Behavior Modification Through E-Learning: Avoid the Info Dump

No dumping sign and blue sky with copy space.

It’s no secret: Instructional Designers love information. We live in the Age of Information. Clients come to us with massive files of information. And it’s our job to turn that information into a course, right?


Our job as an instructional designer is to solve the problem.


Oh, the Problems

The clients who come to us have a problem.

(Sales are down! Form 9.5 hasn’t been filled out correctly! Sales reps need better phone manners!)

They need their problem solved. The best way to solve their organization’s problem is to better educate their employees. So they come to us with memos, technical manuals, and Powerpoints and ask us to turn it all into a course.


But there’s a problem with this. Dumping a huge amount of information onto learners isn’t an effective way to modify their behavior.

For example, let’s say Steven, a store manager, has a problem: customers routinely come to him complaining about unpleasant or unhelpful store employees. He realizes his employees need more training in customer service.

So in order to solve the problem Steven sits his employees down and delivers a lecture on the importance of treating customers with respect.

This strategy wouldn’t get his employees to change their behavior markedly because it doesn’t teach them HOW to treat customers.

If Steven wanted to effectively teach his employees how to handle customers he would:

  • Demonstrate the behavior and
  • Give them opportunities to practice the behavior


Research shows we can only hold information in our short-term memory for about 20 minutes. Have you ever had a client tell you their email address, and you think, “I don’t need to write that down. I’ll remember it,” only to get to your computer and find that you can’t remember if it ended in .com or .org? You’ve forgotten because that information wasn’t committed to your long-term memory.

What this means is if your learners don’t move the information into their long-term memory within those 20 minutes, that information is lost.

So dumping huge amounts of information on learners isn’t going to change their behavior because they can’t possibly retain it long enough to move it into long-term memory.

Business woman in stress

Ok, So What Do I Do?

We need to pare down the information, which means approaching course development with the end goal in mind. Think of this as having three steps:

1) Ask the client, “What do we want the employees to be able to do?”

2) Then determine with the client what activities will allow the employees to practice the desired behavior.

3) Finally, isolate the key information that the employees need to perform the required behavior.


For instance, Big-Box-Mart, the mega-retailer, is worried about potential data breaches caused by employee negligence. So it asks you to develop a course that instructs its employees on the history and legal ramifications of data breaches from the beginning of time.

“Hold on a moment, Big-Box-Mart,” you say. “What’s the end goal of this course? What do you want your employees to be able to do?”

Big-Box-Mart says; “To not compromise our customers’ and company’s privacy by causing a data breach.”

Now you work with Big-Box-Mart to decide what kinds of activities will give employees real-world experience navigating situations where they could potentially cause a data breach. These activities might include scenarios, case studies, hands-on demos, or learning games.

Lastly, have Big-Box-Mart select only the information that’s crucial to performing the desired behavior.


Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it meaningful.




Comment ( 1 )

  1. ReplyRay
    Right on, Jeffrey! Performance-orientation is what's needed throughout our industry, regardless of medium: e-learning, virtual learning, or classroom. Without performance-orientation, courses have very little impact and are usually not worth the time of the learners we are trying to train. It is staggering how much "training" our industry produces that amounts to little more than telling. We need to stop doing that, and instead situation challenges in realistic job contexts and then provide guidance to learners about their performance in the form of feedback and consequences. We have to stop thinking that courses are about their content, and start thinking about courses as collections of practice opportunities for learners to put that content to use solving realistic challenges. Knowledge you don't act on is hardly any better than knowledge you don't have, so focusing on knowledge alone is a sure-fire way to create low-impact, ineffective courses. As you say, we need to focus instead on what learners should do with that knowledge--what decisions does it inform and what actions to they have to take? Your post is a breath of fresh air. Thanks.

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