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Leading Through Design: Five Guidelines for e-Learning Success

by Bill Brandon

February 7, 2005


by Bill Brandon

February 7, 2005

"Facts and concepts support processes, which support principles and procedures needed for dynamic problem-solving. In our careers as designers, we go through the same sequence. The process may feel awkward at times, it may even be a little frustrating, but it’s all part of leading instead of following."

Leadership, as so many experts on the subject point out, often requires making decisions based on incomplete information. Even though instructional designers might be the last people in the world to think of themselves as leaders, we must guide e-Learning development in an uncertain, risky world where we have incomplete information about how people learn and about the exact outcomes our clients want.

Furthermore, designers can rarely count on having the entire budget, staff, cooperation, or learner time required to obtain the best results. We may have some idea of what it takes to build e-Learning that works, but it often happens that the organization or the client can’t afford to build it, or that the decision-maker won’t accept the design or ideas we present. Another disconnect comes when e-Learning is expected to provide results quickly and cheaply — what Clark Aldrich refers to as the “MacDonald’s Drive Through” model of learning.

Some impressive demonstrations of effective e-Learning turn out to be proofs-of-concept, built by international teams of experts on a two-year schedule, with $10 million provided by venture capitalists. However, most designers seem to live in a world where they have a $10,000 budget and three people in their department to solve a $1 million skill or knowledge problem in 90 days.

So, what are designers to do? One part of the answer is to use the guidance available from research and from learning theory. Over the last three years, articles in Learning Solutions Magazine and a number of excellent books (see Sidebars 1 and 2) have identified ideas that will help designers address different learning needs in particular ways. However, the ideas in these different sources have seldom been discussed in relationship to each other, and there are few, if any, examples of these ideas being applied together.


SIDEBAR 1 Print resources

Aldrich, Clark. Simulations and the Future of Learning: An innovative (and perhaps revolutionary) approach to e-Learning. 2004: Pfeiffer. ISBN 0-7879-6962-1.
An overview of development and use of interactive simulations, presented as a case study of a proof-of-concept project at SimuLearn.

Clark, Ruth Colvin. Developing Technical Training: A structured approach for the development of classroom and computer-based instructional materials. 1994: Buzzards Bay Press. ISBN 0-9641-0450-4.
A definitive explanation of content types and how to teach each of them. More focus on technical skills, but some discussion of “soft skills” training as well. It addresses classroom delivery, with suggestions for e-Learning.

Clark, Ruth Colvin. Building Expertise: Cognitive methods for training and performance improvement. (Second edition). 2003:ISPI. ISBN 1-890289-13-2.
A companion book to Developing Technical Training, it has more information on how the brain works, presented as “dry” cognitive theory. It is focused on managing cognitive load and on facilitating far transfer. It also gives a good account of the various models of learning and of instructional architectures. Most of the examples illustrate e-Learning applications, but the content works for classroom delivery in a “blended” situation as well.

Clark, Ruth Colvin and Mayer, Richard E. e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning. 2003: Josey-Bass/Pfeiffer. ISBN 0-7879-6051-9.
It presents six principles and a number of guidelines for design of e-Learning, all supported by research findings. Chapters 1 and 2 provide a rapid overview of learning theory as applied to e-Learning. This is organized around what the designer, developer, and manager need to know in order to apply the principles. It is less about high-level design than about execution of details (although there are cases presented throughout that help to keep things in perspective), and readers will want to study it thoroughly while keeping their overall plan in mind.

Clark, Ruth Colvin, and Lyons, Chopeta. Graphics for Learning: Proven guidelines for planning, designing, and evaluating visuals in training materials. 2004: Josey- Bass/Pfeiffer. ISBN 0-7879-6994.
How to design effective graphics for print and for e-Learning. The sections of the book are laid out in a way to give guidance to the instructional designer and to the graphic designer, with evidence from research to support the suggestions. This is primarily a reference work, and could provide a basis for an in-house graphics standards document.

Jonassen, David H., et al. Learning to Solve Problems with Technology: A constructivist perspective. (Second edition). 2003: Pearson Education, Inc. ISBN 0-13- 048403-2.
Provides an excellent introduction to constructivist approaches, and relates constructivism to other learning theories. Includes examples and references, both online and in print. Very accessible resource for a topic that is often mired in academic language.


