Learning & Development

Total Learning: Designing learning for outcomes

In this blog, QA’s Director of Learning Design, Ben Sweetman, explains the thoughts that have shaped our new learning offering – Total Learning – and why we think it is the most effective way to learn.

Way back in the 1930s, John Dewey wrote that “learning is to teaching as buying is to selling” [1]. It is not enough to say that we’ve taught something, we need to know that someone has learned it. 

100 years on, much has changed but many things haven’t. In this article, I will share how we’ve rethought learning for the digital age. The result is Total Learning, a new approach which we believe to be the most effective way to learn.  

Let’s start with how we got here. There were three key design choices that shaped Total Learning. 

1. Design something better 

In my 10 years at QA, we’ve always committed to creating the best experience in the market. Before Covid, that investment was typically in improving the classroom experience – better buildings, better trainers, better tech and even better coffee! 

The pandemic and digital revolution has forced us to rethink the definition of “best”. 

In a hybrid working world, how will people want to learn? How will employers quantify the benefit of that learning to the organisation? What is the role of digital – and the role of instructor-led learning? This is not just about splitting a course in half and putting some of the content online. This is our quest to find a better way to learn. 

2. Do the research 

We followed Steve Blank’s orders: “Get out of the building!” 

Well, sort of. We couldn’t actually leave the building for most of 2020, but the spirit was the same. We opened Teams and we talked to our customers and our learners. 

We asked them what causes them pain and the problems we needed to solve better for them.  

They also told us that digital learning and live learning both have their place, but there was something missing. They said they wanted the best of both worlds. 

They told us that they instinctively believe in the power of learning, but that in the past it has been too hard to prove the impact of that learning.  

This meant we had to design for outcomes, not just for convenience. What does the organisation want to achieve from learning? Does the training support learning? Does the learning clearly lead to the outcome? 

3. Do the hard thing 

  • Content-centric design is easy – you follow the syllabus, you make the content. 
  • Learner-centric design is hard – you have to think about what the learner needs. 

Being learner-centric meant we used the same approach we used when transforming our apprenticeship model last year. We designed backwards from the outcome that the learner wants. 

Outcomes cannot be an afterthought just because they come last. 

It would be easier to stop after the live event and leave it to the learner. That would make our life easy, but it would make their life hard.  

Apply it

For our learners and clients, we found that the link between productivity and learning was too weak. We designed the Apply phase of Total Learning to provide a scaffolding to make it easier for learners to put new skills into practice. And to prove it. 

We realised that anything that was “marked” by us would feel too much like coursework. The motivation needed to be felt between the learner and their manager. We reframed our role as educators, which is to provide learners with the resources and the structure to enable them. It’s a big design decision to say “less is more”, but in this case it’s clearly the right choice.  


Don Norman, author of “The Design of Everyday Things” [2] wrote that “we should eliminate the term 'human error'” – it is the designer’s fault. In education, it’s too easy to say it’s the learner who fails an exam, it must be their fault. 

If the learner’s goal is to pass the exam, we should design every step of the journey to support that goal for them. This includes designing the learning experience to develop a deeper understanding of the topic AND to reduce the unnecessary anxiety caused by exams. 

It’s also why we’ve included the Exam Pass Pledge in Total Learning. It’s a statement of intent. 

Outcomes > Learning > Training 

I’ll finish where I started with John Dewey. We are not just moving from teaching to learning.  

With Total Learning, we are going beyond learning and into outcomes, and that is uncharted territory for our industry. 


[1] Paraphrased from John Dewey, How We Think, 1933 

[2] Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things (Revised Edition), 2013