Sharing joy and knowledge from an ordinary life

Design for how people learn

In recent months, I’ve become more engaged with the field of cognitive science and what it has to teach us about effective learning. This began with facilitating a mini research project in my previous role alongside Tom Sherrington and Joss Kang (click here to read about the start of it – I really must get round to blogging about the end of it at some point!). This learning focus has progressed more recently with Issue 2 of Impact from the Chartered College of Teaching, the associated Third Space event that I blogged about here and various reading and content shared by others since then (see collated Twitter moments here).

My new role ( I can totally still call it new 4 months in!) at the Chartered College of Teaching combines a number of my interests and areas of experience – professional development, technology and engagement with evidence.


When my role began about 3 months ago, I was on the hunt for a text that might provide me with evidence-informed approaches to online learning design. I arrived at ‘Design for How People Learn’ by Julie Dirksen. I thought I’d once spotted this book being shared by David Weston but he’s certain he’s never read it so the hunt for the original reader continues. If it was you, please get in touch so the mystery can finally be solved!

This text did not fail to disappoint: the reader is taken on a journey of designing effective online spaces, supported by the science of learning.

Aspects of the approach she presented could quite easily be translated across to classroom contexts.

What follows is a collection of the main learning points from the book, framed by my own experiences and plans for future application. One of Julie’s skills throughout the book was to challenge my assumptions and existing thinking. This was welcome and I hope you’ll be enabled to do the same as you read this summary.

Design for How People Learn

One of the things I engaged with once more through Julie’s book was the importance of the prior planning, mapping and thinking.

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Whilst it seems obvious that our students would be at the heart of our planning, I find that they can become more easily lost than one might imagine; lost amongst the extensive content we’re working through, the resources we’ll make use, and inevitably the time constraints within which we’re operating. Julie reminds us to think carefully about where our learners are starting from and the destination we’d like them to reach through their engagement in online learning. Here are a couple of my own examples to evidence what this might look like –

I worked on a spelling, punctuation, and grammar project for my GCSE English resit students. There were certain aspects they were struggling with so I knew they needed to get to a space where they were proficient with these elements and were making fewer mistakes. Their gap was mostly knowledge but I also needed to consider motivation.

With the research units we’re working on at present, we want to move teachers from a position of not engaging with research effectively or confidently to a position where they are. The gaps are various and there are elements of each that need to be addressed and planned for.

Once you have a broad idea of start and end for your journey, you’ll need to look at making the destination more precise.

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The questions listed here can help you identify precisely where you want/need the learners’ destination to be. Once you have arrived at an overall destination, it will likely be necessary for you to reduce an overarching goal to make it more precise.


I was once asked to construct some online learning for leaders – they apparently needed to learn to become ‘better managers’. Inevitably, this statement needed some reducing. What they actually needed was to hone their existing coaching skills so they could engage in more effective conversations with their team members.

In my GCSE English resit example, my students needed to ‘improve their spelling’. This too needed some distillation. Students need to develop proofreading habits. Students needed to learn the spelling of 20 key words associated with the subject being studied.

When planning classroom learning, I was considering more effectively what students might achieve by the end of a lesson. I’ve since reflected that I was occupying a much higher level plane when considering what online learning might help them to achieve and this lack of accuracy likely reduced the effectiveness of the learning experience somewhat.

Whilst Julie’s book shares how using Bloom’s Taxonomy can help to define learning objectives, she also shared a framework for proficiency from Gloria Gery. I feel as though I should have come across this before but I’m not sure I have. Either way, I was looking at this particular framework with a fresh perspective.

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This framework made sense for me in what I was personally planning online at the time. I didn’t want the project to just achieve knowledge but I was aiming for competence and proficiency – the kind of proficiency that feels effortless. The design would need to be quite different to achieve this.

So to get from where your learners are to where they need to be, it’s likely that some kind of gap will need to be bridged.

