How we researched our learning design principles (Podcast episode 10)

In Episode 10 of our podcast, Adventures in Learning Design, Tim and Laurie talked to Laura Patsko about her approach to researching and compiling our Learning Design Principles. Laura is a freelance language and pedagogy consultant and one of the best researchers that we’ve ever worked with. 

Laura was instrumental in helping us to create our Learning Design Principles, a set of evidence-informed learning principles which we use to guide all of the decisions that we make when we’re designing learning experiences. Laura talked us through the different stages in her research process to give us a better understanding of the methodology that she used to work through the complexity of the subject that she was tackling. 

How do you describe what you do? 

Everything I do is related to helping adults learn more effectively, whether that’s working directly with adults, teaching them English as a second language, or teaching people how to do that (teacher training). It’s all about making the experience of learning as effective and as enjoyable as it can be.

What led you to being a Learning Experience Designer?  

The road to being a learning experience designer was quite long and winding; studying linguistics, studying language, training to teach, eventually becoming a teacher trainer, then going on to do a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching (ELT). I got into research and publishing while still training and teaching. 

I like the term ‘learning experience design’ because I think it includes all of those things; the learning, the teaching, the training, the materials, writing, the content, the course design, the research – all of that wrapped up together is what it means to design a learning experience. So, that’s what I do now; I do a little bit of all those things. It’s been a really interesting journey.

What was your experience of working with us to develop our Learning Design Principles? 

We started with a wall of many, many Post-its! It’s become a bit of a cliche; a brainstorm of Post-its in all different colours, but it was actually a really good place to start. We were pooling the collective knowledge, experience and questions of the whole team, moving the notes around trying to spot themes. We were able to see gaps in the knowledge that we had, where our questions were similar and where we wanted to learn more. A huge part of the process was asking “What don’t we know? Where do we still have a lot to learn and how do we go about filling those gaps?” 

That beginning point is a really good way of spotting what assumptions we’re making. There’s a lot of shared knowledge and experience when you’ve gone through similar training and professional experience, but there’s also certain assumptions that you don’t even realise you’re making until you see it exposed by somebody who has written it down on paper. 

I think it’s really important to be reminded, when you’re designing learning experiences, of how it feels to be a learner; how it feels to notice something for the first time, or to realise you’re making an assumption or to to just question what you think is obvious.

You can only really learn when you have that kernel of uncertainty, and you realise that nobody knows everything. That’s really fertile ground for developing something like these principles.

How did you tackle the process of paring down the initial brainstorming?

I don’t always follow the exact same process for any research project. In this case, we did have a starting point, we had some things that we knew to be true from our own backgrounds and training. I then went back to some sources that I remember consulting when I was training as a teacher. One of my favorite things to do is to take a journal article that has been very influential, look through its reference list, and then find some of those references. You dig down into the chain of thinking and influence, and you work back and try and find out what has informed this paper, which then informed that one, which then informed that researcher, who is now doing this?

I started with a few key texts and began to interrogate their reference list. From there, it just explodes because you start to come across the same names. You read more of those people’s work; you discover new names, and you start to explore the people behind the research. For me, that’s really important; these are not just ideas on paper, there are people like you and me out there who have really good questions and have dedicated time to answering and investigating them. I explored particular researchers, and what they’ve published and what questions they’ve asked. This all took months, this is not just sitting in a cafe on a Saturday for an hour.

How are you able to effectively read and digest dense academic research articles? Do you have a process for getting through all of that information and pulling out what’s most useful?  

I’m really glad you asked that, because when I was a fresh young researcher I hated academic reading. I found it really daunting because it can be so dense. Some people love to sit in a chair with a really hefty academic text for several hours and just mine it for all it’s worth, and reflect. I don’t have that kind of attention span or dedication. I find it really hard, if I’m not hooked in the first paragraph, to get into it a dense text. But, it’s important to put in the work because some of the stuff out there that’s published and is, for me, difficult to read is so valuable. 

My process has ended up being a mix of the academic; what do I actually need to get from this text? And the personal; how do I make this work with the way that I work, the way that my brain works? What I tend to do is start with a shortlist. I might start with 10. I read the intros, take a couple of notes, and then take a break. Then I come back and see which of those looks worthwhile for exploring further given the purpose I was reading for. 

It’s easy to accidentally end up reading and reading and reading and trying to process something that actually maybe isn’t super relevant to what you were trying to learn. For me, the only way that I keep that perspective is to take breaks. 