SIDEBAR 2 Related articles from Learning Solutions Magazine
January 17, 2005
Building an e-Learning Strategy That Keeps Pace With Business Wayne Goldstein

September 17, 2002
The Power of Simulation-Based e-Learning (SIMBEL) Randal Kindley
June 29, 2004
Applying Instructional System Processes to Constructivist Learning Environments
Bill Brandon

September 10, 2002
Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why
Ruth Colvin Clark
June 14, 2004
Constructing Knowledge: Tools for Learners
Bill Brandon
June 11, 2002
Simulations: Creating Engaging e-Learning Worlds
Eric Parks

June 1, 2004 How Do People Learn? Some New Ideas for e-Learning Designers
Bill Brandon
September 4, 2002 Beyond Interactivity: Immersive Web-Based Learning Experiences
Alan Whiteside

August 11, 2003 and September 15, 2003 More Than Just Eye Candy: Graphics for e-Learning, Parts 1 and 2
Ruth Colvin Clark and Chopeta Lyons



After looking over magazine and journal articles, books, and ideas presented in academic papers, and reflecting on my own experience, I realized that there are a handful of essential guidelines that can be drawn from this body of work and research. In the next few pages I will present these to you, along with some suggestions about how to use them in combination to support learning in the face of uncertainty and resource limitations.

What we think we know about human learning

After all the research that has been done about how people learn, all the “dry” cognitive models (the ones that compare the brain to a computer), all the “wet” experimentation (observation of the brain, indirectly through the behavior of injury victims, and more directly with modern imaging technology), we still don’t know many of the specifics of how people learn. Here is a fast summary of what researchers and theorists, wet and dry, think we know.

From senses to storage: “Dry” cognitive theory

“Learning” involves collecting sensory information of various kinds and storing it in the nervous systems associated with the senses, and in various locations in the brain. The information must be stored in such a way that it can be recalled appropriately and used correctly when needed. This is often referred to as “encoding” although no one has identified the exact way in which encoding occurs.

People take in information all the time through all of their senses. They are not consciously aware of most of the information. They consciously attend only to selected information. All of the information taken in — consciously or not — may contribute to learning. Some branches of psychology, most notably neurolinguistic programming, seek to manipulate the accessing, processing, storage, and retrieval of all of the information, including that which a person is not consciously aware of, but these techniques are somewhat controversial and are not generally useful in e-Learning.

For the purposes of the instructional designer, the main senses that we ordinarily use to deliver instruction through e-Learning are sight and hearing. Some use is made of touch, mainly in certain simulations and in devices to assist the blind or sight-impaired in reading what is on a computer screen. Current limitations of hardware restrict or preclude use of various forms of kinesthetic information (body sensations, movement, and position), temperature, and the senses of smell and taste in e-Learning, although all of these are important in certain traditional teaching situations and vital to human learning outside of organized learning contexts.

Sight presents a particular challenge to the e-Learning designer, in that the eyes are used to acquire content presented as text, as graphics and photographic images, as video, and as animations. The visual system, like all of the sensory systems, has a small amount of independent memory and a specific channel for transferring the stored information to the brain’s working memory. This memory and transfer capacity can be “overloaded” and information can be “lost” to conscious awareness, overlooked, or confused as a result. This means that the e-Learning designer must plan carefully and not place too much content in the visual channel. (Figures 4 and 5 in Ruth Clark’s 2002 article, “Six Principles of Effective e-Learning: What Works and Why,” illustrate the basic processes involved.)

Fortunately, content that could be presented as text can be delivered instead in audible form. Information received visually and information received through hearing travels in different channels. The two streams generally do not interfere with each other, although it is possible to send so much information through either or both channels that the brain has trouble dealing with all of it.

Information arrives in working memory, where it is “encoded” and sent to long-term memory, perhaps after being combined with other information retrieved from long-term memory. There are certain strategies, such as rehearsal, spatial association, or mnemonic association that can facilitate transfer to long-term memory.

Mastery and over learning

In the case of skill training, these strategies can be used, together with repetition, practice, and feedback, to help learners achieve a “mastery” level of learning — that is, to satisfy the learning objectives. The strategies and practice can then be repeated past the point of mastery, so that learners achieve “over learning” and can perform the skills with little or no conscious attention or effort. Once a skill has been over learned, it can be incorporated into attainment of higher-level objectives or skills.

