Book Review: Design for How People Learn by Julie Dirksen


If you’ve poked around in the field of instructional design and/or learning and development for even a short while, the chances are pretty good that you’ve heard of Julie Dirksen’s book Design for How People Learn. And, the chances that you’ve heard nice things about Dirksen’s book are equally good. Design for How People Learn is very well regarded and seems to be becoming a bit of a modern classic in the field. I was a little behind the times in reading it, but I’m happy to say I’ve now finished it and am ready to join the people saying nice things about it.

First, a little about Julie Dirksen. She’s an instructional designer with a really nice blog called Usable Learning ( The blog has lots of helpful information, and Dirksen frequently responds to reader comments there. She’s been kind enough to respond to mine in the past, for example.

Convergence Training is a training solutions provider that makes many libraries of off-the-shelf e-learning courses, several different learning management systems (LMSs) for companies of different sizes, industries, and training needs, and more. Contact us to learn more and set up a demo.

In addition, she’s got a book that focuses on designing effective training materials: Design for How People Learn. The book was published recently—in November of 2011—and the fact that you already hear it mentioned so often is pretty impressive.

If you want to learn from Dirksen’s book, the best thing to do is to read it. It’s short, has a lot of fun images that help explain the topics, and includes multiple examples to help make the conceptual stuff more concrete. On top of all that, Dirksen’s a clear, concise writer with a casual, entertaining, and funny voice. So reading the book is a treat.

But, if you want a quick “what’s it all about?” overview, below is a short review of each chapter. My little “chapter reviews” below lean heavily on the summaries that Dirksen includes at the end of each chapter, a feature of the book that I really valued. And since we’re discussing parts of the book I admired, I also enjoyed the bibliographies she included at the end of each chapter and the multiple references to different books throughout her own book.

Where Do We Start?: In this chapter, Dirksen covers the importance of creating training to help the learner do more (instead of just know more); identifying “gaps,” including knowledge gaps, skill gaps, motivation gaps, environment gaps, and communication gaps; and the importance of identifying the problem you’re hoping to fix with training.

Who Are Your Learners?: This chapter discusses the importance of knowing characteristics of the learners and designing training to match those characteristics. This includes tips for working with novice and more experienced learners; tips on organizing content to make it more memorable; tips on making learning experiences two-way interactions; the importance of getting to know the learners and investigating their work environment; and more.

What’s the Goal?: Here she discusses the importance of asking “why?” many times before creating training; properly defining the problem before you begin creating a training solution; making “useful and usable” learning objectives; determining how sophisticated your learner’s understanding must be and how proficient they must be (and then designing training to those end goals); and the importance of designing proper training for slow and fast skills.

How Do We Remember?: In this chapter, she lays out how people remember things and provides tips for providing training that learners will remember. This includes a discussion of encoding information in the long-term memory and later retrieving it; how to attract a learner’s attention; varying training methods to prevent habituation (and toning out) of monotony; limiting information and chunking it into smaller pieces to avoid overwhelming the learner’s memory; the importance of repeated practice; helping learners connect the dots between new information and existing information; providing training in the same emotional context that the learner will later need to use the information/skill; the importance of storytelling to aid memory; advantages and disadvantages of pure repetition; and different types of memory (procedural memory, muscle memory, and flashbulb memory).

How Do You Get Their Attention?: Here Dirksen explains the importance of capturing the learner’s attention, particularly what she calls “the elephant” (the emotional, visceral part of our brain). She covers the difference between attracting attention and maintaining it, and gives some broad tips on how to get and maintain their attention (with extended discussions of each), including storytelling, surprise, visual techniques, social and collaborative aspects of learning, and making use of the learner’s pre-existing habits.

Design for Knowledge: Here she talks about designing training for knowledge acquisition, focusing on the following three questions: “will the learners remember; does the learner understand, and how much guidance should you give learners?” In this context, she discusses the importance of having learners consider what they already know; metacognition; tips for making things more memorable (or, as she calls it, “sticky,”) including “creating friction” by making learning more interactive; the importance of showing instead of telling; helping your learners understand by providing less information instead of more, by providing detail but not too much, and by keeping material relevant to the learners; providing the appropriate level of guidance to match the desired end behavior (sometimes, less guidance is more desirable); and the importance of making the learner feel confident.

Design for Skills: In this chapter, Dirksen sketches out tips for teaching people skills, focusing on practice and feedback. In considering practice, she discusses the importance of structuring the practice for the most effectiveness, including allowing people to return to practice repeatedly and not forcing the learner to do too much at one time. While discussing feedback, she covers the frequency with which the learner gets feedback (more is better than less), diversity of feedback, and post-training feedback; and she ends with a look at how games are structured, explaining how we can apply that same structure to learning experiences.

Design for Motivation: Dirksen begins by explaining that there are two types of motivation important to instructional design: motivation to learn, and motivation to do. This chapter focuses on the learner’s motivation to do, including how we learn from experience, the difficulty of changing an existing behavior, hints for applying the technology acceptance model (TAM) for training, and lessons from Everett Rogers’ book Diffusions of Innovations as a way to consider how new technologies will be accepted and spread.

Design for Environment: In this chapter, Dirksen explains the importance of training for the job environment, including the possibility of not creating training at all in cases when reorganizing a work station, changing a job process, automating a procedure, and/or providing a job aid would be more effective. She also discusses the importance of putting knowledge where a learner needs it (instead of off in a remote file cabinet).

If you’re read Dirksen’s book, we’d be curious to know what you thought of it. Leave a comment below if you’re so inclined.


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