It’s what works for me, it’s not what works for all people. Some people need to block out several hours and just stick with one thing. I just don’t work that way. I think if I’d been told that at the beginning of my career as a researcher, if I was given permission to read in smaller chunks over time and take breaks to think and process, I might have found it easier from the beginning. It’s really important, as a researcher, to work out the process that works for you.

How did you go about translating your research into practical suggestions and tips for what a learning designer needs to do with that?

That’s a really good question, and it’s hard to answer because I don’t think there is just one simple answer. 

That interface between research insights and practical application is really important. It’s all too easy for people to fall into one of the two categories rather than sitting in the uncomfortable interface. What do we do with this learning? Ultimately, we were trying to articulate the principles that underpin all our practices. The purpose of putting together the Learning Design Principles as a document wasn’t to spell out specific practices or to advise learning designers to do a particular thing or apply a particular method. But, people respond to practical examples. It’s about interpretation, and this is what good teachers do all the time; they take a context-free bit of material and interpret that for a particular learner. 

When we were putting together the Learning Design Principles, we looked a lot at what we were calling vignettes – little illustrations of the research in practice. In the process of reading through research, sometimes I found examples that the researchers had given and said “We think this can be used in this way” or “We would advise people to be careful of this or that”. Some of it was already embedded in the research, and some of it was just a process of interpretation, and that was about drawing on my experience, as a teacher and a trainer, in relating the abstract to the concrete. 

It’s a really difficult question to answer because there wasn’t just one way of making all this knowledge practical, but that was always in the forefront of my mind. It was a balancing act, but I think the conversations that we had as a team were really important for that, because we were all able to say, “Well, what about this context I used to teach in?” Or “What about this learner I’ve been designing for? How would this work for them?”

We always kept the practical in mind while we were writing down the principles. I think that comes through in the final document.

How do we see our Learning Design Principles stacking up in the light of recent global events? Does it need to change? How do we manage that change over time? 

In my opinion, it still stacks up because they are principles. They’re not concrete practices. They’re principles on which to base your practice, whether that be in a face-to-face classroom, online, or learning remotely while working from home. However, it’s impossible to get away entirely from your assumptions. We’re all humans in the world, and we have certain things that we take for granted as a way of filtering the vast amount of information that exists out there. 

What we were trying to do was put together principles that could underpin an effective experience of learning for any adult in any context, and the practice would look different according to the adult and according to the context. 

What’s not spelled out in the principles anywhere is, who are the huge diverse range of learners? It’s an impossible situation because, in order to be extensively inclusive and diverse, you can’t be too specific. You’re already limiting yourself. 

They still stand up in the world as it is now because like I say, they were general principles of how people learn and can be enacted in different ways. If we say, for example, that you have to “respect the limits of working memory” … well, that hasn’t particularly changed just because a lot of people are learning online now. Or if you say, “use a combination of spaced and massed practice”, again, that still stands up. You might do those differently; you might do them on paper, or you might do them online as part of a remote course, because your university is locked down. 

The idea of combining different ways of practicing is still valid. There are ways to make sure that you design learning experiences that will work for everybody. I think that’s something that we’re still working out; what sort of advice to give learning designers in that respect. But these principles still stand, they might just be augmented, added or refined, but I don’t think they’ll change dramatically just because the world has changed dramatically.

You should always continue reflecting. People are not fixed static beings across their lifespan. If we believe, and I think we all do, that learning happens throughout your life, then that means that we’re always going to revisit and re-evaluate, and that the process is ongoing.

This kind of research is an ongoing and never ending process. The world is always changing. And we’re always trying to learn new things. 

Maybe a way of summarising all of this is to say that processes are rarely complete and finished in learning. We always revisit and reevaluate. It’s all well and good to sit here and say, “Okay, done! We’ve published some learning design principles.” But of course, it’s not done. There will be a version 2.0 one day, and as people come and go from this core team of LearnJam designers, new ideas will come in and will continue evolving. In our professional lives, we will continue evolving and moving and changing and learning. And that will influence everything we do at work.Learning should feel exciting.

We should look forward to the future things that we don’t know yet. The underlying principles won’t change massively because it takes a very long time, like centuries, for human beings and our brains and our societies to change massively. But the practices absolutely will evolve all the time, and that is really exciting. How do we interpret these principles for a new changing world?

You can download you own copy of our Learning Design Principles here.