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Creative Problems Make Creative Problem Solvers: Instructional Design Strategies for Improving Training Courses

Think about the first time you changed a tire. What knowledge or skillset did you draw from? Did you have a set of instructions, access to YouTube, or did you just figure it out as you went? Regardless of how you actually got that spare tire secured and were safely on your way, you confronted a problem and used whatever resources that you had available to solve that problem.

When faced with a problem that we have to solve, we tend to get pretty resourceful—ingenuity is one of the things that make us human. So how do instructional designers harness a human being’s natural ability to solve problems in a training environment? The trick is to not force your learners into solving a problem—you have to create problems that your learners want to solve.



The best resource that an instructional designer has is a subject matter expert (SME). In order to design a successful course, an instructional designer should spend some time getting to know the SME’s industry, experiences, and values. Before meeting with a SME, take some time to make a list of the answers that you need, along with the questions that will most likely get you those answers. Think about what you already know (or assumptions you may have,) and then structure your questions around your base knowledge. From there, make sure to take advantage of any opportunities for follow-up questions. Ideally, an interview with a SME will give you a wide range of authentic problems that a learner in the SME’s industry will understand. In addition, a positive SME interview will help pave the way for a mutual collaborative relationship that will help the designer with questions that arise later on. If you’re new to the interview process, here are some tips on how to get the most of your experience.

Custom Learning Scenarios

Once you have enough information, it’s time to synthesize that information in a way that will be accessible and engaging for your learners. Business Insider reminds us that we remember things more vividly when we are actively engaged and can call on that information through some sort of action. There are many activities that serve to actively engage a learner, but custom learning scenarios are effective when working with SMEs. Using the SME as a reference, designers can develop scenarios based on actual problems that learners in the SME’s industry will face.

Scenarios will also set the stage for the learners to interact with the information at hand so they can respond in a way that corresponds to a real-world problem-solving technique. Learning Solutions Magazine points out that one of the biggest roadblocks in learning is the inability to retain what we’ve learned for long periods of time. Why can we recall jingles for commercials from decades ago, but we can’t recall something practical for our job? For an instructional designer, our goal is to effectively train, so we can’t settle for producing generic courses.

Developing Critical Thinking

Despite investing effort in meaningful, story-driven learning activities, an instructional designer inevitably faces difficulty when creating assessments. The problem? It’s far too easy for designers to see assessments as an afterthought. How many times have we seen a multiple choice question with one clearly correct answer mixed in a slew of blatantly wrong ones? Methods like this do not challenge your learners to apply any critical thinking skills.

To reinforce what you’re trying to teach, you have to find a way to incorporate non-examples alongside examples. Think about a test that has two answers that are both fundamentally right, and how much concentration and critical thinking is needed to decide which option is the most right. Learners from all industries will need to learn how to make the best choice instead of just defaulting to the right choice.


In the end, if your current training course doesn’t challenge you to be creative, it’s not going to challenge your learners to be creative either. With a few tips and a finely-tuned creative barometer as your guide, you can design instructional courseware that encourages learners to become problem solvers.