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  • Writer's pictureVictoria Hekking

Back to the Basics: Design for How People Learn

I have a feeling that most employees of Construct get asked the same question I do all the time: “So, what is instructional design?”

At some point, most of us probably had the same question. The answer to this question first came to me in the book Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen.

I am going to share a few nuggets of wisdom I got from this publication. We all might benefit from taking a look back at the basics that got us where we are.

How Do We Engage our Learners and Increase their Knowledge?

Dirksen talks about the human brain as a two-part system. There is the rider: the conscious, verbal, thinking brain; and the elephant: the automatic, emotional, visceral brain. The rider tends to exercise restraint and lead us to rational, long-term decision making. The elephant is usually impulsive and seeks satisfaction.

Dirksen lets us in on a secret: If you can get the attention of the elephant, then you will lessen the burden on the rider side of your brain.

Dirksen recommends the following activities to engage the elephant:

  • Tell stories: show don’t tell. Use suspense, interesting dilemmas, and emotional connection.

  • Surprise the elephant: give unexpected rewards, dissonance that invites them to actively reconcile opposing ideas, information that piques the elephant’s natural creativity (creative questions, mystery, missing information, and scaffolded guidance).

  • Show the elephant shiny things: attract the elephant by using relevant visuals, asking the elephant to play with stuff, apply the information they are learning using their senses, making it laugh, or rewarding it with gifts or prizes (ideally intrinsic rewards).

  • Tell it all the elephants are doing it: take advantage of the elephant’s social nature by inviting it to engage in collaboration, displaying social proof that others are learning, inviting it to compete with others so that it can learn how to win.

  • Leverage the elephant’s habits: work with its existing behaviors to help it learn and make good use of their intrinsic motivations.

Photo by James Hammond / Unsplash

Once we have gotten the attention of the elephant, how do we design an experience for the learner to gain real, useful, and lasting knowledge?

Dirksen has a few recommendations:

  • Help readers draw on prior knowledge and use metacognition so that information can encode in their memory for later retrieval.

  • Create “friction” in the learners’ experience. They must interact with new information to help themselves actually learn and retain it. Some good examples include showing learners information instead of simply telling them, adding social interaction to a learning activity, creating something, working together to teach the rest of the class, debating from different sides, and investigating a topic and reporting back about it.

  • Give learners enough guidance, not too little or too much. This way they have some guidance, but they are not relying on you every step of the way.

Dirksen gives an example of a learning situation that applied many of these recommendations. The learning objective for a class was for the learners to recognize and make an excellent help wanted advertisement. To build up to this objective, they had to complete a series of activities. They ranked 5 advertisements from best to worst, identified problems with advertisements provided to them, and researched good examples of advertisements to bring to the class. Finally, they worked together as a group to create an excellent help wanted advertisement.

How do you engage your learners’ elephants? Are there some daily practices you find yourself using to increase your learners/ knowledge? When was the last time you really learned something and learned it well?

I find that going back to the basics can actually help me innovate when I am brainstorming activities learners need. Hopefully they help you too!



Dirksen, Julie. Design for How People Learn. New Riders, 2016.


Sarah Polhill

Instructional Designer at Construct

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