What Makes Learning Experiential and Performance Changing?

What is Content, and What is Context?

Content is what most designers get from subject matter experts (SME’s). SME’s normally gather a huge amount of policy and procedure and send them to the designer to make sure that “all” of it is represented in the course. Content is of course followed by a quiz, or a “fun” memory based activity.

The designer’s job is then to take all of this content and sequence it in a published, often linear sequenced manner that is digestible and able to keep the attention of the learner. If “modern includes” like narrated audio or video can be added, then the course is sometimes perceived to be even better.

How is Contextual Design Different?

Let’s start with an example.

If your goal is to learn guitar, you could take an e-learning course that highlights areas of the fret board and its accompanying note, followed by a multiple choice quiz asking to identify the note associated with this position.

Another example might be a truck driver who has to stop the truck at all train crossings. We could make that a True or False question, but what if you were in the driver’s seat approaching the intersection and had to make a time sensitive, active decision to demonstrate applied competency?

How would your confidence change? How might you be ready to perform in the real world?

I would say you are much closer to performing than the student who correctly answered the True or False question that “Drivers must stop at all train crossings.”


The key to a good e-elearning challenge is that it should have some real world risk. The learner should have to overcome a real job challenge. In many ways, the challenge of the task being learned often drive the visual context of the course interface itself. Adult learners know from experience right away if they are thrust into their real world, or if the “challenge” is to read all of the slides and then remember what they were told.

This kind of false challenge is demotivating to the learner, and they will quickly find a way to “navigate” your course gates while multitasking, and ultimately no learning will take place.

Challenges can mean many things.

Some tasks are time bound, others like customer service can face the challenge of angry customers, etc. Whatever the observable challenge is when you watch someone doing the job, make sure that it’s in your course. A football team that needs to play in a dome on Sunday might bring in speakers to practice so the players can practice in a loud environment that mirrors what they will face in the game. It’s the same with our learners.


This one can be laden with development time and costs.

When creating activities, they should contain both the challenge and the risks of the task being performed, and with appropriate feedback that we will get into next. While many interactive activities built into rapid development tools can serve some performance purpose, watch out for ones that ask the learner just to “click to reveal more text only” that they have to read. Slowly revealed reading is no more interactive than reading a PDF document. Make sure your activities are real, contain needed complexity and treatment, and aren’t just a clever way to present pure content and reading.


Completely contrary to a read and remember course, a good e-Learning course delivers more learning in the feedback presentation than any of the other three areas we just discussed.

Q: Why is feedback so critical, and why does well done feedback rise to, or better, the experience of a live or classroom event?

A: Feedback is personal, and it is customizable.

Think of a time you have been in a classroom and the same person answers all of the facilitator’s questions. Maybe you felt like you were falling behind, but did not want to slow the class down and be stigmatized for it. Good e-learning is contextual, safe to fail privately, and provides more feedback to those who need it while skilled users can quickly demonstrate competency rather than be forced to have the same longer and more didactic experience as those new to the topic.

Good feedback is more than a detailed few lines when a learner makes a quiz selection.

Feedback allows for meaningful up skilling on the spot. Think of a time you may have failed a post quiz. You are sent back in the course navigation to take it over, but what did you learn about your gap in knowledge or skill? Likely not much. More likely you will guess differently and hope for the best. None of these scenarios lead to a performance learning moment, and leave us quite unsatisfied with the overall self-paced experience.

Thank you for reading, and we will see you next time!