Book Review: Performance-Focused Smile Sheets

On a scale from 1 to 5, how useful are your current level 1 evaluations or “smile sheets”?

  1. Completely worthless
  2. Mostly worthless
  3. Not too bad
  4. Mostly useful
  5. Extremely useful

Chances are, your training evaluations aren’t very helpful. How much useful information do you really get from those forms? If you know that one of your courses is averaging a 3.5 and another course is averaging a 4.2, what does that really mean? Do these evaluations tell you anything about employee performance?

Personally, I’ve always been a little disappointed in my training evaluations, but I never really knew how to make them better. In the past, I’ve relied on standard questions used in various organizations that I’ve seen over my career, with mixed results. Will Thalheimer’s book Performance-Focused Smile Sheets changes that by giving guidelines and example questions for effective evaluations.

smile_sheets

Raise your hand if most of your evaluation questions use Likert scales. I’ve always used them too, but Thalheimer shows in the book how we can do much better. After all, how much difference is there between “mostly agree” and “strongly agree” or other vaguely worded scales? What’s an acceptable answer–is “mostly agree” enough, or is only “strongly agree” a signal of a quality course?

The book starts with several chapters of background and research, including how evaluation results should correspond to the “four pillars of training effectiveness.” Every question in your evaluation should lead to some action you can take if the results aren’t acceptable. After all, what’s the point of including questions if the results don’t tell you something useful?

The chapter of sample questions with explanations of why they work and how you might adapt them is highly useful. I will definitely pull out these examples again the next time I write an evaluation. There’s even a chapter on how to present results to stakeholders.

One of the most interesting chapters is the quiz, where you’re encouraged to write in the book. Can you identify what makes particular questions effective or ineffective? I’d love to see him turn this book into an interactive online course using the questions in that quiz.

I highly recommend this book if you’re interested in creating evaluations that truly work for corporate training and elearning. If you’re in higher education, the book may still be useful, but you’d have to adapt the questions since the focus is really on performance change rather than long-term education.

The book is available on Amazon and on SmileSheets.com. If you need a discount for buying multiple copies of the book, use the second link.

 

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Broad and Deep Instructional Design Skills

Do instructional designers or learning experience designers need to know how to use development tools, or should they focus just on analysis and design? What about people who only do development but no design; are they instructional designers? How much project management falls under the role of instructional designer? What about LMSs—do instructional designers need to know about those too? Psychology, cognitive science, graphic design, usability, and other fields also overlap with instructional design. The Many Hats of an Instructional Designer game describes us as counselors, performers, users, artists, and problem solvers.

Many of us in the instructional design field struggle to explain to others what we do for a living. I usually say, “I’m an instructional designer; I develop online learning.” I think part of our struggle is that we haven’t agreed even among ourselves what exactly an instructional designer does. The range of roles and responsibilities is pretty wide. Lots of us do a little bit of everything. Nearly 16% of respondents in the eLearning Guild’s 2015 salary report identified their job as “do a lot/little of everything.” Clearly many people do work that doesn’t fit neatly into a single job category.

The core skill for instructional designers is creating learning experiences. I would argue that anyone who isn’t creating learning experiences isn’t an instructional designer; they’re working in a related role. That doesn’t necessarily mean only designing formal learning and courses. Creating job aids or supporting informal learning could be a core task for instructional designers too. However, if your role is taking a storyboard created by someone else and building it in a rapid development tool, you’re not really doing instructional design. I would classify that as elearning development or media development instead.

T-Shaped: ID Skills. On the horizontal bar of a T, broad skills. On the vertical bar of a T, deep skills.

Cammy Bean refers to this as a “T-shaped” skill set in her book The Accidental Instructional Designer (p. 16).

We need broad skills and understanding (the top of the T), with potentially one area of deep expertise (the vertical bar of the T). The horizontal bar enables you to communicate and collaborate with experts across a wide range of disciplines, making you a versatile generalist with a well-rounded point of view. The deep vertical bar makes you a specialist.

I love this idea. It’s a great visual for thinking about how people have different strengths in a field where we all wear a lot of hats. Knowing where you’re strong helps you focus your career. You can work on your weaknesses or gaps in your skills, but you can also emphasize and focus on your strengths. As a freelance ID, I can focus on design and writing, especially writing scenario-based learning. That’s my strength, and it’s where I can differentiate myself from others in the field.

What about you? Does this metaphor resonate for you, or does it not quite fit your role? What do you consider to be the vertical bar in your T?

