How to storyboard a learning experience

An effective learning journey needs to have a clear destination and a clear origin.

Without these, it’s more or less impossible to make decisions about the sequence of learning interactions, modes and experiences a learner needs to move through in order to reach their goals. 

Storyboarding is a great way to plot out that journey, and it helps uncover some other aspects of the course design that need to be taken into account early on, like the type of content that’s required, how learners are going to be expected to demonstrate their newly acquired knowledge or skills, how and when coach or instructor intervention is needed. 

What is storyboarding?

Storyboarding is more commonly associated with the film production process. Before any shooting takes place a considerable amount of time and effort is put into creating a shot-by-shot walkthrough of the entire production. It helps production teams, writers and directors visualise how the script plays out on screen; how the composition of each shot needs to be set up, the camera angles, sets and scenery. All of which contribute to delivering a dramatic, engaging experience for the audience.

Storyboards are also used by product development teams to map out the journey of a user through a product. Product designers use them to articulate the key traits and interactions that underpin a user’s experience. As with storyboarding a film, it’s a way of articulating a vision by breaking it down into its constituent events.

Why storyboarding works so well in learning design

Storyboarding lends itself so well to learning design because we’re aiming to create an experience that is meaningful, valuable and outcome oriented. As with product designers and film production teams there are so many things to consider to ensure a learning experience achieves its goal: the type of content a learner engages with, how they engage with it, what skills, knowledge or competencies we’re looking to enhance, the feedback strategies that are employed, the role (if any) if a human facilitator or peer. 

At LearnJam we have developed an interactive storyboard workshop format that is a key part of our learning design process. We find it’s the best way of starting a digital content development project. The process involves bringing together different levels of thinking and expertise (high-level learning design, detailed subject matter expertise, the learners’ perspective, commercial strategy/goals, etc.) to quickly facilitate a shared understanding of the learning experience as a whole. It allows multiple stakeholders to work together to co-create the ‘story’ of the course or learning experience.

Tim storyboarding old school

Learning, in many ways, is like a story. There is a sequence of key events that need to take place in order to facilitate the meaningful, effective acquisition of new skills, knowledge or behaviours. An effective learning experience should be based on some version of the following classic ‘plot line’.

Scene 1: Activation

Learners need to care about the course. They need to be able to answer the question, ‘What’s in this for me? / Why should I bother?’. Learning happens best when the learner is truly interested in the subject, so the opening sequence should be used to engage them.

Why is that? Intrinsic motivation (inherent interest/enjoyment in the subject) is generally a better incentive than extrinsic motivators (e.g. reward, punishment, external coercion, career reasons, etc.).

Also, research indicates that learning happens by building on, and making connections with, what we already know. So this stage should be used to encourage prediction and to activate existing mental models. Invite learners to connect what they are about to learn with what they already know.

Why is that? As learners, we benefit most from generating our own connections to new ideas and information, potentially resulting in an ‘Aha!’ moment, rather than just looking up or being given the answers. This stage should give learners that ‘Aha!’ moment.

Scene 2: Input

This is where the learner encounters the content, media and interactions that present the target knowledge, skill or behaviour they’re aiming to acquire. This could be through a video, animation, a case study, article, or audio content. The learner is not passive, but is receptive. They don’t yet need to use or produce anything (beyond, perhaps, responses to simple yes/no questions). 

It’s important to consider the limits of working memory when designing this phase in the journey. It’s tempting to include all relevant and useful information at this point, but there’s a risk that being too comprehensive has a negative impact on learning. 

Why is that? The human brain can only process a certain amount of information at a time, and overloading it results in too great a cognitive load, which impairs the ability to learn. As such each input should be focused and followed directly by a relevant task.

Scene 3: Practice

The learner should now be productive, ideally through some kind of controlled task. We want them to demonstrate their understanding of what they just learned through simple tasks or concept check questions. Ideally, these tasks should be personalised and relatable to the learner’s real life. It should encourage them to take active steps to apply the knowledge they have gained.

