Executive summary

The success of a capability-building strategy is not just about what you set out to learn, but equally about how you deliver that learning. There are innumerable different teaching and learning approaches; not all are equal, and certainly not all are suitable for every situation.

Much training delivery today is still ‘content-centric’; that is to say the starting point is to deliver a defined set of curriculum content within a set of logistical parameters (such as a set time, or to a set audience). The ideal approach is to adopt a learner-centric mindset: where the starting point is a set of knowledge, behaviours or skills you want your learners to adopt. The curriculum and learning design should follow the outcomes, not the other way around.

This is a separate question from learning modality – it doesn’t matter whether it’s in a classroom or in a digital learning environment, the learning design needs to be built around the learning outcomes. Drawing on QA’s extensive experience and informed by the academic literature, we set out a three-step process for learner-centric curriculum design.

  1. Identify the training goals

  2. Identify your audience

  3. Select the learning architecture

This article outlines in more detail the process and rationale behind QA’s teaching and learning approach.

 

Creating a powerful learning experience

A powerful learning experience is one that the learner enjoys, but also (crucially) one that leads to a learner actually embedding increased knowledge, skills and behaviours into their work. Research has shown that the distance between where a skill is learned (the locus of acquisition) and where it is applied (the locus of application) greatly influences the probability that a student will put that skill into practice. [1]

Powerful learning reduces this ‘distance’ by incorporating four elements (Exhibit 1):

  • Involve others: Learning is a social [2] process. Learners build knowledge through the process of interacting with others – their peers and tutors.

  • Make it relevant: Activities need to be relevant and relatable to the learner and should mirror actual situations of use. [3]

  • Allow time to reflect: Learners benefit from the opportunity to reflect on, defend, and share what they have learned [4] - this process of recall and application builds deeper understanding and helps commit knowledge to long-term memory.

  • Vary the experience: Learning should incorporate a range of theory, engagement, and active construction. [5]

 

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

It is not impossible to create a powerful and positive learning experience without these elements, but it certainly harder. It is challenging to incorporate these elements, and create a powerful learning experience, with a ‘content-centric’ learning design approach. Yet today’s learners are still mainly being guided to delivery methods “that meet standards, but lack a real-world context and opportunities.” [6]

QA adopts a ‘learner-centric’ approach: focussed on how people learn.

Digital transformation means it’s now possible to implement learner-centric pedagogies delivering these elements of powerful learning at a scale previously thought impossible. Across QA, we have a wide variety of different audiences with different skills needs, objectives and constraints. We therefore use a range of different learning approaches and tools, appropriate for the learning context.

In line with this, we have adopted a 3-step process in designing our learning programmes:

 

Step 1: Identify the Training Goals 

The QA learning design processes starts with identifying training goals – the ultimate benefits the individual or organisation seeks to gain from improved knowledge, skills and behaviours the learner acquires. We categorise these goals into three groups, an approach supported by the academic literature: [7]

  1. To inform: to build awareness or provide information.

  2. To perform procedures (procedural goals): to prepare learners to perform procedures in a defined way across a defined set of situations.

  3. To perform tasks (strategic goals): to prepare learners to perform tasks with no defined process or procedure, or that will require them to use judgement in determining how to accomplish the task.

If the focus is on performance (i.e., goal types 2 and 3 above), we know that:

  • When faced with procedural goals, we are likely to be promoting near transfer skills, where the transfer from training to application is typically close – either in time, or resemblance.

  • When faced with strategic goals, literature tells us that we are likely to be promoting far transfer skills, where there is a much wider gap between training to application – it may be a long time period, or the scenario where the skills are implemented is not similar to that practiced in training.

The first step of the process is to iteratively define and refine the training goals – so they are precise, specific, and well-understood. We must be exceptionally clear what the goals are, and how they fall across the three categories.

 

Step 2: Identify your audience

The design of the learning programme has to be appropriate to the audience who will participate in it, and support them in achieving their aims. When defining the goals of a learning programme, QA always asks two questions:

  1. Who is this learning programme for?

  2. Why are they undertaking this programme?

The answer to question 1 is often (but not always) obvious. The answer to question two is very rarely so. Whilst many would say they consider these factors, we find it pays to invest deep thought, and explicitly write down answers to these questions. As exhibit 2 shows, even within a fairly narrow set of professional learning options, the answers can be quite different.

 

Exhibit 2: Examples of audience identification for different QA programmes

Programme example

Who?

Why?

3-day Azure learning course

A technical professional

To learn about the technical features of Azure, enabling them to use existing skills to rapidly apply the new technologies in their workplace to solve a particular problem

 

12-week academy training programme

An individual with demonstrated computing aptitude but minimal practical experience

To build on their existing general computing knowledge and skills education with the specific skills and ways of working required for the industry/client that they will be working for at the end of Academy programme

13-month leadership and management apprenticeship

An individual with minimal previous knowledge or experience in leadership and management

Develop and prove competence in leadership and management job roles

3-year undergraduate business degree

An individual with basic academic aptitude, but minimal business knowledge or experience

Develop and prove business knowledge and skills, as needed by employers

 

Step 3: Select the Learning Architecture

QA uses three principal architectures, reflected in any learning components designed today – from short academies to long degree apprenticeship programmes. [8]

  1. Receptive (Information Acquisition view), mainly used when training goals are to inform

  2. Directive (Response Strengthening view), mainly used when training goals are procedural

  3. Guided Discovery (Knowledge Construction view), mainly used when training goals are strategic

Crucially, all these pedagogical approaches are modality-agnostic; that is to say they can be implemented equally within a physical classroom setting as in a digital learning environment. It does not matter whether the learning is being designed for an in-person course, a purely online training, or a blended programme incorporating a mixture: the learning design will incorporate the appropriate architecture(s) based on the learning outcomes the course is designed to deliver.

