Category Archives for Learning Design

Developing strategies to learn how to survive and thrive

A group of people helping each other survive and thrive

At our community meeting last week, we used the structure of a "how to" course to think about how to survive and thrive under conditions of extreme uncertainty, specifically, the current conditions due to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

We decided that the "target audience" for the course we are creating together, will be us, ourselves... this Learn and Get Smarter community of experts and entrepreneurs who are focused on creating quality online courses.

Since we are designing the course for ourselves, we will be able to test its usefulness to us, once we have it developed.

At next week's meeting (on Saturday, April 18th, at 9 AM Pacific/ 12 noon Eastern) we will put the work we've done over the past two weeks together, to create a cognitive strategy course.  The learning goal for the course will be to help us think about what we need to learn (and how best to learn it) in order to cope with the current pandemic on all levels of our lives and society.

We decided to focus on using Maslow's hierarchy of needs as an organizing framework for thinking about how to survive and thrive at each level.

If you have my book, you can read about how to structure a cognitive strategy course on pages 156-157 of the paperback.

During the meeting, we will use the work we've done over the past several weeks, to figure out what the cognitive strategy (or strategies) should be. We've looked at both mindset changes and practical skills that will be helpful.... now it's time to put this all together in an effective and engaging way.

Come join us next Saturday!

many people online in a conference call

We will design a

 cognitive strategy ("learning how to learn") course

for adapting to change

 in the face of the current pandemic.

As these meetings evolve, my goal is to help you understand the different types of course design structures you can use to support different types of learning.

As a community, we are gaining hands-on practice and experience in building something new together, from the ground up.

When you design a course in your own area of expertise, you are, by definition, an expert.

The Course Design Formula® can help you overcome the "expert blind spot" that makes it hard for experts to see what non-experts (your future course participants) must understand in order to benefit from participating in your course.

During our Saturday community meetings, we are using aspects of the Course Design Formula® in a different way, though. 

In this case, we are dealing with a situation where no one in the world yet has the expertise fully needed to deal with a novel and unprecedented situation. We are living in what I refer to as the "fractal zone"...an area of swirling chaos and uncertainty, that is part and parcel of chaos theory.

In fact, chaos theory may be a useful organizing principle to help us think about these chaotic conditions and uncertain times.

Abstract Living Coral Reef Colorful Sea Swirl Spiral Pattern Trendy Colors Bright Pastel Orange Teal Light Blue Fractal Fine Art Nautilus Sea Shell

This Saturday, we will work on developing cognitive strategies for dealing with the uncertainty and risk inherent in chaos. Our goal is to optimize our own and each others' abilities to survive and thrive in unpredictable complex conditions.

Come join in the conversation and share in the synergy!

Designing the different levels of a course

Russian nesting dolls standing in a line

We've talked about the five domains of learning defined by educational researcher and theorist Robert M. Gagné.
Gagné divided learning up into the following major types:

  • Verbal information (declarative knowledge)
  • Attitudes (mindset)
  • Cognitive strategies (learning how to learn)
  • Intellectual skills (how-to)
  • Motor skills (physical movement)

The  Course Design Formula® that I teach in my book and course provides research-based guidance on how to set up a course based on each of these types of learning.

But what if your course contains more than one type of learning?

Many, if not most, courses do.


The way to handle that is to realize that a course has more than one LEVEL, and each level of the course can have its own domain of learning. 

To make this concept easy to visualize, think of those nested wooden dolls where one fits inside the other.

Your course as a whole is the outermost "doll", which holds all the others. So the first thing to do is set up the course as a whole based on its domain of learning. Let's use an example-- an intellectual skills  ("how-to") course about How to Change a Tire.

The next level inside the course is the module level: the large sections or chapters or chunks that hold the lessons. Each module can have its own domain of learning, which might be different from the domain of learning for the course as a whole.  

