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Good Learning Design: Five Unique Challenges and Their Solutions

Design learning is the creation of learning tools that are fun, engaging, and effective. Products that fall under design learning include massive open online courses (better known as MOOCs) and college textbooks, corporate training and informal learning, classroom learning for young and pre-literate students and older learners looking to refresh or update a degree. It also includes airline videos on how to fasten your seatbelt, public service announcements, and anything that you need to remember.

What do these very different end products have in common, and how can good design help facilitate the learning process across these contexts? The list below outlines some important differences between design learning and other types of design, and provides examples of best practices that learning designers use—and that you can use as well—to ensure that your designs are that holy trinity of fun: engaging and effective.


Problem: Some learners, like other types of users, may choose to participate in a given learning experience. Participation is typically motivated by the student’s own interest in the subject—think of specialized user forums, MIT’s Open CourseWare, or even a cooking class at the local adult education Learning Annex.

Other learners, however, are forced to participate in a learning experience, perhaps as a required course in a degree program, a company’s semi-annual sexual harassment workshop, or as state-mandated attendance in school until a specific age. Many of these learners grit their teeth and wearily make their way through the experience. Many more simply tune out and send texts to their similarly miserable friends.

Solution: Like death and taxes, some classes just cannot be avoided. The path to becoming a surgeon or a pilot is littered with courses (elective or otherwise) the aspirants could probably not care less about, such as “Female Novelists of the 19th Century” or “The Wit and Wisdom of Aristotle.” In addition, the course that one person gravitates towards is someone else’s Kryptonite.

In the absence of authentic motivation (and you can be certain there will always be someone who is just not that into the course/training/instructions/what have you) materials can employ a variety of techniques to either cultivate some measure of interest or remind the learner why he or she is suffering through this content in the first place (organic chemistry, I am looking at you).

A popular fix these days is gamification, or manipulating an otherwise static task into one that more resembles a game. If done well, gamification can help turn dry content into a more interesting and meaningful experience. Too often however, gamification techniques veer too far into the realm of behavioral modification. Students are also good at detecting what is known in the industry as “chocolate-covered broccoli” or attempts to sweeten otherwise unpalatable content.

Another approach that works well for degree programs is to design the course of study in a more holistic sense and remind students where they are in their progression; in other words why this particular course is necessary, and how it is significant to that degree they are working towards.

Range of Users

Problem: Learners include senior citizens starting a new drug regimen, beginning readers, airplane passengers, and everyone in between (in short, every human being). It includes those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD, and emotional and behavioral challenges. Younger learners—those not yet able to read and write, unaccustomed to sitting still, focusing, controlling emotions, and adapting to protocols outside of the home—are one of the most challenging user groups to successfully engage.

Solution: Different cohorts of users (novice and expert, literate and non-literate, adult and child) require different approaches. With younger learners, design approaches need to take developmental circumstances into account. Smaller (and older) hands may have difficulty manipulating a mouse or understanding written directions without supporting graphics.

Sometimes identifying the cohort you’re addressing is straightforward, such as grade school materials for teachers and students. Sometimes the users are more heterogeneous, as with airplane passengers. Rather than designing for the average user, good learning design aims to accommodate the spectrum of needs of the anticipated audience with a focus on the extremes on either end. For example, airplane safety instructions take into account the wide ranges of ages and literacy levels with simple illustrations, text in more than one language, and a visual demonstration.

Much progress in design, including learning design, has been the result of accommodations for the disabled. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) started as a set of design strategies for disabled learners but has since been recognized as useful for all learners. At the heart of UDL is a commitment to providing different modes of representing information, expressing information, and promoting engagement. Providing different pathways for learning allows students to learn in a way that makes the most sense to them, and also subtly affirms that different learning styles are legitimate.


Problem: Learning is about mastering new information, which typically takes a lot of effort, energy, and neurons. It requires a measure of personal comfort a few steps above worrying about food and physical safety. It may entail lots of practice and call for un-learning what you thought you’d already mastered. Learning, in short, is hard.

Although renowned user experience author Steve Krug implores designers to not make the user think, part of the challenge of educational design is to facilitate and support thinking. Expending effort is what learning demands, and it is this effort that increases our ability to grow and understand over time.