QA asks two questions to determine the appropriate architecture(s) to use:

  1. How immediate is the problem to be solved?

  2. How broad is the context in which these knowledge, skills, and behaviours acquired will need to be applied?

The more immediate the problem, and more narrow the context, the more directive the learning architecture. Conversely, the further away the application and broader the context, the more the programme design will use Guided Discovery architectures.

Selecting a learning architecture will typically determine the level of interactivity, which will comprehensively define the type of learning experience:

  1. Receptive Architectures will typically use course elements and instructional methods that stimulate psychological activity, with absence of behavioural activity

  2. Directive Architectures will typically use course elements that provide learners with an opportunity to practice processes and procedures

  3. Guided Discovery Architectures will typically use course elements and instructional methods to engage learners both behaviourally and psychologically. [9]

For instance, using the examples in Section A:

  • For those needing an Azure course, the problem is likely fairly immediate and the context both fairly narrow and well defined. A receptive architecture is used.

  • For consultants, the immediate needs of the role are known, but the wider context of that role is not. The programme is built using a principally directive learning architecture.

  • For apprentices, the context will be unique to their current employer, and may well change if they move to a new employer. For a leadership and management programme, the skills, knowledge and behaviours learned will be implemented in a flexible way a long way into the future. This programme is built using a guided discovery architecture.

  • For our HE students, they do not know their future employer, but their context is the employment market. The programme incorporates a range of different architectures – receptive for very knowledge-based elements of the programme, through to guided discovery for more behavioural aspects.

As learning evolves, QA constantly monitors, reviews and re-designs its courses on a rolling programme – where appropriate updating the learning architecture to reflect the goals of the programme.

 

Conclusion

In an environment where developing skills is critical, it pays to consider how learning will happen, not just which knowledge, behaviours and skills you’d like to develop. The appropriate choice of learning design will depend on both the learners, and the type of learning you wish to embed. The only way to navigate this is with a robust process, built on academic evidence and real-world experience; asking methodical questions and making deliberate, evidence-backed decisions on which learning architecture to use at each point in the learning journey.

 

To learn more about QA’s range of learning programmes, click here.

Architecture

Approach

Interactivity

Purpose

When we use

Typical Examples

Receptive

Information Acquisition

Low

Use media elements and instructional methods that stimulate psychological activity in the absence of behavioural activity.

 

Inform

Communicating information.

Lessons that are designed primarily to build awareness or provide information.

Use when there’s little or no opportunities to include overt learner responses.

Teaching by show-and-tell.

Lessons that communicate information

Briefings, company history, new product features, induction courses, policy/regulatory compliance guidelines, etc.

Directive

Response Strengthening

Medium

Perform (procedures)

Near transfer skills, e.g.:

The situations presented in the programme will be exactly the same as the situations that occur on the job (i.e. procedures performed in the same way each time).

Steps learned in the training are identical or very similar to the steps required in the job environment.

Suitable for learners who are new to the content and skills.

Teaching by show-and-do.

Highly structured practice opportunities designed to guide learning in a step-by-step manner (explanation-example-question-feedback).

End-user computer-skills, e.g.: how to log-on, how to complete an expense report, how to use windows OS.

Note: Many self-paced e-learning courses and tutorials (e.g. using ‘drill and practice’, recurring multiple choice exercises, etc.) are-Based on this approach (Holmes & Gardner, 2006, p. 81; Driscoll & Carliner, 2005, p. 41-43).

Guided Discovery

Knowledge Construction

High

Use simulations, games, and instructional methods that engage learners both behaviourally and psychologically.

 

Perform (tasks)

(Strategic thinking / Problem Solving)

Far transfer skills, e.g.:

The situations presented in the programme may not be exactly the same as the situations that occur on the job.

Building skills which are transferable into different contexts.

We need to teach general approaches to tasks that do not have one correct approach or outcome (i.e. learner will need to use judgment in performing these tasks because there is no one right approach for all situations).

Teaching by Problem / Challenge-Based Learning.

Focus on tasks which may require the worker to adapt guidelines to various situations.

Soft-skill training, supervision and management courses, and sales skills, e.g.: how to close a sale; how to analyse a loan.

 

Table 1: Teaching / Learning Architectures (partly adapted from Clark & Mayer, 2011, pp. 20 - 2

 

 

Footnotes

[1] Apple Inc. (2011). Challenge-Based Learning: A Classroom Guide. Apple Inc.

[2] Clark and Mayer, 2011

[3] Pearson, 2016; Clark and Mayer, 2011

[4] Clark and Meyer, 2011

[5] HBR: The Future of Executive Education, 2019 - hbr.org/educating-the-next-generation-of-leaders

[6] Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity.

[7] Seely Brown, J., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning

[8] Merrill, D. (2002). First principles of instruction.

[9] Papert, S. (1991). Situating constructionism.

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