Are You Challenging Your Learners? Don’t treat them like babies.

People who play video games are used to challenges, they need to figure out how to navigate a level, they face a “boss” who wants to destroy their character and force them to start a level over again and they are challenged by increasingly difficulty activities in a game based environment. Even angry birds forces players to face more difficult “bird tossing” as the pigs create more and more elaborate shelters at each level.

Employees are faced with difficulty challenges in their jobs, they need to deal with upset co-workers or clients/customers. They must navigate paperwork gauntlets, they must overcome objections and make a sale, they must get past gatekeepers, or solve a difficult technical problem. They are continually challenged by the nature of work.

Trainees are faced with difficult challenge as well, they must stay awake in the class as the trainer lectures or they must pass an insanely poorly designed test at the end of an elearning module. They must figure out how to multi-task and still get the semblance of instruction.

The problem is that, all too often, learning events are not challenging. In fact, they are the opposite. I have been told by training managers that the training is not hard because trainees complain…seriously, they complain so you make training easier…is that helping anyone?

You can complain all you want about the educational system but it does have methods of evaluating learner performance…most corporate, non-profit and government training programs have no such assessment. The employees attend class and then return to work with no attempt to assess performance.

In e-learning we build in multiple choice quizzes but often they are poorly written questions with answers like “All of the Above” or “None of the Above” (by the way, when you see those answers, they are usually the correct response.) Little attempt is made to determine if the learner can apply the learner to an actual job situation.

So, the designers and deliverers of instruction need to make the instruction hard, difficult, frustrating and overwhelming. If people had to work hard in a training session or e-learning course, they would better retain the content, gain more out of the session and actually value the time spent more highly because they were challenged. They couldn’t just sit back and relax or multi-task, they would be engaged.

Start the class with an impossible challenged. Give the learners a version of the Kobayashi Maru make the challenge so hard no one can do it.

Kirk will never forget his impossible training challenge–The Kobayashi Maru

When I was in second grade, our teacher gave us an extremely difficult problem. Anytime the class had 15 minutes or so time to kill, we’d work on the problem. No one could solve it for almost the entire school year. Then we got it, the class was elated and I have never (some 40 years later) forgot the problem or the challenge and how it was solved.

Can any learners who have taken your instruction say that?

I teach a graduate class now where students are tasked with the difficult and unfamiliar (to most) task of writing a proposal and then presenting it to 30 professionals in the field. They struggle, they curse, they cry, they get upset, I’ve even been threatened, jokingly (I think) but in the end, they achieve success. They conquer the challenge and they remember the experience and take it into the field. I hear years later how the experience impacted their professional lives.

So next time you think of “Dummying Down” training or elearning because you don’t want learners to get upset or be challenged. Think again. Challenge your learners, make the instruction hard.

In the end, they’ll thank you for it. They’ll have higher retention, higher recall and higher performance because not only have you helped them learn what they needed to learn, you’ve made it meaningful and an accomplishment.

Even babies get tired of being spoon fed at a certain point and demand the spoon as well as more difficult food to eat (adult food). Don’t treat your learners like Babies.

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Posted in: Design

Leave a Comment (2) ↓


  1. karlkapp September 14, 2011


    You ask a really good question, it is so good, I am going to do an blog entry for the answer. The heart of your question really surrounds the type of content being taught. For the really hard or impossible task, that is more problem-based where a learner is figuring something out or applying a set of defined rules. Software or procedural training is a bit different . It still needs to be task oriented but one cannot typically figure out software without focusing on the basics.

    See the blog entry titled “Three Steps for Teaching Software Procedures” (to be posted soon)

  2. Tyler September 13, 2011

    Ok now I am curious….what was the problem that you remember 40 yrs ago?