The first module of our imaginary "How to Change a Tire" course might be called "Things you need" in order to change a tire. At the end of this first module, learners won't yet be able to change a tire. They will be able to state/list/describe the things you need to have in order to be ready to change a tire. So the first module of this how-to course teaches verbal information.

Now let's go inward another level to the lesson level in this module. Let's say the things you need in order to change a tire include several different tools, the right mindset, the ability to read your car's user manual,  and a specific wrist motion. You could create a different lesson inside that first module to teach about each of those things.

The lesson describing the tools would be a verbal information lesson. You  would also have an attitude change lesson, a cognitive strategy lesson teaching how to approach reading a car's user manual, and a motor skills lesson teaching the wrist motion. 

And within each lesson you might have more than one learning object. Learning objects are the individual media items in a course (an individual video, text document, PDF, PowerPoint, etc).

Let's say that in the cognitive strategy lesson about how to read the user manual, you have a text document explaining where to find the manual, a video demonstrating how to find the tire-changing section of the user manual, and a short audio file encouraging learners not to stress about reading the manual. That's three separate learning objects in one lesson, each with its own domain of learning (verbal information, intellectual skills, and attitudes).

Being able to adjust the focus of your design to the course, module, lesson, and learning object level gives you tremendous power and control and flexibility in how to design your course. 

Here are the key concepts to keep in mind:

  • Set up the whole-course level first. That is the outer layer that holds everything else.
  • Then move inward to the module, lesson, and learning object levels, in that order.
  • Design each level based on its OWN domain of learning.

What this means is that you can (as in our example above) have a how-to course with a verbal information module that has a cognitive strategy lesson containing learning objects each with its own domain of learning.

If you are clear and precise about the level you are designing, and always get THAT domain of learning right, your course will fall into place beautifully and just "click".

At our community meeting last Saturday, we used a mindset change (attitudes) format to think about how to adapt to change given the current Coronavirus pandemic. We came up with a lot of very creative and insightful ideas. The question then came up: is this a mindset-change COURSE?

The answer was, no. A mindset change might be an ASPECT or COMPONENT of what is needed in order to adapt to the current situation, but it's not enough in and of itself to be the total answer. We can change our attitudes all we want (and we should), but just doing so will not be enough to cope. We need some practical how-to skills as well... which is what we will be working on for this coming week's community meeting. You can register for the meeting here and help brainstorm what those practical skills might be:

Come join us on Saturday!

many people online in a conference call

We will design an "intellectual skills" ("How-to") course for adapting to change in the face of the current pandemic.

My suspicion is that practical how to skills, while important, are also not the total picture of what is needed to cope with the current situation. If we were, as a community, to create a "course" about how to cope, my best guess is that it would be a cognitive strategy course... learning how to learn how to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances. A mindset change and some practical skills might be PARTS of the strategy, but would not provide the total picture.  

Since we are not experts on this topic, we will use a process of unguided discovery learning to see what we can figure out. We will try the how-to course structure as a way of holding our collective thoughts and ideas.

You may notice that earlier, I said that one should design a course starting from the whole-course level (top down) and THEN fill in the modules and lessons. Yet in our exploration of the current pandemic, we may in fact be designing some of the smaller components of the course first.

That's because in this current crisis, no one on the planet is an expert with complete understanding of how to cope and adapt. This situation throws us all into unguided discovery learning where we are feeling our way in the dark.

We tried the mindset structure to see if it would work to help us think about the problem. It was helpful but we realized it was not the biggest picture. It was not the outermost doll. I think the outermost doll when we get to it will be a cognitive strategy course... and that the mindset and how- to components will be aspects of the strategy needed to learn how to cope.

Come participate in the community meeting on Saturday and let's see where our explorations take us! 


Engaging the senses in online learning

composition of human face and technological elements to serve as background in works on mind, reason, intelligence and imagination

As the world goes through a sudden, enforced global experiment in living online, we've all come face to face with what the online interface can, and can't do well.

The online interface CAN (thankfully) connect us in ways that allow us to interact with each other, conduct many kinds of work, and counteract physical distance with social and emotional closeness.  Thank goodness for all of that!