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30+ Ideas for eLearning Portfolio Samples

Whether you’re working freelance or looking for a full-time job, you need a portfolio. What if you can’t use any samples of your existing work due to confidentiality or security requirements?

In some cases, it’s enough to remove logos and a few identifying details. In other cases, you can redo an existing activity with brand new content. For example, the Instructional Designer or eLearning Developer demo in my portfolio is based on an activity I originally created for a health care client. The mechanics of the interaction are the same, but the graphics and content are brand new.

For many people, the best solution is creating new content from scratch. For portfolio samples, you don’t generally need to create a full-blown, 60 minute course. Five minutes or less is usually enough. Most prospective employers or clients won’t watch longer than a few minutes anyway.

Target your desired audience. If you want a job creating soft skills training, create customer service samples. If you love software training, create that kind of samples. My portfolio only includes scenario-based learning because those are the kinds of projects I want.

Screenshot of portfolioIf you need to create samples, use the list below to jump start your brainstorming. None of these require much specialized knowledge; you should be able to write the content yourself with a little online research.

Soft Skills & Business Training

  1. Answering the phone, phone greetings
  2. Responding to customer objections
  3. Responding to angry customers
  4. Giving an elevator pitch
  5. Asking customers questions to understand their needs
  6. Interviewing for a job (you could break this down further–appropriate clothes, asking questions of the interviewer, research before the interview, answering common questions, etc.)
  7. Resume writing
  8. Time management
  9. Prioritizing tasks
  10. Providing constructive feedback to colleagues
  11. Evaluating online sources for credibility
  12. Providing workplace accommodations for disabilities
  13. Rules for accepting gifts from customers/clients
  14. Onboarding or orientation (make up a fake company and introduce new employees to the leadership team and company mission)
  15. Tips for managing scope creep in projects

Software Training

  1. Create pivot tables in Microsoft Excel
  2. Create a budget spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel (or Google Sheets)
  3. Merge comments from multiple reviewers in Word
  4. Customize the ribbon in any Microsoft Office program
  5. Use styles in Word for a consistent look
  6. Create handouts in PowerPoint
  7. Create folders to organize Outlook
  8. Use filters to be more efficient with email
  9. Edit out noise in Audacity
  10. Use brushes or filters in Photoshop
  11. Assign tasks to team members in a project management tool (Microsoft Project, Basecamp, etc.)
  12. Upload a course in an LMS (whichever system you know best)
  13. Saving links with Diigo, Evernote, or another tool
  14. Create consistent file naming conventions
  15. Any cool trick you know in Captivate, Storyline, or the eLearning development tool of your choice (this also shows your expertise with the tool)

Other Sources of Ideas

  1. The eLearning Heroes challenges are one way many people have successfully built portfolio samples.
  2. Check out the course lists on Udemy, Open Sesame, ed2go, Lynda, or similar sites. All of these can be inspiration for your own samples.
  3. You! What ideas do you have for portfolio samples? Leave a comment and share your thoughts so everyone can benefit.

 

Vary Sentence Structure in Voice Over Scripts

When you use voice over for elearning, do you want it to sound natural and flowing, or do you want it to sound stiff and didactic? A great voice over person can make a good script more engaging, and a great script sound fantastic. However, if the script itself is completely stiff and unnatural, there’s only so much a voice over person can do.

One common problem in writing for voice over is overly complex sentences. Extremely long sentences, especially without pauses for breath, are hard to read aloud. Even sentences that are appropriate and effective for reading online may feel clunky in narration. Content from SMEs often includes sentences which are too long and complex for voice over. You may need to break up or rewrite sentences to make them flow better.

Vary Sentence Structure in Voice Over Scripts

Rewriting Complicated Sentences

For example, take this sentence on reasonable accommodations for disabilities. Try to read it aloud yourself.

Original: “The employer’s obligation under title I is to provide access for an individual applicant to participate in the job application process, and for an individual employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of his/her job, including access to a building, to the work site, to needed equipment, and to all facilities used by employees.”

That wasn’t written for voice over, but it’s not that far off from content I’ve seen in voice over scripts in the past. This sentence is 57 words long. That makes it long enough to be challenging to read aloud. It’s also so long and complicated that it’s hard to understand as a listener.

The first step I’d take to rewrite this is breaking it up into two sentences after “his/her job.”

