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write simpleThe puffer fish is a slow swimmer in a sea of bigger, faster predators. When chased by a large, hungry fish, a puffer rapidly inflates its stomach. This doubles its size and makes its spines stick out. The display warns off most all but the most determined hunters. Any creature that does try a bite will find it hard to close its jaws around a tough-skinned, spiny sphere.

Inflation works for the puffer fish. Writers of learning content often assume this approach will work for them too. They can be tempted to use big words or convoluted sentence structures to make their ideas seem more important.

Another temptation is to rely on technical terminology, instead of finding language that is precise but simple enough for novices to understand. Writers might think that scattering technical terms freely will make them—and their lessons—look more credible to readers. However, the effect is likely to be just the opposite.

A 2006 study by Daniel Oppenheimer found that the more writers inflated their language, the less likely they were to be seen as trustworthy and intelligent.

Judge for yourself. Here are two acceptance speeches. Which writer seems more credible? Which is more intelligent?

  • Writer 1: "Formal studies conducted under controlled conditions have led to the inescapable conclusion that composers of written materials who avoid proliferation of words, needless digressions, and polysyllabic words are perceived to be more intelligent than writers who indulge in prolixity and eschew concision. So I wish to express my gratitude for your recognition of my research endeavors."
  • Writer 2: "My research shows that conciseness is interpreted as intelligence. So thank you."

The second example is Daniel Oppenheimer's acceptance speech for the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize for Literature. The Ig Nobels, awarded by Annals of Improbable Research, recognize research that first makes people laugh and then makes them think.

Oppenheimer hopes his results will help writers avoid inflated language. "I think it's important to point out that this study is not about problems with using long words, it's about problems with using long words needlessly." He advises, "If the best way to say something involves using a complex word, then by all means do so. But if there are several equally valid ways of expressing your ideas, you should go with the simpler one."

Implications for Training

First, "the best way to say something" depends on your audience. For experts, technical language is quicker and more precise than everyday speech. For novices, technical terms are bafflegab, both incomprehensible and intimidating.

Second, you don't have to avoid technical terms. Instead, adapt your language to your audience.

Here are a few tips to follow:

  • When you're writing for experts, use technical terms freely.
  • When writing for novices, use technical terms when you need to be precise; just take care to define them in context. For clarity, you may also need to address common misunderstandings of a term or provide examples or explanations to help readers understand its applications.
  • For a mixed audience, use technical terms with definitions in context; move any extended explanations or illustrations to a glossary; keep surrounding sentences short (ideally, fewer than 20 words and no more than 40).

If you find yourself using needlessly inflated language, how can you simplify it? Two online tools can help. Take the Writer's Diet Test at or get suggestions for shortening your sentences from this online readability checker.

Reference: Article publish by Cecelia Munzenmaier at ATD (

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shaking handsScenario-based learning is generally most appropriate when teaching learners with some relevant prior knowledge or experience how to perform tasks that rely on critical and creative problem solving. They are especial­ly useful to teach skills that are difficult to acquire on the job because of safety concerns or scarcity of real-world opportunities. Decisions can have life or death consequences, and a scenario-based approach to learning offers at least a partial substitute for real-world experience.

There are four essential elements of an effective scenario-based lesson:

  1. an authentic scenario or task assignment that serves as a context for learning
  2. learner guidance while responding to and resolving the problem
  3. feed­back on problem solutions or problem-solving processes
  4. explicit opportunities to reflect on problem solutions.

The Scenario
Case study scenarios commonly appear in procedural (part task) lessons and sometimes even in explanations. In procedural lessons, a problem or case study usually serves as an end-of-lesson (or unit) practice opportunity. But in the scenario-based approach the lesson starts (rather than ends) with a problem or scenario that serves as a context for learning.

Designing an effective problem or scenario is one of your biggest challenges. First, your scenario must require the participant to learn and apply the key skills needed to resolve it. For example, consider a scenario for an Excel class where a business analyst will require the use of formulas to perform calculations and charts to display data. In the troubleshooting lesson, the technician must learn the mechanical and electrical components of the automotive systems involved, which diagnostic tests might be most appropriate at a given time, and how to interpret diagnostic data to identify a likely cause of failure.