For example, musicians typically learn scales, and chords for some instruments, to the point of mastery and then continue to practice these scales and chords until they can play them fluidly and without thinking about all the physical details involved (finger positions, breathing, foot movement, etc.). At this point, the musician has developed the dexterity required for expert-level performance. Over time, the musician will develop automaticity — the ability to perform without paying conscious attention to the individual supporting skills. Automaticity is one of the defining characteristics of expert performance.

Given enough time and appropriate support, anyone can learn to do anything. In the classroom, significant numbers of learners may fail to reach mastery, and relatively few learners get a chance to overlearn skills. These shortcomings are the result of insufficient time, lack of sufficient guidance, modeling, and feedback (an instructor can only be in one place at any given moment), and perhaps other factors as well, such as longer-term support for repetition or rehearsal. One of the great benefits of e-Learning is that there are fewer constraints on time and practice, and more learners can achieve mastery and automaticity.

”Wet” cognitive research: the real deal

Some of the physical sites involved in memory and learning have been identified. It is important to recognize that processing of sensory input occurs in many areas of the brain. For example, we know that working memory resides in the hippocampus deep in the center of the brain, and that long-term memory is spread out across the entire brain. The system for processing and storage, and the relationship between all of the sites involved, are not understood and is being studied. Designers would do well to pay attention to what brain researchers are discovering, and to take this information into account when designing instruction. Sidebar 3 provides some online resources for this purpose. The Brain Connection, in particular, is a collection of articles and discussions that provides ongoing depth of coverage with the instructional designer and educators in mind.


SIDEBAR 3 Online resources

Encyclopedia of Educational Technology
Selected topics:

  • Attention
  • Automaticity
  • Long-term memory and Instructional Design (ID)
  • Overlearning
  • Short-term memory and ID
  • Working memory

Human memory: “Dry” cognitive theory (Good overview and
links to related articles; note that this URL is on a vendor site.) (Editor's Note: As of January 25, 2010, this article appears to have been removed from the Web.)

Human memory: “Wet” cognitive theory
Wolfe, Patricia. Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice.
2001: ASCD. Chapter 7, Long-Term Memory: The Brain’s Storage System, provides
a short but complete summary of wet cognitive theory.
Erlauer, Laura. The Brain-Compatible Classroom: Using What We Know About
Learning to Improve Teaching. 2003: ASCD. Chapter 1, A Walk Through the
Brain also summarizes recent findings.
Both are online at

Brain research: Learning and memory
The Brain Connection at offers a collection of very useful articles and links
that summarize the latest information in this area.


The guidelines: Overview

Here are the five guidelines that, it seems to me, we can draw from current research. Remember that these are guidelines, not rules. They do not, by themselves, guarantee successful e-Learning.

Guidelines 1 through 4: Method selection

The first four guidelines address default selection of method for various kinds of content. These are based on research that appears in David Jonassen’s work on constructivism, in Clark Aldrich’s study of simulations, and in Ruth Clark’s books, among many other places. The guidelines are listed in what seems to me to be their order of importance to successful design.

  1. If the learning objective involves dynamic problem solving, use a constructivist design.
  2. If the learning objective requires applying principles or procedures, use the highest-fidelity simulation you can afford to produce.
  3. If the learning objective requires learning processes and concepts, make effective use of multimedia.
  4. If the learning objective requires mastery of facts, use alternatives to rote memorization, along with effective use of multimedia, to facilitate learning.

As you go down this list, the cost and time these guidelines require for implementation decreases, but so does the value of the solution. Perhaps because of their lower cost and shorter development time, the last two guidelines seem to be used more often than the first two. Unfortunately, the further down the list, the higher the probability that the results from applying a single guideline won’t adequately address a performance problem.

Designers should apply the first four guidelines in combination with each other to reach more complex objectives. For example, to become effective in sales, a learner will need to master product features and benefits (facts), use certain processes and concepts in locating and planning the approach to potential buyers, become effective in applying certain principles and procedures while talking to potential buyers, and be successful in helping to solve the potential buyer’s problems. While mastering the objectives in this progression, the learner will benefit if the designer appropriately incorporates each of the methods as suggested in the first four guidelines.

Guideline 5: Learning takes time

The fifth guideline applies to all of the others: Don’t be in a hurry. That is, don’t rush the learners. Learning spread out over time, through additional review and practice after mastery, is generally more effective than trying to concentrate all of the learning in a single session. Resist the pressure to produce “drive through” e-Learning.

