A practical guide to creating learning tutorials: part 2

Practical guidesIn part 1 of this Practical Guide, we examined the history, characteristics and benefits of the digital learning tutorial. In this second part, we uncover some strategies you can use to design tutorials that impart important knowledge.

Engage the learner

You cannot take for granted that the learner is interested in the information you want to convey. You have no automatic right to their attention. Your first task is to engage the learner in the tutorial by persuading them that the subject in question matters to them – not to people in general, but them.

You may be pretty sure that your learners will come to your tutorial motivated, but even then it makes sense to explain why the topic is relevant to their work and how they stand to benefit by sticking with you until the end.

Engaging the learner
This opening screen is designed to engage the learner with the topic - in this case managing stress at work

In other cases you may need to make a greater effort, to somehow demonstrate the importance of the topic. This can be achieved through a simple but credible example – a case study, a scenario, a ‘war story’ if you like, ideally one with which the learner can easily identify. The storyline should demonstrate what the negative consequences might be if the learner was to remain in ignorance of the important information you have to offer. If you can’t come up with a plausible storyline, ask yourself whether you really do have a learning need.

Explore the learning content

Learning happens as learners make connections and detect patterns. So all learning is actually built on previous learning – it cannot occur in isolation. For this reason, just about every learner will benefit from relevant examples, analogies and metaphors. They might also surprise you by having some or all of the required knowledge already. Some of the most successful knowledge tutorials start by checking what the learner already knows and then working to fill in the gaps.

Checking prior knowledge
These interactions build on what the learner already knows rather than assuming they are complete novices

Sooner or later you will want to present what needs to be known, as clearly and succinctly as possible, making good use of visuals to clarify your points and improve retention. If you have some ‘must knows’ as well as ‘nice to knows’, then make absolutely clear what these are – don’t expect learners to work this out for themselves. Even better, move the ‘nice to knows’ to a separate resource which the learner can access later.

Explaining clearly
In this example, the learning content is explained diagramatically, using an animation, as well as in a simple, tabular form

Abstractions are not enough, so don’t hold back – present as many examples as you can. If you’re not sure how many examples to provide, simply ask the learner: “Would you like another example?”

Depending on the type of knowledge, you might want to provide the opportunity for the learner to actively explore the topic in more detail. This particularly makes sense when you are explaining how something works or familiarising the learner with the layout of a physical space, an object or an interface.

Exploring a structure
This screen allows the learner to explore a piece of equipment by rolling their cursor over parts of the picture.

Put the learning to work

The learner is much more likely to retain and recall important information if they are provided with plenty of opportunities to work with it, and in the context of a tutorial that’s likely to mean answering questions. These serve not only to reinforce the learning but also to help you identify gaps which need to be filled. The easiest way for you to fill the gaps is through the feedback you provide to the questions. Although many rapid authoring tools do not make this easy to accomplish, it helps if you can provide different feedback for every answer that the learner can make. Use the feedback to correct any mistakes, not necessarily by repeating the same information from earlier in the tutorial but with a new form of words, perhaps a new example or a new memory aid.

Testing concepts and facts
The example on the left tests for understanding of a concept. The one on the right tests for factual knowledge.
Testing structures
These two examples test for knowledge of the location of a part of a piece of equipment and for the name of a part at a specific location.

You cannot be sure you have achieved your objectives for the tutorial just by asking a few questions and giving feedback. If the learner struggled with the first questions then you should ask some more to make sure the feedback has worked. If in doubt, you could always ask the learner if they want to try more questions. To be honest, most tutorials do not go this trouble, but then most tutorials are a little hit and miss.

Point to the next step

A knowledge tutorial is a catalyst. If you do our job well, you will have excited the learner’s interest in the topic and provided them with a foundation on which to build. Unfortunately, new knowledge cannot be cemented in a single session. Your key learning points will need to be reinforced often before they really stick.

So, finish the tutorial by pointing the learner to the next step, whether this is a further tutorial, web sites that they can explore, a discussion forum or all manner of other resources.

Coming next: Creating how-to tutorials

About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 242 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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