Solution: The most effective, thoughtful learning products are based on prior knowledge. If the course is part of a series, completion of an earlier course may constitute sufficient prior knowledge to proceed. Smart learning products start off with a diagnostic assessment of what the learner knows regardless of the established learning sequence. Well-designed diagnostic assessments can be fun to take and since they do not count towards a final grade there’s less pressure on the learner. It’s less about demonstrating mastery at this point than determining what actually needs to be mastered. Other more progressive learning approaches such as Khan Academy and MOOCs often require the learner to self-assess their level of mastery either through a lucky guess…or trying (and failing).

As I mentioned before, learning is hard. The best learning design materials present information in a methodical manner, allow the learner to review content and test her understanding informally until mastery has been achieved, and provide additional support—for instance online chat forums, instructor intervention, and supporting information—on an as-needed basis.

The hot trend in course design is not MOOCs, but competency-based learning (CBL). Long a staple of nursing education, CBL has been expanding to other disciplines and even degree programs. A typical CBL program assesses the learner at the start of his course of study and tailors course content based on those strengths and weaknesses. CBL programs allow learners with more real-world experience to leverage their knowledge and skip over course content that they have already mastered (and likely save money in the process).


Problem: When was the last time you were tested on how well you mastered the fundamentals of, say, Amazon’s Shopping Cart feature? What if you could not actually purchase what you wanted until you demonstrated that you had in fact made a well-researched choice? At the heart of learning is the demonstration that you have learned the given information. More often than not, some type of test provides that evidence. And tests are the Rubicon a learner has to cross to demonstrate proficiency (and advance to the next level.) A learner who doesn’t pass the tests doesn’t pass the course, doesn’t earn the degree, and doesn’t score that coveted job as a fighter pilot. Bummer.

Solution: There are a few different types of educational assessment, including the diagnostic assessment mentioned in the Difficulty challenge, as well as the summative assessment that is the “important exam that counts towards the grade.” But there is another type of assessment, known as the formative assessment, which is an informal check-in that assesses how well the learner understands the materials but does not count towards the grade. Formative assessments can be essay questions, multiple choice questions, a real-world project, a mini-game, or anything that is based on the information at hand and allows the learner to engage with it to check understanding. Students typically appreciate formative assessments because they provide valuable feedback on how well information is understood in a low-stakes environment. Perhaps the learner thinks that she has Circuits 101 down cold; a simple online game that requires the successful completion of a circuit will test her understanding and let her know if she is on target or off-base before that summative assessment comes her way.


Problem: What if you had to not only deeply study Amazon’s “Recommended for You” list, but you had to remember it next year and the year after that? It’s all well and good to pass those pesky summative assessments; it’s another thing to retain that knowledge and apply it in novel contexts in the next course. Those hard-working neurons not only need to understand the basics, but store it into long-term memory so it can be retrieved, manipulated, and augmented in the future.

Solution: I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: well-designed learning materials can help to facilitate the cognitive tasks of the learner. Retention can be facilitated by repetition, to be sure, but better to take prior knowledge and explicitly reference it in a new lesson. History instruction does this naturally; it sure helps to understand that World War I was a precursor to World War II, for instance. But prior knowledge does not have to be executed in such a linear fashion. For online learning, it helps to include links directly in instruction that refer back to earlier lessons. Also, assessments can build on prior learning and not just the explicit learning of a given course.

An unfortunate trend in learning is to break down lessons or chapters into actionable learning objectives. While there is nothing wrong per se in clearly identifying goals for a given lesson, it has the unintended consequence of chopping understanding into small, bite-sized, short-term nuggets at the expense of prior knowledge and a more holistic understanding of the topic.

If there’s one takeaway to this list, it’s that learning, is indeed hard.   Learning is often a required task…not an elective. It takes effort and it is dependent on the learner’s individual interest and capabilities. And a lot is riding on succeeding at these learning tasks. Good learning design can help the intrepid learner by providing scaffolding or learning supports throughout, reinforcing prior knowledge, offering plentiful formative assessments, and never forgetting why the learner is there in the first place.


More reading

Universal Design for Learning ( )