Skip to content

Instructional Design Challenges & What to Do About Them

In my early days as an instructional designer I had any number of “learning experiences.” Each of the following little stories actually happened. I’m telling them now because they could happen to anybody… and you might find the remedies useful. Or at least it might be helpful to ponder what you would do in similar situations.

11-14 Cracks in the Sidewalk

Every Instructional Design Journey Poses a Rough Spot or Two

  • Nervous client. After agreeing to develop a course, a little time went by. My client said, “I haven’t seen anything from you yet.” He was wondering when he’d see the training materials.
    I’d been working on the analysis, which of course he couldn’t see.
    Remedy. Write a plan early and go over it with the client. Show what to expect and when. As the project progresses, provide your analysis findings and design planning so a) the client can see progress and b) can give you feedback along the way. This is also most helpful for obtaining buy-in for your approach.
  • What is this? Toward the beginning of an instructional design project, I sent a two-page description of the learners to my client, telling him that it was an audience analysis.
    He was new to the process. He thought the audience analysis would be given to the learners as part of the course materials. Interesting idea, but no…
    Remedy. Make it crystal clear what you’re sending, what it’s for, and what you want from the client. If possible, go over analysis and design documents with your clients in real time (in person or on the phone). This is especially helpful if the process you’re using is not familiar to your client.
  • Everything but the kitchen sink. I wrote a pre-reading booklet for the learners. The idea was to create a level playing field by giving everyone the same basic information.
    My subject-matter experts wanted me to add everything they could think of to the pre-reading… including pretty much all the course content.
    Remedy. Don’t do this—at least, don’t put everything in the pre-work—because…
  • Nobody wants to read. Busy people don’t have the time or inclination to wade through pages and pages of text.
    If you depend on everyone doing extensive prework, if it is long or densely-formatted, many of them won’t do it (depending on the culture of the organization).
    Remedy. White space is your friend. Use simple language, short sentences. Use bullets. Provide only what’s necessary. Write a draft, then go back and remove 25 to 50% of the text. (If you need to, write a separate Reference Guide that learners can use during or after the class.)
  • Trainers with an agenda. During a train-the-trainer session, the HR leaders who were to teach the course spent much of the first hour arguing about the course content with the sponsor.
    They weren’t learning a thing. In fact, they were too busy resisting to want to learn anything. (Plus, this wasn’t any fun for anybody.)
    Remedy. In this case, the best fix would have been for the sponsor to obtain buy-in from the trainers well ahead of time. Given that this did not happen, we gave them a break and a chance to think about how they wanted to proceed. They had two choices a) we could spend the remaining time just talking about what was wrong with the course or b) we could proceed with reviewing the course and learning how to teach it. (They chose Option B.)
  • When you know the course is doomed. Early in my career, I was asked to develop a management course using an approach developed by an internal subject-matter expert (SME). I was pretty sure that nobody in their right mind would follow his suggestions. I pushed back with my manager. He said, “It’s political. We have to do this.” So, I developed the course.
    Feedback on the course indicated just what I thought: trainers and learners complained about the approach.
    Remedy. To convince the SME and the head of corporate training that we should make a fundamental change, I made a diabolical plan (with my manager’s blessing). We conducted a Level 3 (transfer) evaluation to see if people were using the approach they learned in the class. The answer was a resounding “No!” The learners’ wrote comments that left no doubt: not only were they not using what they learned, in fact, they thought it was a very bad idea. We went over their questionnaires in the most gentle way possible with the SME, and he agreed we could devise a new approach that would work in our culture.

Developing courses is not always easy. The people we’re working with may not know what to expect. We have to help them to figure out how to work with us.

Political and cultural issues can get in the way of perfectly good approaches that work somewhere else, but that may not work where we are today.

Eventually, we each have a long list of stories… some that worked out better than others. Each of them a learning experience to take forward into the next project.

Disclosure: Some links on this site are “affiliate links,” which means that I may receive a small commission if you click on the link and purchase something.