Applying the guidelines

The bases and the details for the first four guidelines are described in previous issues of Learning Solutions Magazine, so much of what follows is a brief recap, not a complete presentation. See the sidebars previously cited for the specific article titles and publication dates, along with printed and online works that will be helpful to design efforts.

Guideline 1: Constructivist designs facilitate learning to perform dynamic problem-solving

Whenever possible, use a constructivist design that requires people to work together to solve a problem or to answer a question. If group work is not practical, use a constructivist design that requires the individual to research and answer the question.

As David Jonassen points out, constructivist designs involve “collaborative social interaction and individual inquiry to support construction of knowledge by the learners.” Some common types include:

  • Case-based reasoning
  • Cognitive apprenticeships
  • Constructivist learning environments(CLEs)
  • Problem-based learning (PBL)
  • Goal-based scenarios
  • Situated learning

Be sure that the design includes a means of verifying or validating the information used, and for validating the solution. In addition, when a group is working together, the design should get everyone involved and contributing.

The usual objections from decision makers to constructivist methods have less to do with expense than with the amount of time that may be required and with the apparent novelty of the methods. “How can you teach our people to plan and make sales calls when you’ve never ‘carried the bag’ yourself?” Fortunately, constructivism isn’t about teaching — it’s about learning and about providing a safe environment for people to learn to solve problems. Properly positioned and presented in this way, constructivist designs become planning exercises, debriefing sessions, and assistance for the learner’s manager.

Technology is used differently in constructivist approaches, compared to other learning designs. Instead of using technology to deliver instruction, the learners use technology to support that collaborative social interaction and individual inquiry mentioned earlier, in their pursuit and construction of knowledge. In the e-Learning context, the designer will be constructing virtual environments where the learners can do this work. I described various tools for this purpose in my June 14, 2004 article in Learning Solutions Magazine, “Constructing Knowledge: Tools for Learners.”

Guideline 2: Interactive simulations facilitate transfer of principles and procedures to the job.

Interactive simulations vary in many ways, but the level of fidelity is probably the most critical dimension. “Level of fidelity” refers to the exactness of the simulation. At the highest level of fidelity, the learner finds the simulated experience almost indistinguishable from “the real thing” in any way that bears on the task being performed. Aircraft simulators used to train airline pilots, for example, move about all three axes, present a convincing visual and kinesthetic simulation, and contain a complete set of “working” instruments. “Flight simulator” software running on a desktop computer provides a much lower level of fidelity.

Interactive simulations are effective not only because of their fidelity, but also because they engage the emotions of the learner. The search for meaning occurs through patterning, and emotions are critical to patterning. In addition, some researchers suggest that a learning environment is most effective when it includes three key factors: immersion in complex experiences, low threat/high challenge, and active processing. These factors are characteristic of high-fidelity interactive simulations.

Use the highest fidelity you can afford and create the most appropriate interactive simulation design if the learning requires application of principles, or if mistakes in the real world could cause death or injury. Adjust the level of fidelity as necessary to help the learner focus on the essentials in the simulation, and not on any distractions. Always include feedback and debriefing in the design of simulations at any level of fidelity.

Simulations are useful for developing soft skills and other learning in which principles must be personalized and generalized across situations. In the process, designers should differentiate interactive simulations from simulations that are basically demonstrations, such as a recorded sequence of actions in use of a software application. Demonstrations have their place (see Guideline 3), but they do not allow the learner to interact significantly.

Designers should also make some distinctions between interactive simulations and interactive games. Some interactive games are useful in helping with mastery and over learning of facts, concepts, and processes, but this does not make them interactive simulations. A simulation should help to transfer a skill to a job setting, and should help a learner to integrate individual lower-level skills into a smooth performance. Clark Aldrich also makes another distinction in his book, in that games are often about scoring points, while interactive simulations are usually about improving levels of performance and about results on the job.

Lower levels of fidelity are acceptable if the learning involves application of procedures, again, as long as risk of death or injury is not involved. An example of this might be “entry-level” training, where individuals learn one basic way to handle a situation, with limited options for use in specific circumstances.

Design and development of interactive simulations involves, for now and especially for high levels of fidelity, large budgets and lots of time. This may place them out of a designer’s reach, at least as stand-alone e-Learning applications. Fortunately, you may still be able to incorporate classroom or synchronous approaches into a blended design. Prior to e-Learning, instructional designers devised a number of classroom approaches to simulation, from critical incidents and role plays to in-basket exercises and assessment centers. Discussion of these techniques is well beyond the scope of this article, but they would be well worth re-examining if you have a need for simulation to support learning, but no budget to support development.