According to Julie, this gap can be one of a number of things. The gap for your project might be one of these aspects, it might be a number of them. I find that this list of questions from Julie is really helpful for defining the gap, thinking deeply and testing my assumptions about the gap. I actually think these questions might be really useful for planning any kind of learning – online or otherwise.

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I think with any online learning, I’ll be using these questions at the start of the planning stage to test out my assumptions and ensure I’m certain about the nature of the gap. Often, where I’ve initially assumed the gap was skills, some deeper probing has revealed gaps in motivation and the environment (these areas are certainly of relevance to those of you planning online learning in a business rather than education environment).

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One of Julie’s recurring themes is to remind yourself, throughout the design process that what might work for you will not necessarily work for your learners. What you think is easy to navigate, will not necessarily be the same for your learners. She advocates testing as much out on your learners as possible and one main suggestion is to watch them navigate the online learning so you can see how they interact with the content as well as how they learn from it: keeping your learners front and foremost in online learning design. I reflected on how rare it is for me to have conducted this in a formal way previously – more recently, I’ve had the space to engage in this kind of work and it’s so interesting to see someone click through a space and just watch – it’s not long before you identify things in the environment, structure and layout that need to be adapted for ease of use.

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I debated for a while about whether this part would be of significance to teachers working in school or college contexts. I think it’s important to consider what kinds of learners you will encounter before planning any kind of learning but I’ve found it to be particularly important at an online level as the experience is so different and this inevitably affects engagement in different ways. The way we question, challenge & check their learning, and encourage them to collaborate enters a completely new space. I also believe I’ve come across each and every single one of these learners both in my students and fellow colleagues I’ve worked with over the years.

Motivation in particular seems to have a higher impact on learning when it’s online as opposed to the effect it might have it in the classroom. You don’t always have the same options available to you within an online environment to make eye contact, have a quiet word with, or engage a learner.

There are a range of strategies Julie shared for engaging each learner, no matter their existing levels of motivation.

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It’s clear that you’ll need to have fewer tools in your kit for intrinsically motivated learners. Maintaining that motivation includes ensuring relevance and leveraging their skills as teachers.

Julie’s suggestions for extrinsically motivated learners make sense to me based on working with a range of learners over the years. Highlighting the ways content might be relevant to them will be useful and asking them to consider in what ways a piece of content will be relevant might also help. ‘How might you use this? Where might you use this? How will this relate to your exam?’ Listen to these learners and identify where they have challenges and attempt to fit content to that. If they don’t feel like they’re making a breakthrough early on with the parts of their learning they find most difficult or frustrating, you’ll not get far in motivating them.

I knew one route into engaging my GCSE English students with online activities was to address the parts that frustrated them the most: the different between affect and effect, for instance.

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Our motivation as learners is heavily affected by our existing level of knowledge and skills. If these are at a low level and the online learning we come into contact with makes us feel stupid by assuming existing knowledge where there isn’t any, this can make us reluctant to engage in future learning. If these are high and the online learning we come into contact makes us jump through hoops we don’t need to jump through, we soon become reluctant to engage further. I think the only thing that sets apart online learning from face-to-face learning in this regard is that you’re less aware of how frustrated a learner might be feeling. It’s far more apparent when they can glare at you from across a room. So what can be done online to affect the incline when a distance exists between your journey of content and your learner?

  • An initial assessment can provide you with information about where your learners’ skills and knowledge lies and therefore what will need to happen next to begin to bridge your identified gap. Depending on the age and experience of your learner, it might be that they’re directed to material based on what the self-assessment revealed. This will especially suit your expert learners and avoid later frustration.
  • The online learning environment itself needs to be as simple as possible to use. Reducing the complexity here means that novice learners are not going to be distracted from the content being presented by an environment that is inaccessible or confusing. Walkthroughs of content and activities, step by step instructions and chunking of content can all help with this.
  • Work to leverage your expert learners’ expertise. Incorporate peer assessment, generating of content, webinars, and collaboration that will enable them to teach others.

