Tag: book review

ID and eLearning Links (9/3/17)

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Instructional Design and E-Learning Links

Book Review: Write and Organize for Deeper Learning

Patti Shank’s latest book, Write and Organize for Deeper Learning, is a great read for anyone who writes to help people learn: instructional designers, trainers, professors, tech writers, etc. The book explains 28 tactics to improve your writing. Following these tactics will help your readers spend more mental effort on actual learning rather than wasting mental effort figuring out your meaning. Each tactic is clearly explained with a brief description of why it’s important. While all the tactics are supported by evidence (and references are provided at the end), it never gets bogged down with theory or overly stuffy descriptions of research. The book is squarely aimed at practitioners who want to start writing more effectively today without wading through any fluff.

Cover of Write and Organize for Deeper Learning
For experienced instructional designers and others who are already good writers, many of these tactics will confirm what you’re already doing. For example, you’re probably already determining your key points and using active voice. Those aren’t new tactics for me, and I expect some of this will be reinforcement for most readers rather than brand new content. I found the reminders helpful, and it will make me focus on some tactics I knew but hadn’t been using (like checking readability statistics).

I also find books like this helpful in justifying my decisions to clients. I will be pulling this book out again and referring to it the next time a client argues with me that their content is so serious that it must be written with a stiff, formal tone rather than a conversational, plain language style.

The book contains worksheets to help you remember and apply the tactics in your own work. In addition, the checklists and job aids make it easy to use.

This is the first book in a planned series called “Make It Learnable.” I’m looking forward to reading the next installment in the series.

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.


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.



Book Review: Training Design Basics by Saul Carliner

Saul Carliner’s second edition of Training Design Basics is written for people who are brand new to the field and are creating their first training program. This is a great book for those who are just getting started with training. People switching careers into training or instructional design from another field would also find a wealth of information. Training managers who don’t come from a training background but want to understand it better would benefit, as would project managers who are looking for what to include in their task lists and how to estimate time and cost.

This book is heavy on the practical, day-to-day considerations of creating training. It’s filled with little notes on the details that you might not think about if you’ve never done this before: what to include on title slides and prefaces, how to choose fonts and font sizes for online and printed content, leaving larger margins on one side of the page for printing bound materials, and marketing your course. The tips all feel very authentic and based on lessons learned by actual practitioner. For example, there’s a suggestion to put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door of a conference room when you’re recording audio. Carliner also recommends waiting a day before responding to reviewer feedback so you have time to plan and “an opportunity to calm down should any comment raise your blood pressure.” I know some more experienced instructional designers who might do well to follow that last bit of advice.

The book is organized to clearly follow the process of creating a training program from start to finish:

  1. Basics of Design (including ADDIE and adult learning principles)
  2. Planning (including estimating schedule and cost)
  3. Analysis (what he calls “Information Needed to Start a Project”)
  4. Objectives
  5. Organizing Content
  6. Choosing an Instructional Strategy
  7. Developing Materials
  8. Preparing and Producing Materials
  9. Quality Checks
  10. Administration

Every chapter ends with a worksheet or checklist you can complete to apply the content of that chapter. Most of the time, the process described in detail is for a “platinum” project with high complexity and impact (and correspondingly high resource investment). When you’re working on lower level “silver” and “bronze” projects, Carliner explains how to adapt the process and what shortcuts you can take.

The first edition of this book focused on classroom training. One of the major updates in this second edition is the addition of elearning, both self-paced (which he calls “self-study”) and virtual instructor-led training. There were times where I felt a little like the elearning material was “tacked on” as an afterthought, but the foundations of everything are fairly solid. Because this is a book on basics, the underlying assumption seems to be that elearning is mostly linear and generally suited for lower level training. If you’re just getting started with elearning, this is a good place to begin, but don’t stop here. There’s a whole world of more immersive and engaging elearning out there, so plan to keep reading more books and recognize that this is just a launching point.

If you’re completely focused on elearning and don’t do any classroom training, you’ll be able to skip some sections of this book that aren’t relevant (or vice versa if you only do classroom training). Likewise, if you’ve been working as a training specialist or instructional designer for many years, you’ll find that much of this is review for you. Even with my 10+ years of experience both in classroom training and instructional design, I still picked up a few new things though. For example, I will be using Carliner’s calculations of “fudge factor” or contingency for time estimates based on the level of uncertainty. This is a good book for filling in the gaps in your skills if you are an accidental instructional designer or trainer who doesn’t have formal education in training design. This isn’t the book if you want the theory and research behind all these decisions; it’s a step-by-step how-to guide for creating your first training.

I was interested in reading this book because I know many readers of my blog are new to instructional design or are hoping to make a career change. If you’re one of those readers, this book is an excellent choice for practical tips on Training Design Basics.

