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How Much Content Is Enough in A Course?

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How much content is enoughOne of my favorite conversations to have with subject matter experts and technical experts is defining how much content needs to be given to people as they learn new material.

This age old debate is a fun one to explore. Typically, content experts (subject matter experts, technical experts, compliance folks, etc.) look at courses from a knowledge or content perspective. Their lens is to find all of the artifacts that will tell them what they should know to be successful. They think if only people were armed with more information, then they will be successful.


Instructional Designers on the other hand know learners rarely need more information, but rather they need to know what to DO with the information they have been given.

Learners don’t need to KNOW more, they need to DO more in order to improve their performance. So if you start by asking, “What does your learner need to be able to DO?”, you will then start to put together the content that will get them to the outcome.

One analogy I love is that of skiing. I often talk about this when I am teaching a class about creating activities for courses. Think for a moment about learning how to ski. Do you need to know the history of skiing? Or the number of ski resorts in the USA? Or even how long your skis and poles should be? Not really. The first time out you just need to know how to get down the hill or mountain without killing yourself.

After you have the basic mechanics down and get over the terror (or excitement depending on who you are) of your first interaction with skiing, then you can learn additional points and concepts that allow you to refine your skills. Then, as even more time goes on you can learn all sorts of interesting and helpful tips to become an expert skier.

This is exactly how learning a new skill on the job is, right? Maybe it isn’t life or death, but you need to get through your first experience before you need to learn EVERYTHING that is involved with the skill you are completing.

In reality, content experts understand this but have a hard time stepping back to remember what it was like before they were experts. From conversations with many SME’s, there is a fear the learner may miss something if we don’t tell them everything. When in reality, the opposite is actually happening- we are telling the learner too much and they are missing things. We want results – but we need to teach learners how to achieve results through action, as well as teaching them how to apply the knowledge. The “everything” will come with time. For the initial learning, learners need to be able to practice what they need to do. This requires about 30% of the total amount of content that is typically given.

So how do you work with your SME’s to move to a more learner-centered approach?

  1. Start with asking, “What do the learners need to be able to DO?” (not know)
  2. Ask subject matter experts to collect information/knowledge points that a learner needs to know in order to DO the activity.

What if they give me a powerpoint deck (or manual, etc) and tells you to just use all of it?

  1. This is the fun part – you first ask permission to show them a perhaps different approach that still has all of the information there but may look a bit different. If they are receptive to that, than follow these steps:
    1. Review the deck.
    2. Identify or ask what the learner’s ultimate outcome should be after they have gone through the content (if the content isn’t tied to any outcome, then you may have a different issue, not a training issue so you will want to drill down more there). Again, ask what do they need to do.
    3. Identify that activity. Get a sheet of paper or use a mindmapping program and put that activity in the center.
    4. Go back to the deck and pick out any of the information that would support someone being able to DO that activity. Add it like spokes out from the center of the activity.
    5. Now, go back into the deck and capture any other information that was included that is outside of support content. These will become talking points with the SME’s. They will categorize them into a nice to know or need to know category. These typically become performance support tools or are put on a parking lot for a follow-up session.
    6. Now you can build the training based on this activity or set of activities with the supporting content while still being respectful of all of the great work that SME put in to give you the content!

What techniques do you have to get beyond the content focus in your courses? Share that with us.

Tara L Bryan

Our mission is to inspire, educate and give business owners the strategies and skills to build an infinitely scalable online business that will allow them to make a bigger impact and income without sacrificing the customer’s experience or adding more time to their already full lives. 

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