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We’ve all had those learning experiences where you get a flood of information and all you can do is try to keep up. If you are the expert, your mental model is likely to look as the first picture does – you can structure your information because you can see the multitude of connections between it. As a novice learner, you lack this structure so you get handed a blue sweater that you can’t figure out where to place so, with a shrug, it ends up in the pile on the floor. This was one of Julie’s analogies that have stuck with me the most as I think it’s a really clever visual for the nature of learning and reminded me of David Weston’s talk on working with novice and expert teachers. An example of how helpful analogies are in learning. So what is available for us to help novices to structure their closet?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that just as misconceptions are revealed in a face-to-face setting through interactions between teacher and student, it will be significant in an online setting for you not to push out the information to your learners and for it to go only one way. We want to aim for a responsive teaching approach and that requires students to give us feedback and for us to act upon it – and I don’t mean, ‘That was a great lesson, miss!’ I mean, ‘I’m not sure about that.’ ‘This part is confusing me.’ ’Can I practise x some more?’  Too many online learning environments I’ve come across continue to rely on being a depository for information first and foremost and interaction is low. You need to bring misconceptions to the surface and deal with them so plan for the flow of information to go both ways.

Here are some ideas about how you can support the development of a structure for generating connections –

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  • Knowledge organisers are great – either to give to the students as complete documents or ideally for them to fill out as they go along; collecting their online learning. This Twitter account has a lot of existing examples for you to explore.
  • The Learning Scientists share examples of dual coding and simple icons to accompany text can be really helpful for novices to make connections.
  • This document is an interesting read about how leaders can work with their teams using storytelling. As I read it, I saw a lot of parallels with the importance of storytelling in teaching.
  • Mind-mapping tools are a helpful way to support students with structuring their learning – Creately and Popplet are online possibilities.

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Sensory memory is the first important area of memory for us to consider; Julie suggests that habituation should be of concern to learning designers. Habituation means getting used to a sensory stimulus to the point that we no longer notice or respond to it. Think about where this might exist in your life.

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This street view at the moment is quite an assault on our senses but over time we would be used to such an appearance. One harmless habituation is the buzzing of the fridge. A more harmful one is getting used to the flashing engine warning light on your car. Online learning needs to be aware of habituation for this reason – so that our learners pay attention to the right things!

So what might the implications be for learning design?

Consistency can be useful – learners get used to the format and don’t have to expend mental energy repeatedly orienting themselves to the format; instead they can focus on content. So think about font sizes and colours, layout approaches, use of images…

BUT Too much consistency can be pretty bad. Varying the way material is presented or engaged with is important so they don’t habituate too much to your approach – I think this is far more the case with online learning than it is with face-to-face learning. Variety is important. One of my favourite sites to use to consider new approaches for online learning is from James Kieft. Whilst our planning considerations, I think at the same time, it’s important to have a handful of tech tools at any one time (again to reduce cognitive load for students).

If we return to my GCSE English resit group, I began the year with just 3 technology tools for them to become accustomed to both face-to-face and in their pure online learning experiences. Only when they became comfortable with the three did I introduce others.

So variation should be meaningful and deliberate. Avoid a random font or header but aim towards intentional changes in approach to engage and motivate.

Design for How People Learn (15)Once something has attracted our attention, it moves into our short-term or working memory. If it succeeds in penetrating your short-term memory, it’s probably significant to you for some reason; you’re actively looking for it, you need to take action, or it surprises or confounds your expectations.

As new information is presented to learners, we need to be careful with its presentation (much as we need to take care over explaining, demonstrating and modelling in a face-to-face scenario) so that it enters their long term memory successfully.

Julie talks about her own ‘shelves’ – her ‘jazz music shelf’ is filled with all kinds of music and events that she associates with jazz – because she knows little about it. Her ‘shelves for 80s music’ are various and specific – for different genres, different moments in her life, things she bought on cassette.