Book Review: Visual Design Solutions

Connie Malamed’s new book Visual Design Solutions: Principles and Creative Inspiration for Learning Professionals is written specifically for learning professionals. As instructional designers, we often communicate visually as well as with text, audio, and other media. Many of us (myself included) don’t feel as strong about our graphic design skills as about our other instructional design skills. This book teaches many of the same foundational principles as other design books (including Connie’s first book, Visual Language for Designers), but the examples and applications are all geared towards learning. If you’ve read visual design concepts elsewhere but struggled to apply them to your own learning design, this book is written for you.

Visual Design Solutions

Visual Design Solutions is divided into four major parts, each with multiple chapters:

  1. The Big Ideas (thinking and working like a designer)
  2. Building Blocks of Design (space and layouts, selecting images, and typography)
  3. Power Principles (color, visual hierarchy, unified design, contrast, and grouping)
  4. Practicing Design (directing attention, adding excitement, enhancing meaning, telling stories, and displaying data)

Each chapter is relatively short and filled with examples (as a visual design book should be). If you have read other books or articles on visual design, a fair amount of this will be familiar to you. Even someone with no background in graphic design (which, let’s face it, is most of us in the e-learning world) will be able to understand the ideas. I found myself repeatedly thinking, “Oh! I could apply this in my [Acme Widgets] course!” or “Why didn’t I ever see that before?”

In addition to the principles and examples, I appreciated how Connie explained why you might choose one style over another. For example, she says, “Use a symmetrical layout to achieve a restful and static design; use an asymmetrical layout for one that is more dynamic.”

What I Learned

I had a number of takeaways from the book, but here are two big ideas I’m still thinking about after finishing the book.

Chapter 4: Organizing Graphic Space included specific ideas on layouts for e-learning. This is one of the areas where I know I could do better, and the examples helped me figure out why I’m not always happy with my own layouts. I need to be more consistent about using a grid and guides to align content. Using a grid means I can keep everything aligned and unified across multiple screens. That means content like titles is where learners expect on each screen so they don’t have to waste brainpower trying to find the title instead of learning. Grids don’t have to be symmetrical; Connie shows multiple examples of grid-based layouts that aren’t just centering everything on the page. Connie also says, “In course design, we are always looking for ways to engage the learner. One way is through the element of surprise, which you can achieve through visual design. When it makes sense instructionally, such as to emphasize a key point or to show drama in a story, don’t hesitate to break the grid and use a wildly different approach, like placing elements on a diagonal orientation.”

Grid layout diagram

Chapter 15: Tell Stories With Visuals was especially interesting to me because I use storytelling techniques so often in my courses. I do almost all of my storytelling with words though, and this chapter challenged me to think about ways I could enhance my stories with better visuals. Some of the advice here was very concrete, such as thinking about how to lay out panels so it’s clear to learners which way to read. If your panels and gutters are all the same size, they line up in a grid and it’s harder to know if you should read vertically or horizontally first. Using narrow vertical gutters and wide horizontal gutters, as well as varying the widths of panels, makes the flow of reading clearer. This is a really simple idea, but it makes perfect sense. It’s something I can easily apply.

Varying the size of panels in each row helps readers move from left to right before top to bottom.

A Few Mild Criticisms

I have an electronic version of the book, and I think I would have enjoyed a print version more. I tend to buy physical books for my reference texts (as this book will be). Some of that is personal preference, but I think with such a visual book it might be more effective to see it printed on the page. Then again, these examples are designed for viewing on screens. If you’re normally a Kindle person, don’t let this stop you, but if you’re not sure, I’d go with the print version. (Update: Because Connie is a wonderful, generous person, she shipped me a physical copy. The book is beautiful in print, and it strengthened my view that this book is best when you can physically hold it.)

Because the book contains so many images, sometimes the images are on a different page than the text describing the concept. In the physical copy, it’s easier for me to flip back and forth between pages, plus you’re looking at two pages at once instead of one.

The book contains a lot of jargon. It’s necessary to have the specific words to discuss these issues and not be haphazard in design, so I know learning the words is important. All of the terminology is explained clearly. However, in a few places in the book, there’s just so much vocabulary at once that I found myself reading very slowly and rereading to understand it all. I don’t think that’s a problem with Connie’s writing so much as just an acknowledgement that visual design is a huge field with its own language. If you haven’t done much reading or studying in visual design previously, you may find you can really only absorb one or two chapters at a time. Spacing it out is likely more effective for learning it all than trying to read it all in one sitting anyway.

I kind of wish there was a concluding chapter at the end. I got to the end of the last chapter and literally said, “Wait, was that it?” A short recap would have helped remind me of all the principles, even if it was mostly restating the key takeaways from the end of each chapter.

Recommendation: Buy It!

Overall, I found Visual Design Solutions very helpful, and I will be coming back to it and rereading it again in the future. I recommend it for any instructional designer or e-learning developer who feels they could be stronger in visual design.