Rewrite step 1: The employer’s obligation under title I is to provide access for an individual applicant to participate in the job application process, and for an individual employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of his/her job. This includes access to a building, to the work site, to needed equipment, and to all facilities used by employees.

The first sentence is still 38 words, but just breaking it up is an improvement. To flow better, I’d rewrite and restructure it further. This is 51 words total, so a little shorter than the original.

Rewrite step 2:  Employers are obligated under title I to provide access for individuals to participate in the job application process and for employees with disabilities to perform the essential functions of their jobs. This includes access to a building, to the work site, to needed equipment, and to all facilities used by employees.

Of course, this could even be rewritten further to be more conversational. Although this is 53 words total, it’s now four sentences instead of one.

Rewrite step 3: What are your obligations as an employer under title I? First, provide access for everyone to participate in your job application process. Second, support employees with disabilities so they can perform the essential functions of their jobs. This includes access to buildings, work sites, needed equipment, and to all facilities used by employees.

Not Just Simple Sentences

However, you can take it too far. In a recent discussion on LinkedIn, someone argued that scripts should be rewritten to “short, simple sentences.” You might think that simpler is always better. Too many simple, short sentences can sound choppy and unnatural though.

I can use simple sentences. I use a noun, verb, and object. I do not use dependent clauses. I sound like a robot. This is boring and repetitive.

When I say “simple sentences,” I use that phrase here with linguistic precision. A simple sentence has a single clause; that means no compound or complex sentences. If you use only simple sentences, then you can never use an “if-then” statement. You can’t add more variety, and you can’t sound natural without compound sentences. Being concise doesn’t have to restrict your grammar. A 60-word sentence (especially one without any place to breathe) doesn’t belong in a voice over script, but coordinating conjunctions certainly do.

Variety in Sentence Structure and Length

When we talk, we naturally use a variety of sentence structures and lengths. If you want your scripts to sound conversational, use a combination of short and reasonably long sentences. Watch out for sentences that are too long and convoluted, but don’t be afraid to use compound and complex sentences that flow well.

Further Reading

Interested in learning more about voice over scripts?

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What Challenges Do Your Characters Face?

Once upon a time, there was an instructional designer who created a branching scenario for training. Her client was excited about the approach, her SME was always available and helpful, and her technology worked perfectly the first time, every time. The learners loved it, and the instructional designer won an award. Everyone lived happily ever after. The End.

Sounds like a great fantasy, right? But how engaged were you with that story? Was it realistic? Could you identify with the character and her situation? Do you care what happens to her?

Honestly, that story makes me want to yawn. It’s just boring.

Ladder leaning against brick wallStories and scenarios for learning are more engaging when they show the characters facing challenges. Think about any great movie or novel. The main character always faces obstacles. Harry Potter faces Voldemort , as well as the Dursleys, school, and other challenges. How he overcomes those challenges is what makes those stories compelling.

When we use stories for learning, the challenges should mimic the kinds of issues learners will face in their real workplace. You don’t need an evil villain in your story, but you do need obstacles to overcome. Take the example of creating a branching scenario. You might hit a number of obstacles as an ID.

  • A client or manager who wants a traditional linear course rather than a branching scenario.
  • A SME who insists on a content-heavy course, isn’t available, or struggles to provide scenario examples
  • Technology that’s clunky or doesn’t work well for scenarios
  • Limited budget
  • Short timelines
  • Writer’s block or trouble coming up with realistic scenarios

Which Challenges?

You might start by brainstorming challenges like the list above. You probably won’t include all the potential challenges in a single scenario since that would be too complex. Therefore, you’ll need to pick and choose the challenges that make the most sense.

  • Frequent Obstacles: What obstacles or challenges happen most often? What problems are your learners most likely to face?
  • Common Mistakes: What are the common mistakes people make? What are the typical misunderstandings?
  • Critical Challenges: Are there challenges that happen less frequently but create serious consequences if they occur? For example, a hazmat spill may be uncommon, but there may be significant, even deadly, consequences for not following the proper response procedure. If a mistake or problem could put lives or safety at risk, include it in the scenario.

Select your challenges to meet the requirements above. During the analysis phase, I often ask SMEs what mistakes or misunderstandings are common. Ask your SMEs follow-up questions about the consequences of those mistakes. Those challenges become decision points in your course; the consequences become the intrinsic feedback showing learners the effects of their choices.

If you create scenarios for learning, what issues do you face creating challenges? Leave a comment and tell me about your experiences. If you’re having trouble, we can try to work through the problem together.