Designing Learning when You’re Not the Expert

Sometimes when I start working with a new client or instructor to design a course or learning experience, they will ask me, “How are you going to design learning about this topic when you really know nothing about it?”

I get it! How can someone who is not an expert be able to teach the topic? This is a common misperception that instructional designers can face.

There are a few tricks that help.

Focus on the goals.

When designing learning, it’s critical to ask what the goal is and to design learning that meets the goal. Some of the questions to ask include, What’s important? What does success look like? Are their existing outcomes or objectives—and if not, what should they be? I find the Backward Design model to be a really helpful framework that can help to stay focused on the goals when designing learning (although I do not typically use the worksheets and guided process during design). See Understanding by Design.

Look at how they are currently teaching.

Ask for as much information or even more than you think you need. Existing lesson plans or course maps are a good start, but also gather all of the materials, PowerPoint presentations, handouts, assessments, and really look at them. Not only ask what works but also ask what does not work and why it does not work.

Know the learner.

A doctor or a high school student will tend to have different learning needs. What do the learners already know? Where will they be while learning? What’s distracting, motivating, or inspiring them? While every learner is unique, there are often commonalities that you can apply to your learning design. Not sure where to start? See User-Centered Design Through Learner Personas for more.

Understand the basics behind how we learn.

This is important for all educators, but as an instructional designer, it is critical. A great resource is Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen.

Keep your beginners’ mind.

One of your best tools is the fact that you can approach the content as a new learner. Be aware of how you are learning the topic as you are getting acquainted with it. Notice what is easy for you to understand and where you struggle. While you are only one learner, if you are attuned to your own learning, it can help guide how you design learning.

Photo by CoWomen on Unsplash

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