and facilitated interaction. This is to ensure that there is clear value to each moment spent together in a program. While you want to make sure you include some fun in your program and lower intensity activities, you also need to avoid adding filler activities that don’t have a purpose. A common comment we hear from learning leaders looking to virtualize existing in-person programs is that there are materials that can be moved to be prework because they aren’t necessary in the virtual facilitation. If that’s the case, we question the need for those materials in a live in-classroom facilitation as well.

While this is not an exhaustive list of all experience design considerations, these are tips that will improve learning programs regardless of modality. We hope this list provides you with some new ideas and “food for thought” about the unique needs of virtual programs. Solid experience design is only part of the equation. In our next blog, we will discuss facilitation best practices and show some examples of effective facilitation techniques and tools.

Erin Rondinella is an experienced instructional designer focused on synchronous and asynchronous online learning. As a Senior Consultant for the Regis Company, she works with clients to design effective and engaging learning solutions.

Dr. Grace Chang is a cognitive neuroscientist focused on applying research to the business world. As Chief Scientific Officer for The Regis Company, she is driving initiatives in learning and assessment to enhance their neuroscience-based business solutions.

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