A key consideration at this stage is the appropriate use of challenge. The tasks they engage with should be pitched so that they require a degree of effort, but without being so difficult that they cause frustration. 

Why is that? All learners need to be faced with “desirable difficulties” – in other words, appropriately cognitively demanding tasks which allow them to extend and deepen their existing knowledge. 

Scene 4: Test

Our hero is now ready to have their newly acquired capabilities put to the test. Treat testing here more as a means of learning than a means of assessment. Actively trying to remember something and then getting feedback on whether we were right helps us to learn. At this stage we should be looking to use quick quizzes to check learners on the learning outcomes, and provide concise right-answer feedback to reinforce key points, or provide clear explanations on why an answer is incorrect so they are clear on what they need to do differently. 

Scene 5: Reflection

The final scene sees our hero looking back at what they have just accomplished, and reflecting on how they have changed through the process. In this stage learners take the opportunity to think about strategies that have worked and why. How confident they feel in terms of applying their new knowledge, skills or behaviours going forward? What’s their biggest takeaway from the whole experience? 

This reflection stage is a key to helping the learners develop as individuals, not just as participants in a course or programme.

Why is that? As learners, awareness of our own thinking (metacognition) and of the learning process itself can help us to develop better learning strategies and goals. 

We benefit from understanding how learning works, from actively controlling how we’re focusing our attention, from increasing our awareness of our own knowledge and any gaps in it, and from explicitly connecting learning content to our own personal identity.

So that’s the typical narrative that underpins an effective learning journey. The storyboarding process is a way to start mapping out in more detail how each of those plot points is experienced.

How to run a storyboarding session

Laurie running a storyboarding session

Step 1: Get ready

Get the team together

Storyboarding sessions benefit from a variety of different brains. We typically assemble a team that includes learning designers, subject matter experts and content creators, all of whom have a particular take on different aspects of the content and learners’ experience of it. It’s also a great opportunity to share the origination of the course with stakeholders who might not necessarily be heavily involved in the production stages, but who would benefit from (and appreciate) contributing to the shape of the project. 

Choose the right tool

We’ve run storyboarding sessions on whiteboards, walls or any flat surface that people can gather around. That’s never not fun. In these times of remote working, however, we make optimum use of collaborative online tools to bring people together. Our tool of choice for storyboarding (and other workshops) is Mural. It works just like a wall of post-its, but it allows your team to work together remotely. 

We’ve even created a Storyboard Mural template you can start using right away. We’ve even got a really handy Mural activity you can use to get better acquainted with Mural’s tools and features if you haven’t used it before.

Step 2: Define the vision

Set the stage

You need to establish what the overall shape of your course is. Is it structured in modules? Does each module contain lessons? If so how many? What is the function of each lesson and how does it extend what happened before it, and lead toward what follows? What are the types or modes of interaction that you want / are able to include? For example, does there need to be a lesson that connects a learner with an instructor? Where does that fit in the sequence? A useful starting point is the learning plot line above. 

Map each of these stages out and give them short, descriptive labels that speak to their purpose within the overall learning experience. This is the framework of your storyboard and it’s within these frames that the action is going to play out.

Here’s an example: 

Establish fundamentals

Take a step back and think about the course’s reason for being. Why is it needed? Who needs it and what do we know about them? Why should they care about this course at all? What is the vision for this course and how does it help / empower / enable your learners? Capture all of this at the top of your board, it’s useful having that to refer to as you go forward.

Now it’s time to think content, but keep it super high level. Start by establishing what the course needs to cover; the key topics and concepts that it wants to help learners acquire. 