As you plan your scenario, define the desired outcome and the crite­ria for success. These elements correspond to the action and criterion of a traditional lesson objective. Your outcome may involve a decision, actions, rationale for actions, a problem-solving path, or a product. Your criteria may be a correct answer, an answer that matches rationale, a decision path that is efficient and effective, solution time, or specified features of a prod­uct deliverable.

The Excel scenario will initially require the construction and input of accurate formulas to achieve the assigned goals. The outcome will be a correct answer because the spreadsheet incorporates specific data values. In contrast, the automotive troubleshooting class will require selection of a correct diagnosis, as well as an efficient, logical, prob­lem-solving process in which irrelevant tests are bypassed.

Many scenarios will require the learner to access related problem data. This part of your design will correspond to the "givens" in your learning objective. When you do your job analysis, note the common sources of data that experts use to solve problems and plan ways to incorporate these into your lesson. Typi­cal examples include documents, technical diagrams, computer programs, client interviews, and test equipment—any resource that would be normal­ly used on the job to define and analyze the problem.

The Guidance
One of the potential mine fields in scenario-based lessons is mental over­load and learner confusion leading to frustration and drop out. Devote careful thought to the placement and type of guidance in the lessons. Instructional psychologists call this type of guidance scaffolding. For the initial problems in your course, provide heavy doses of guidance and grad­ually remove support as learning progresses. The most common types of guidance reviewed here involve: problem sequencing, learner control, exam­ples, and knowledge resources such as experts, tutorials, and references.

Sequence problems from simple to complex. The initial problem or task assignment should be the simplest instance you can build of an authentic job problem appropriate for your target audi­ence. Easy problems will have fewer variables, relaxed constraints, straight­forward solutions, and limited data to consider.

Constrain learner control. Learner options are limited in a more structured scenario design called a branched scenario. Branched scenarios are especially effective for problems in which one choice leads to another and then another in a linear sequence.

Alternate problem demonstrations with assignments. Start with a demonstration (also called a worked example) of how to solve a problem or at least include a link to such a demonstration. For example, the instructor might demonstrate how to add a column of numbers in the spreadsheet. Next, learners are asked to perform a similar task using different data.

Offer knowledge resources. Some scenarios can benefit from a variety of perspectives. For example, a medical ethics scenario provides links that access virtual experts, including lawyer, ethicist, clergy, psychologist, and colleague. Or, a course for new super­visors offers links to manager, experienced supervisor, legal staff, and human resources, to name a few.

The Feedback

All learning benefits from feedback. In scenario-based learning environ­ments you can use two types of feedback: intrinsic and instructive. Instruc­tive feedback informs the learners that their responses are correct or incorrect and provides an explanation.

Intrin­sic feedback shows the outcomes of the learners' actions or decisions as they resolve the problem. In other words, the learner acts and sees how the situation plays out for better or for worse. Intrinsic feedback can also reveal environmental responses that may be normally hidden. For example, a food handlers' lesson scenario incorporat­ed a germ meter that reached the danger zone when food was improperly handled. Likewise, a supervisory lesson on giving performance feedback included a "motivation" dial to reveal the feelings of the employee receiving feedback.

The Reflection
One of the big differences between scenario-based and directive lessons is the instructional response to learner errors. Based on behaviorist roots, directive lessons attempt to minimize learner errors. When a mistake is made, the learner usually gets immediate corrective feedback.

In contrast, scenario-based course designs view mistakes as an opportunity for learning. Feedback may not come until several actions have been taken or even until the end of the scenario. To learn from mistakes, it is important to prompt learner reflection on what they did and what they might do differently.

One powerful form of feedback that encourages reflection is an expert comparison. Another approach to reflection is to let the learner expe­rience intrinsic feedback followed by an opportunity to reconsider his responses and replay his choices.

Applying Scenario-Based Learning to Your Training
Use the following checklist to guide your design and development of scenario-based learning environments.

