3 Questions for Your Learner Analysis: How to understand and communicate with your audience.

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Learner Needs AnalysisWhen I lived on Kodiak Island in Alaska, I discovered the locals had an interesting way of giving directions. The town was small enough that there weren’t all that many road signs, so folks would give directions that sounded something like this: “Get on the highway and drive a couple miles out of town. There are a couple long-haired cows that always stand next to the big birch tree; take a right there. A mile or so later, you’ll see a rock shaped like a bear; go past that a couple hundred yards and turn left at the group of mailboxes. Ours is the house the same color as an alder blossom. You can’t miss it.”

Despite their confidence, I found that I COULD miss it, and I often did. And I always blamed myself for not understanding the directions. Now that I’m involved in training, however, I see that the responsibility for these mix-ups does not belong to the learner. As trainers, we need to meet our learners where they are and help them get where they need to go. But when we are experts in our field, it can be difficult to remember what it’s like to be a non-expert, just as the Kodiak natives couldn’t remember what it was like to not know what a long-haired cow looked like (they’re just a little frightening). Specifically, I recommend we ask three questions of our learners:

  • What do they value?
  • What do we have in common with them?
  • What do they need to know?

First, what do they value?

One of the keys to any rhetorical interaction is the ability to identify with our audience. Kenneth Burke, a rhetorical theorist from the mid-20th century, argued that successful communication hinges on our ability to match our interests with our audience’s values. When planning training, this question is vital. Why would the learners be interested in the training? What could they get out of it that they would really value? In almost every case, there will be something: improved job performance, less liability if something goes wrong, etc. If there is nothing inherently valuable in the training, we may need to attach an incentive they will value: monetary rewards, flex time, or enhanced benefits. If we can find something they truly value, they will be more motivated and engaged in the training from the beginning.

Second, what do we have in common with them?

The Kodiak natives never bothered to learn what they had in common with me, so they didn’t realize I didn’t know what color an alder blossom is. As trainers, it is our job to go to our learners, not the other way around. One of the most important commonplaces is the way we use our language. The mark of a specialist in a field is a facility with specialized language. This jargon has a valuable use within the field: it’s a shorthand for a concept that doesn’t need to be re-explained every time. A computer scientist wouldn’t want to repeatedly explain that hypertext markup language is used to define the parameters, content, and behavior of a web page, so they use 4 letters—html—to carry that meaning in a compact form. For other computer scientists, this works great; for my dad, this might as well be a foreign language. This disconnect is often accentuated in scientific and technical fields, where the specialists have been steeped in their disciplines for so many years that it can be difficult for them to think in  non-scientific terms. In these cases, we need to be deliberate about understanding our learners, especially what they know and the language they are comfortable using. We have to go to them; we can’t force them to come to us.

Third, what do they need to know?

This is often a predetermined part of the training, but the key to this question is understanding where they are and what the difference is in the current and desired state. Allen’s process of Performance Mapping is an established method for finding the gaps in employees’ knowledge states. It also identifies the motivation, skill, or critical thinking required to get the learner from the current to the desired state. This knowledge, as the metaphor suggests, will help us map out the conceptual route our learners need to take.

Successful training depends heavily on a thorough understanding of our learners. This understanding will not come on its own; we can’t assume we already know all we need to about them. If we make learner analysis a deliberate part of our training preparation, we will produce much more effective training. Asking a series of questions—What do they value? What is our common language? What do they need to know?—will help put us in the place we need to be to successfully train our learners.

Interested in more from Dr. Keith Gibson? Take a look and RSVP for his upcoming lecture “The Importance of Rhetoric” at Northwestern University.

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  1. Brock

    Great stuff Keith! As training teams become more “tenured” and the workforce becomes “younger” with the millennials dominating the landscape, what are some specific ways that trainers can discover these three things about their audience to close the dissonance gap?

  2. Nate

    Great blog. I think your point on finding the intersection between the language of the novice and the expert, between the “us” and the “them,” is a key concepts in relationships generally. Your framing of the issue using the Alaska experience helped me connect to your idea, and is, for me anyway, a great example of practicing what you preach. I sometimes wonder if another common cause for failure to connect with the audience is self-inflicted, rather than accidental: we want to show off how much we know, so we play up the differences between us, the “experts,” and them, the “novices,” rather than build on common ground.

  3. Amy

    I’m currently facing a training mandate from a client filled with seemingly arbitrary topics. I was interested in your statement, “If there is nothing inherently valuable in the training, we may need to attach an incentive they will value: monetary rewards, flex time, or enhanced benefits.” From the employees’ perspective, this training is not valuable except for the need to check a box and bill their time. Have you found that attaching an incentive actually leads to engagement or just less grumbling?

    • Keith Gibson

      In our experience, incentives increase actual engagement (as opposed to simply reducing complaints). We can measure this by improved scores on knowledge checks and assessments, in addition to higher completion rates.

      The hardest part of this, of course, is finding incentives your learners truly value. Money is the simplest, but many training departments have tight enough budgets that this is not feasible. If your corporation has an identifiable culture or set of values, those can be utilized here: a company retreat or activity could be tied to team completion rates. If we can find that connection between our training and our learners’ values, we can help them gain what they need.

      • Amy

        It’s possible I’m beating a dead horse here, but if the goal is engagement and retention (vs. completion rate, given the training is required by the client) do incentives still work? Another wrinkle is that the client is presenting the training, so rewards for knowledge checks cannot occur in the actual sessions. I’m sure this is too complex to answer by trading blog comments; I just wanted to call out the goal distinction.

        • Keith Gibson

          There are a couple issues here, and you’re wise to be thinking of them. First, external incentives have been shown to be quite effective in education in increasing the attention paid to the task at hand, especially if those incentives are tied directly to specific knowledge checks. If the incentive is something we value, we will pay attention and, at that point, we’ll learn in spite of ourselves.

          On the other hand, there is reason to be concerned that external incentives will decrease a learner’s internal motivation; this is of particular issue with students who still have plenty of schooling left. For corporate training, you’ll want to consider the risks of decreased long-term motivation, but, in most cases, that risk is worth the tradeoff of better learning in the short term. For a more thorough discussion of this issue, see this paper: http://rady.ucsd.edu/faculty/directory/gneezy/pub/docs/jep_published.pdf.

          The rewards coming after the training is not really a problem: in fact, the delayed gratification can keep the learners attentive throughout the session. As long as the incentive is truly valuable and specifically tied to quantifiable goals, that type of motivation can be very effective.