Throw them in the deep end! (but keep a life preserver handy)

“You’re setting them up to fail!” You’ve probably heard this if you’ve proposed
starting with an activity
instead of first providing instruction.

“Everyone knows” that people should be carefully shown how to do something and only then allowed to practice doing it. If you just throw them in the deep end, frustration and cognitive overload and squashed self-esteem will supposedly inhibit their learning.

However, several studies suggest that when we first challenge learners and
give them instruction, we can improve their ability to apply and extend their new knowledge. They could more effectively apply what they’ve learned to their jobs and to new situations.

Scenario-Based Elearning
, Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer point out
this study
on “productive failure,” which led me to several others.

In these and similar studies, students
with some knowledge of a discipline
were given a problem without first being told how to solve it. They floundered, usually in groups, and then their solutions were examined and they were taught the correct process.

These “productive failure” groups were slightly weaker at applying the new process than were the “direct instruction” groups who were first taught what to do. But the former flounderers were clearly better at applying what they learned to other situations and at developing additional models that they hadn’t been taught.

this summary
this study

It’s not clear how much support is best during the initial challenge. Collaboration with other learners seems to help, so in lonely, asynchronous elearning you’ll want to provide at least some scaffolding, such as hints or questions that guide learners to the correct steps to take. If I were queen, this scaffolding would be optional, it wouldn’t teach the content, and it would be
provided in the activity
, not as pre-activity instruction.

Like most research in instruction, these studies were done on elementary and university students, not adults in the working world. But in contrast to many studies, the researchers went beyond assessing the correct regurgitation of facts and looked at how well learners applied and extended their knowledge, which is our goal in business training.

by one of the researchers, Manu Kapur, summarizes some of the findings that might apply to us. Some papers are available as full text:

When you think about the lessons you’ve learned, which are the most memorable — the ones in which someone first taught you everything you needed to know, or the ones in which you at first floundered and even failed? Have you been able to convince stakeholders to let people learn through a challenge rather than instruction? Let us know in the

Online course in scenario design

I’m developing a 4.5-hour scenario design mini-course that anyone can sign up for. We’ll meet online for three 90-minute sessions starting this fall. If you’d like to be notified when the online course is available, please
sign up here
and you’ll be among the first to hear about it.

I’ve also overhauled my
scenario design webinar
. It’s a one-hour online workshop you can request for your team or ASTD chapter.

Australia: upcoming public workshops

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design
    master class
    for training managers at the [email protected] conference
  • Nov. 26, Melbourne: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day
    for ElNet
  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day
    for ElNet

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