  • Consider a scenario-based approach for tasks that involve decision making and critical thinking or for tasks that are challenging to learn in the work environment.
  • Provide a more constrained design and higher levels of guidance for novice learners.
  • Initiate the lesson with a work-authentic assignment or scenario.
  • Design an interface which is clean and in which learner response options are clear.
  • Incorporate fewer variables and less data in initial scenarios.
  • Offer less learner control in initial scenarios.
  • Provide guidance to minimize learner frustration and ensure learning.
  • Fade guidance as learners gain more experience.
  • Provide both intrinsic and instructional feedback.
  • Use feedback to illustrate both visible and "invisible" consequences of actions.
  • Allow learners the opportunity to make mistakes, experience the results, and reflect in order to learn from their mistakes.
  • Present scenarios with visuals rather than text alone.
  • As an instructor, assume a facilitative role rather than a knowledge source.
  • Ensure the full range of knowledge and skills through the scenarios selected to fulfill the goals of the instructional program.

Reference: Evidence-based Training Methods, 2nd edition, Ruth Colvin Clark, ATD PRess, 2015

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Stop-Bad-Habits-SignBeing a training designer presents daily opportunities to challenge ourselves, push boundaries, and design solutions that make our businesses successful, clients happy, and learning audience more effective. But sometimes our work isn't inspirational, and it's really hard to get ourselves psyched-up to change the world thinking about compliance frameworks and guidelines.

A lack of inspiration can be made even worse with a healthy dose of design complacency. When we fall back on bad design habits, we can alienate ourselves from the real problems, our audience, and ultimately our professional self-worth.

Are you guilty of any of these bad design behaviors?

Skipping the needs analysis
Raise your hand if you'd be willing to undergo major surgery without first undergoing some less-invasive testing?

Not much of a choice, is it? Most of us wouldn't be too keen on trusting the word of a doctor who would literally operate on a hunch. We'd like some empirical evidence before we invest in a costly, painful, and potentially risky procedure.

Yet, how many of us are guilty of skipping over the training version of pre-operative testing? How often do we tell our business cohorts to "just trust us" about the root cause of a performance gap?

At one time or another, most of us have been forced by timing or circumstance to eliminate or minimize the needs analysis process. But when we short-change front-end analysis or dismiss it all together, we become the equivalent of a quack — randomly applying training solutions without first understanding what's needed.

Getting married to a concept
Confession: Sometimes I fall in love with my own ideas.

When you love what you do and are passionate about the value of learning it's easy to get super-excited about your work. But with all that excitement there often comes the "reality check" moment when a client tells you that the high-concept idea you've fallen for is hopelessly impractical.

Does that mean it's time to toss aside your brilliant concept and settle for something more mundane? Not necessarily.

Here's how I see it: The essence of being a good designer is working within tight constraints. Our best designs surface when we allow those boundaries to inspire us rather than defeat us. The most effective designs are ones that manage to achieve a balance in the midst of many opposing factors.

The ultimate designer skill you bring to the table is this: a willingness to set-aside pre-conceived notions and apply elements of your out-of-the-box thinking in ways that balance business needs and resources with beauty and ingenuity.

Speaking in jargon
I was working with a client recently when I caught myself saying, "Level 1 data is not enough to demonstrate learning nor application of learning."

While that statement was in fact true, and the collection of "reaction/satisfaction" data (Level 1) is not enough to paint the big picture, and collecting data about learning (Level 2), and application of learning in the workplace (level 3) is required, I could tell by the expression on her face that I'd lost her.

Good designers know that you need to have meaningful conversations to build a successful collaboration. This means you need to speak in language that everyone understands. Whether you're trying to get buy-in for your design ideas with business leaders or act as a credible internal consultant to a group of subject matter experts, you really can't afford to alienate anyone with jargon-filled statements that are less about building understanding and more about demonstrating your design prowess.

To be sure, it may be necessary on occasion to load your statements with design jargon to establish your authority. But for most interactions, wouldn't it be much more productive to communicate as a trusted partner—in a language everyone understands?

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