In addition to our carefully organised shelves, we also sometimes have shelves containing unintended associations. Each of you might have developed odd associations over the years – I associate Barcelona with some delicious Haribo sweets – fizzy peaches. They sold them in small bags on their tube system and I loved them (I wasn’t 4). It was the first place I’d had them and so I’ll always associate them with that holiday – it’s not an intended connection and it’s unlikely to be on anyone else’s Barcelona shelf but it’s there all the same.

So how can we use our knowledge of unintended connections to help us design learning experiences?


The environment in which you study will become part of your association with the material you’re studying. When possible, you want to encode the information in the same type of environment where learners will also be retrieving it.

This isn’t always possible but it is worth bearing in mind that the further the learning is from the context in which it will be used, the fewer shelves will be used to store the information meaning fewer useful associations, acting as anchors, will be used. So how can we bring the context closer within the online learning space?

Present the same content in multiple contexts so it’s not always in the same format. Do they recognise knowledge or actually know it?. Build in multiple and varied opportunities for recall

One of the things we often neglect to consider is the emotional context of the learning. How often have you said to yourself, ‘I knew the right thing to do but when it came to it…’ The practice we’ve experienced hasn’t closely enough resembled reality.

I recall seeing a documentary on the BBC about Ikea. It showed a managers’ training session in India where he was teaching them to collaborate and communicate by balancing a stick of newspaper on their fingers down to the ground. Everyone got so confused about the activity itself that the point was lost. Had he actually got them to participate in an activity that would have been closer to what they’d actually have to do on the job (putting together some flatpack furniture perhaps?) then he may have experienced more success.

So how can we replicate the emotions a learner might feel in the context they’ll be acting on their learning as opposed to how they feel in the moment online?

  • Use of role-play can help.
  • Use of real-life scenarios.
  • Create a time pressure with a ticking countdown or deadline.
  • High quality video content and images can help to replicate a context. My GCSE English students recently benefited from engaging in some 360 virtual environments on Google Cardboard so that their experience was an immersive one; one they’d remember in the exam room if they needed an inspiring environment for their creative writing. One of my favourites for this Is NYTVR
  • Storytelling can be a powerful tool in helping us to move learning into the long term memory. Stories work because after years of exposure to nursery rhymes, moral tales, television programmes, and films, we are all aware of the structure of a story. We recognise and empathise with characters and they provide a sequence that is comforting and familiar. We can frame our online learning with content that makes it comforting and familiar to learners – Steps to query a database can be framed by the example of new employee, Carla, who’s been asked a last minute request by her boss.

Frame examples used as part of your online learning content so that it’s made more familiar to your learner and therefore more memorable.

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Our elephant is the part of us that gets distracted or wants to have fun. Pressing snooze on your alarm… Persuading you that the chores don’t need to be done… There’s a cost to us dragging the elephant where it doesn’t want to go: cognitive exhaustion.

Asking your learners to rely entirely on willpower and concentration is like asking the rider to drag the elephant uphill. It’s not easy or enjoyable. So – what might help us to engage the elephant?

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It’s easier for our learners to allocate their attention if they can use what they’re learning right away. Scenarios and stories can replicate this urgency online. We’re always attuned to urgent and important over important but not urgent (the email that pings to your inbox as opposed to the report presentation that needs to be written for next week).

According to a study Julie references, we have a much stronger response to an unexpected reward than to one we know is coming. Julie describes this as the difference between a £5 note you get from your grandma every birthday as opposed to the same note found in the street. We pay attention to the unexpected. If it’s expected, it becomes part of the background and we don’t need to expend any mental energy thinking about it at all. Think about automated feedback you’ve encountered in online learning – ‘Great job! You correctly identified the answer!’ Almost mind-numbingly consistent… We need to think about how this can be delivered in different or unexpected ways.

Cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is when we come across something that doesn’t fit on the ‘shelf’ that we feel it should go on. Presidents of the United States. Then Donald Trump comes along – this creates dissonance and friction in more ways than one! We question it when this happens because our thinking is challenged. The new statue of Millicent Fawcett stands in Parliament Square – male, male, woman! We need to throw things at our learners that are surprising in some way or pique their curiosity. Ask interesting questions, create mystery, leave stuff out, be less helpful…

Social proof was an interesting strategy to read as part of Julie’s list and one I’m certain I used as a teacher – ‘Thanks to EVERYONE who has handed their latest practice essay in!’ ‘It’s been so interesting to read ALL the feedback from the recent trip.’ We should provide proof that this is what everyone’s doing or engaging in. This becomes a little more problematic when we’re talking about teaching & learning initiatives in education but that’s another issue entirely…

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Imagine you work taking the ticket stubs in a cinema. You rip tickets for hundreds of people every day. At the end of the day, how many of those people will you remember? The ones you had a significant interaction with (good or otherwise). If something isn’t significant, important or unusual, why would we want to remember it? This can be particularly significant if we arrive at something the learner thinks they already know.

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Creating friction is important for our learners to aid their memory. If information is just channelled online to a learner then it can easily bypass them or be skipped through at the click of a button. We want them to engage with the material: mull it over, engage in a cognitive rummage (thanks @doctob for this oh so wonderful phrase!) . We create a desirable difficulty. If you want to know more about this and cognitive load then take a look at John Sweller. We need to engage students with material without the extraneous cognitive load – like interacting with a tricky interface for instance.

We should be looking to show rather than tell on an online course wherever possible in order to move the learning experience away from being a static one.  

Move from ‘Here are the rules for when you encounter a school bus. First… to – ask them to think about the biggest concerns with a stopped school bus.

Move from ‘A highly irate woman comes into the restaurant complaining about the service – how do you deal with her?’ to ‘A woman in a business suit charges up to you and points a finger in your face. She says ‘Look! I come in here all the time and I’ not used to be treated like this…’

Look closely at the material you want to communicate to learners and focus on the parts that are most relevant. Anything else may need to be provided as a resource for later. Be ruthless about including only what’s really necessary. I’m certainly having to do this with the research units to decide what will and can be taken forward.

Misconceptions can often be dealt with more easily in the classroom. Online, you’ll need to incorporate plenty of good feedback loops where learners are asked to answer questions, give examples, and explain an idea/concept back to you.

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So we arrive at the all important practice (the part most often missed from learning environments that seek to be solely an information depository).

It’s not always easy to know how much practice you’ll need to incorporate alongside your content or indeed the form it should take. Julie doesn’t explicitly write about form but she does consider frequency as part our planning.

Design for How People Learn (21)Again, Julie offers a useful set of questions for us to ask ourselves that can help us decide on this frequency.

The distribution of new content is essential as part of your planning so as not to overwhelm but encourage your learners.

After practising, students’ hard work will need to turn into action. For many, this will be to form and maintain a new habit.

Students can be encouraged to form their own rules for implementation (it’s more likely to stick if they form them rather than you).

‘If this happens, I will…’‘If I’m presented this kind of question, this is what I’ll do…’

Introduce the habit and ask learners to brainstorm how they’ll go about achieving the goal.

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Suggest a timeframe for their habit forming – every other day for a month…How can the habit be made more visible? Provide a tracker for them to use, either paper-based or or digital. Some digital choices include Habitica, Productive, or Streaks.


Tying the habit to an existing behaviour is preferable as they’re more likely to commit to it. What could they do whilst brushing their teeth, going for a run, on the bus, planning an exam question response?


Julie’s book holds numerous examples and helpful advice about considering every facet of a student’s experience learning online. She has used many sources that rely on aspects of cognitive science as their base. This has allowed me to dip a second toe into these waters and I have a number of avenues to research and explore in greater depth now. Learning is learning, no matter what the context but the environment plays a significant role and an online one is accompanied by some specific considerations.

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My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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