It's more challenging, though, to get the online interface to give us the rich sensory experience that life in the physical world provides. We can't physically experience taste, smell, or touch through a computer screen. 

But there are things we can do to punch up the sensory richness of online learning activities, to include more of the whole person who is sitting on the other side of the screen.

Plugging more sensory modalities into your online course will help the learning come alive!

Electric plug and power socket as brain organ as symbol of brainstorming, creation, learning process, cognition, perception, success innovation, use your brain

Would you like to learn how to add fun, creative activities to your online course that will make the learning more engaging and interactive for your course participants?  

This Saturday, March 28th, 2020 at 9 AM Pacific/12 Noon Eastern, during our community meeting on Zoom, we'll do a short, fun, interactive exercise that will expand your thinking about the types of activities you can include in your online class.

(I've set the community meeting up as a weekly event for the next several months, but right now we are only talking about the meeting for Saturday, March 28th, 2020 at 9 AM Pacific/12 Noon Eastern.)

Come to the meeting!

many people online in a conference call

Register here to receive the meeting link and password.

In the meantime, if you're eager to get started making your lessons highly motivating and engaging, read chapters 11 and 12 of my book, Course Design Formula: How to Teach Anything to Anyone Online.

Course Design Formula™ Book

We'll also have time at the meeting to discuss any course design issues, challenges, and concerns you are working on.

If there's a topic you'd like to be sure we cover, please email me in advance at Rebecca@learnandgetsmarter.com.

Hope to see you on Saturday.... you can register here!


Tiny House, Huge Impact

A young couple live in a van. She is lying down and reading a book on the bed. He is working on a laptop in the space next to the bed.

In my book, Course Design Formula®: How to Teach Anything to Anyone Online, I use the process of building a house as a metaphor for the process of building a course.

Watching the fascinating series, Tiny House Nation,  on Netflix recently, I realized that building an online course is not just like building ANY house.

Building an online course is, specifically, like building a TINY house.

The reason for that is that the limits of working memory are very small. Working memory is the aspect of cognitive processing needed to take in and learn new information.  

Research (and experience) have shown that we can only hold about 5 to 7 separate things in our minds at the same time. (That's one reason telephone numbers have 7 digits). 

Trying to absorb more than a very limited amount of new information at the same time, quickly becomes overwhelming, causing the learner to tune out and stop learning.

The reason an online course is like a TINY house, is that the limits of working memory are very narrow.

So when designing an online course, it’s important to work within very tight design limitations, because you  have a very small amount of cognitive processing space to work with.

What makes Tiny House Nation so fascinating is the process the builders and craftsmen use to make  very small spaces work so elegantly  for the specific needs of the people who will be living there.

The builders conduct extensive interviews and  create customized structures (such as staircases with built-in storage cabinets, or a butcher block table that transforms into a ladder). The customized structures make use of the small space and enable the home’s occupants to fit  the things that are most important to them into their available living quarters.

The key to living well in a tiny space, is customized LIVING DESIGN.

The key to  creating an effective and engaging online course, is customized LEARNING DESIGN.

Interior of a van that a young couple live in. The shot is focused on the kitchen counter, pull-out drawers, and bed. Ther is wood paneling on the sides and roof.

If you haven't already seen Tiny House Nation, or have missed some episodes, check it out!

Watching host John Weisbarth and design expert Zack Giffin solve seemingly impossible challenges, is awe-inspiring!


Here are just a few of the things they have made work in tiny homes:

  • An indoor rock-climbing wall for kids
  • A grand piano
  • Comfortable sleeping space for six people
  • And much, much more!

Customized course design will help you create effective lessons that stay within the limits of working memory, keeping your course participants actively engaged and learning.

If this idea sounds intriguing, you are welcome to schedule time with me to talk about your specific project goals.

Expert instructional design lets you pack a lot of learning into a little space!

Book your free strategy session

Let's explore the unique design challenges

 your course presents.