Less is (nearly always) more

You’ve probably heard the old adage, ‘less is more’. But how does this apply to learning design and content development? How might we go against our instinct to keep adding?

Subtracting seems at odds with the world today and our inclination to add; especially where year-on-year growth is the aim of most organisations. There is often a feeling that the more we add, the more we are seen as having contributed. Subtraction generally takes more thought but is less tangible and harder to measure.

Although society tends to overlook subtractive changes, subtraction can be a clever way to innovate. For example, we used to (slowly) learn to ride on a tricycle or a bicycle with added training wheels; until removal of the pedals gave birth to the balance bike and got a whole new generation of cyclists started a lot younger. Another example is traffic lights. In some European cities, planners have taken them away in order to make streets safer.

What does this have to do with learning design and content development? 

All too often, clients believe an online course will be better if it does more. This could mean adding more learning objectives, more skills, more modules and more content. However, this is at odds with learning science and what we know about cognitive load. More doesn’t equate to more being learned. In fact, quite the opposite. 

When stakeholders ask for more, Lauren Waldman challenges them to try and juggle four objects at once [we’re looking forward to trying this!].

Radical storyboarding

So now you know that as humans we love addition, we recommend that you storyboard your course with the minimum in mind. Even then, you should go back and review it with your ‘subtraction goggles’ on and delete anything that feels extra or unnecessary (learning objectives included). 

Because it’s more difficult to subtract once content development is underway, it’s better to address subtractions at the early stages of course design. And because subtracting is not our default position, it can help to go one step further and ask ‘What would this learning experience look like if we didn’t create any content at all?’. 

Imagine a scenario in which you’ve been ask to develop a course aimed at teaching English to learners wishing to work in the digital economy. Could you think of some problems these learners have to face and set them the challenge of solving them without providing any content at all? Could they look online to find examples of a CV relevant to their field and then work to make it their own?

It’s against our instinct to go down this path as we worry that we’re doing ourselves out of a job but by being more radical and starting with nothing, we can ensure that every element that does make it into a course is working as hard as it can do for learners.

The more you try to achieve, the more time and effort is needed (not only on the part of the person writing it but also when it comes to the subsequent edits), and the greater the likelihood of errors creeping in. Keeping it lean is more effective in terms of cost and most importantly, it better benefits the learner

Balancing content, activities and feedback

It’s essential to be strategic and intentional about content. Ask yourself: ‘What are the need-to-knows vs the nice-to-knows?’. If you’re not sure which is which, ask yourself ‘​​How will someone transfer this to be successful in the work they need to do?’. Return to these questions throughout your learning design process.

We also advocate for balance between content and activities (one of our core, evidence-based learning design principles is to ‘provide effective use over time’). For example, you can see what we recommend for video length.

A tip to help you review the proportion of content to activities (and other elements) is to create a colour-coded guide (at storyboarding stage) – potentially working in Airtable (or equivalent). This is something that Diana Laurillard advocates for and she offers a free tool for visualising. It helps you to see at glance the balance your course is striking between:

  • content/input (read/watch/listen) 
  • collaboration
  • discussion
  • investigation
  • practice
  • production/application/activity

Content – i.e. the most passive element of your course – should take up just a small fraction of your learning experience, with the bulk taking the form of practice.

The level of feedback you provide is also a big consideration. If you aim for each practice activity being followed by concise, meaningful and applicable feedback then you’re giving your learners the best chance to learn. 

Additional resources

Additional reading & listening

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