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Use the Course Design Formula® to customize learning

whimsical illustration of a lightbulb with a brain in it popping out of a box

I developed the Course Design Formula® to help you optimize the way you teach online, in the courses you create.

Learners can also use the formula to enhance the way they learn online, from courses they take.

Why is this important?

Let’s use an analogy from the world of health and medicine. When you go to the doctor, you may be given some kind of medical treatment. But the actual healing work that makes the treatment effective, has to come from you, from inside your own body. The medical treatment provides an outside catalyst or impetus to get the healing process started, but the true work of healing has to come from within.

In order to teach effectively, we have to set up a series of events that, step by step, lead to long term behavior change in the learner. But it’s up to the learner to make the decision to actually TAKE those steps, and implement the changes that demonstrate real learning has taken place.

Decoding and understanding problem, face to face explanation concept

As teachers, we can and should do our best to make our online courses effective, engaging, and fun. The Course Design Formula® will help you do that for the courses you teach.

But even if you’ve created an outstanding course, there’s no way to make it work perfectly for every single learner.

(In situations where complete individual customization is an absolute requirement, one-on-one coaching may serve you and your customer better than a course.)


Let’s say you’ve done a great job of optimizing your course, using the Course Design Formula®:

  • Your course has a single, clearly defined learning goal that takes the learner from Point A to Point B.
  • You’re clear on the domain of learning for the course as a whole.
  • You’ve set  up your module structure  properly to deliver the promised transformation.
  • You've built in motivational factors that appeal to what motivates your target audience.

    Many of your students come to class enthusiastically, do all the work on schedule, and are getting amazing results.

But what about the other students?

What about the ones who aren’t attending class… who signed up and paid for your course, and maybe (or maybe not even) attended a few sessions, and then vanished into cyberspace never to be heard from again, no matter how many email reminders you sent them?

How can you help THEM learn and get smarter using the Course Design Formula®?

It’s hard to impossible to get inside someone else’s head. The very fact that a student is NOT coming to class, or responding to your email, means you have no way beyond pure conjecture (which isn’t very effective) to actually know what their reasons may be, for not participating fully in your course.

You could spend every waking minute creating unlimited customized versions of your course to address the needs of every single learner, but you’d never be able to make it perfect for everyone.

That’s why I adhere to the adage “Done is better than perfect”.

Perfect is not an option. 

Once you've done your best to optimize your course,

the only options you have are done, and not done.

Remember when I said that if completely individualized customization is a requirement, then one-on-one coaching is the solution?  True...but  coaching is not scalable either. From a business model perspective, you as a teacher can only coach for as many hours as you have available. An online course on the other hand can be sold to an unlimited number of students.

That’s good in terms of making money for the course creator, but unless the course is custom-tailored to each student’s learning goals, preferences, and needs, it may not work ideally for the learner.

As an online instructor, if you have a large number of course participants, there's no way you can customize, adjust and adapt the course to each individual student's unique learning needs.

You know who CAN achieve that level of customization though? Each student individually.

The solution is for EACH STUDENT to become their own self-coach, 

customizing their learning journey through your course

(and any other online course they take) in ways that work specifically well for them.

This realization about how to make your course

 both scalable AND highly effective for each individual learner,

marries your business model to best practices for highly effective learning.

Colorful silhouettes of business people with icons suggesting conference, seminar or meeting


Research has shown that learners remember new material better when they are allowed and encouraged to find their OWN unique ways to process it for storage in long-term memory.

You may have experienced for yourself that when you want to be sure to remember something, for example the name of a person you've just met, it helps to relate it to something you already know.

For example, if you meet a new person named Sarah, who happens to look like your friend Sarah from college, mentally strengthening that association will make it easier for you to remember that this new acquaintance's name is Sarah, the next time you meet.

That same association wouldn't work for the colleague standing next to you, though, who didn't know your friend Sarah in college.

Your colleague might use a different method of remembering this new friend's name, such as noticing that you met this new Sarah while standing in front of the Saran Wrap at the supermarket. You and your colleague are each using your OWN method of what Gagné calls "Semantic encoding",  to store and process the information about your new acquaintance's name.

worker searching for something on warehouse shelves


So, the process of taking in new information and processing it for storage in long term memory, is called semantic encoding.

 Imagine a busy warehouse with packages (of new information) being pushed through a narrow doorway (of short term memory) into a tight processing space.

In that tight processing space, each packet of new information needs to be unpacked, sorted, labeled and stored on the right shelf in the vast warehouse of long term memory, so that it can be found and retrieved again when needed.

If you've ever crammed for a test, done well on it, and then promptly forgotten everything you'd learned, you are familiar with what happens when those packets of information don't get properly stored on the long-term memory shelves.

It's possible to do well on a test or otherwise parrot back information, without having truly learned it in the deepest sense of the word.

If you've truly learned something, you can recall and use it later... even much later.

What makes many online courses less effective than they could be, is that not enough attention is paid by either the instructor or the learner, to this process of semantic encoding.

As a learner in an online course, it's not your job to be an expert in how THEIR course is designed. That part is the instructor's job.

But you ARE an expert (the world's FOREMOST expert) on how YOU, personally, learn best.

 No one else. ..including the instructor... knows as much as you do about how you can best take in, process, and store, information.


The instructor may feel their job is done once they've presented the instruction. In our warehouse metaphor, that's equivalent to dropping the information packages off at the warehouse door.

The learner may feel they've done their job once they've gotten the information package through that doorway (into short term memory).

That's equivalent to bringing the package into the intake area of the warehouse, without actually opening the package, seeing what's in it, relating it to everything else that's already in the warehouse, labeling and tagging it for future retrieval, and storing it on a shelf in the long term storage area.


whimsical illustration of a lightbulb with a brain in it popping out of a box

As you can see, there are a lot more steps involved in actually learning something, than just presenting information (on the teacher's part) or superficially taking in information (on the learner's part).

The Course Design Formula® was designed to help course creators optimize the way they teach, to facilitate learning.

The formula can also work to help learners optimize the way they learn, to get more out of any course by creating a customized learning experience tailored to their own unique learning preferences and style.  

We'll explore this topic more in future blog posts. I'm creating a cognitive strategies course (learning how to learn) that each student can use to customize and optimize their own learning in any online course they take.

While you as an instructor can't customize  your course for every single student, you CAN make it easier for every student to optimize their own learning experience as they go through your course.

That's what I'm working on next... creating a way for  course participants to optimize their own learning using the Course Design Formula®.

 I'd love to hear your thoughts, reactions, questions, comments, or concerns.  My goal is to make not only teaching online, but also learning online, a gracious, harmonious and successful experience for everyone through effective learning design.

Now that so much learning, globally, has moved online due to the pandemic, making it a positive and accessible experience for everyone is more important than ever.

Let's continue the conversation in the Facebook group,

 and at the Learn and Get Smarter community meeting next Saturday.

I hope you can join in and share your thoughts.

Come to the community meeting

Saturday, October 24th,  2020

9 AM Pacific/ 12 Noon Eastern

many people online in a conference call