Guideline 3: Use effective graphics and multimedia to help learners master processes and concepts.

Use graphics and multimedia correctly to present concepts and processes. Ruth Clark presented the details in her articles in Learning Solutions Magazine in 2002 and 2003, and in her books with Richard Mayer and with Chopeta Lyons. This is (or should be) familiar ground to e-Learning designers, and most of our present tools provide adequate support for delivery of graphics and multimedia.

Use low-fidelity interactive simulation to provide practice with processes and concepts, and to support over learning of both. If these are new ideas to you, see Ruth Clark’s Developing Technical Training for details. Designers will need to distinguish between business processes (these involve people, organizations, and operational processes) and technical processes (which involve machines and systems).

In my experience, there are two main challenges to using Guideline. The first of these is overcoming past practice. That is, in many organizations the norm for e-Learning is text screens and Power-Point. This problem is aggravated when much of the design and development work is passed to subject matter experts, who do not know any other way to “package” what they know, other than text narratives and bullet point slides. Designers may need to develop and apply internal standards for graphics and multimedia, and to modify their internal design and development processes. I realize this is too often easier said than done. On the other hand, the results are worth the effort.

The other challenge to using Guideline 3 is in finding graphic artists who are as familiar with the demands of supporting learning as they are with Illustrator or PhotoShop. This is a particular problem for e-Learning designers who are physically located outside of major markets, where graphic artists working in electronic media may be in short supply in the first place. Fortunately, the Internet has eliminated some of the difficulty that once frustrated designers in this situation. In addition, Learning Solutions Magazine is planning an article later this year that will address the talent problem. In the meantime, consider alternative sources, including local Art Institutes, Arts Magnet high schools, and multimedia programs at community colleges, where the instructors can often recommend students who are building their portfolios and who will be familiar with the latest techniques.

Guideline 4: Go beyond rote memorization to help in learning facts.

Again, this should be familiar territory to most designers. As with Guideline 3, make effective use of graphics and multimedia to help learners associate new facts with content they have already mastered or with which they are already expert. This is a good place to use simple games that facilitate moving content from working memory to long-term memory, and which will aid recall.

The fifth guideline: Don’t be in a hurry

The fifth guideline applies across the board. Focused practice with feedback is critical when applying the first three guidelines. Providing an opportunity to debrief from constructivist exercises and from simulations will help to ensure that learners process and integrate what they have learned into their skill sets. You are trying to produce thoughtful learning, not mindless habit. For processes, concepts, and facts, using spaced recall, repetition, and practice application over a period of several days or several weeks will often be vital to mastery and over learning in support of higher-level skills.


This has been a very rapid pass through five very important principles, and I hope that you will take the opportunity to review the resources listed in the sidebars. I would also like to recommend that you consider the sessions listed in Sidebar 4 if you are attending the eLearning Producer Conference and Expo 200


SIDEBAR 4 Related topics at eLearning Producer Conference and Expo 2005

Session P-1 (Pre-conference)
The e-Learning Apprentice: A Real- World Problem-based Workshop for e-Learning Designers
Ruth Clark, Eric Parks

Session 402
Teaching Leadership Through e-Learning Simulations
Nathan Kracklauer
Session P-3 (Pre-conference)
The e-Learning Simulation Game
Design Workshop
Clark Quinn
Session 503
Share and Share Alike: Discovering Solutions for YOUR e-Learning Challenges
Susan Barry
Session 102
Levels of e-Learning Simulation Design
Clark Quinn
Session 603
Secrets from the Learning Research: Designing e-Learning That Works
Will Thalheimer
Sessions 203 and 303
The e-Learning Idea Factory
Patti Shank
Session 806 (Super Session)
Learning by Doing: Simulations, Games and e-Learning Pedagogy
Clark Aldrich
Session 302
Training Interdependent Soft Skills Via a Web-Based Simulation
James Monroe, Edmond Matevosian


In building skills and knowledge, mastery and expertise, the guidelines and methods discussed in this article are mutually supporting. Facts and concepts support processes, which support principles and procedures needed for dynamic problem-solving. In our careers as designers, we go through the same sequence. The process may feel awkward at times, it may even be a little frustrating, but it’s all part of leading instead of following.

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