Identify what needs to be included

Now zoom in on the content a little. For each of the topics you’ve identified, start breaking them down into specific learning objectives (LOs). A learning objective is an outcome-oriented statement that describes what a learner is able to do as a result of engaging with the content, instruction or experience. So for example, the topic “Using our sales forecasting software effectively” for a new hire might contain the following LOs: 

  • I can log into the sales forecasting software.
  • I can set up a new sales opportunity in our sales forecasting software.
  • I can update and manage my sales opportunities. 
  • I can run sales reports. 

As you can see, the example uses straightward “I can” statements, but LOs could be more sophisticated and make reference to how the capabilities are demonstrated, e.g. I can define …, I can describe…, I know how to… , I can identify…, etc. Try to make them as concrete and action-focused as possible – describe things that we’ll be able to observe or measure a learner doing.

Ultimately, what you’re looking for is a list of skills, knowledge, behaviours that a learner needs to be able to demonstrate by the end of their learning experience. It helps to ask questions like: 

  • What does a learner need to know / do in relation to this topic? 
  • How will the knowledge / skill be used?
  • When will the knowledge / skill be used?
  • How should a learner demonstrate their knowledge / skill?

With your LOs captured, now start thinking about whether or not they need to be covered in a particular sequence. Take our example LOs above as an example. There seems to be a clear sequence emerging there (I can’t update my sales opportunities until I know how to add one, and I can’t add one until I know how to log in). 

Arrange your LOs into a sequence that makes sense and park them in a holding station on your storyboard. 

Step 3: Get storyboarding

Start at the end

It sounds odd, but it makes sense. By starting at the end you clearly define what a learner needs to be able to demonstrate at the culmination of their learning experience, which then means you can walk backwards from there. By trying to map the journey from the start and working chronologically you risk taking it in a different direction, or including messaging and concepts that don’t serve a clear purpose. 

So, pull down your first LO and position it against the sequence of frames you defined in Step 2. Zip over to the final frame in that stage and start defining what that part of the story looks like. What is a learner doing here to show they have acquired the desired skills  or knowledge? Think about the messaging, assets and activities that they will encounter to enable them to demonstrate that and capture it on post-its. 

🗒️ A quick note on post-its: We use different coloured post its to denote different types of content or components within the learning experience, for example:

  • Key point to land
  • Stats / Evidence to support key point
  • Specific questions / Activities
  • Video
  • Tools / resources

Choose a system that works for you, as it really helps you to see how these are distributed across the course as you start to build out your storyboard.

With your end state defined, move backwards through your storyboard and repeat the same process at each step. You’re aiming to get a first pass at a journey that you can refine and build on. By the time you’ve finished the first step in the journey, take a step back and revisit the LO you were working on. 

  • Does the flow you’ve just captured effectively help them achieve that?
  • Do the steps present a natural, relevant flow?
  • Is there anything missing? Or, more importantly …
  • Is there anything that doesn’t need to be there?  

Go back and tweak as necessary, and make sure the whole team is giving their input.

Add layers

Once you’re happy you have your learning journey storyboarded, think about adding more layers to bring out more detail. The specifics of this might differ depending on the type of course you are working on, but here are examples of what we add to the baseline journey:

  • Emotional experiences: how do you want the learner to feel as a result of engaging with this course, or a specific part within it? Confident? Curious? How might we achieve that?
  • Value bombs: is there an opportunity to add some element of surprise or delight to the experience? Ideally, something valuable and compelling that adds a real “Wow” moment to the course? We love to include incredible facts or quotes to add something special.

Final thoughts

Storyboarding is a really effective way to build a course based on what’s most important to the learner. It gives you complete visibility over how your course is shaping up, and what you need to go on to create to bring it to life.

If you’re interested in find out how our storyboarding process can help you with your next online course project, drop us a line.

Listen to our podcast episode on storyboarding courses

In this episode of our podcast Adventures in Learning Design, Tim and Laurie speak to Lucy Williams from the LearnJam team about how we use storyboarding and why it works so well. We also share some tips and ideas for how to storyboard remotely.