Building Bridges

Babbling Away: How Proven Instructional Design Techniques Helped Me Learn German

It’s cool when you can see an application of the work you do when you are the consumer (or, as it were, the learner). Here’s my story. In preparing for my trip to Germany last year, I decided to learn a little German. I like to be able to use some basic phrases when visiting other countries, so at least I can show that I’ve made an effort. My son makes fun of me, saying I know a lot of languages at a 2nd grade level. Actually, it’s more accurate to say at a 2-year old level. But I digress.

I had used CDs in the past, where the narrator says phrases and you repeat them. The approach these CDs use is limited, with whatever you repeat back not checked by anyone (or any app). So, I decided to try a particular app I had heard advertised. They provide a series of “courses” and “lessons” and, within each lesson, 15-20 short topics. What’s so special about that, you may wonder? Well, it turns out I learned much more quickly and effectively than with the CD program. Here are some of the techniques used in the app that instructional designers also use to the benefit of their learners:


Topics and lessons build. For example, the app provides four words at a time, each said aloud and requiring the learner to say it back (with feedback if the pronunciation isn’t quite right). Next, the learner identifies which translation goes with the German word. Then the learner types the word. More words, grammar rules, or phrases are taught similarly.

I was so pleased to realize that, when I thought I forgot a previously learned word, the approach planted the word into my brain in a place from which I could retrieve it. I was able to remember the word with just a little effort.

Spaced repetition and reviews

The scaffolding example above is great, but if the app never returned to the words or grammar rules, I’d likely forget them. So, throughout a lesson I am required to recall words and rules I learned a few topics ago and use those words and rules in slightly different ways. There are reviews after every couple of lessons that consolidate the learning.

Practical application

Learning words and rules doesn’t do much on its own – except maybe allow me to decipher something I see in writing. But throughout each lesson there is a sample conversation, based on realistic situations I might be in. For example, there is a conversation with the hotel manager about the room. So, now I can see how the words and rules I’ve learned can get used in a practical way. I am required to type the answers and listen to the conversation. I also repeat each part of the conversation so I am more comfortable being involved in it.

The goal of any course is to give learners the ability to do something with what they’ve learned. That measurable action could include listing ingredients in a quiche, explaining steps in a process, applying sales techniques, or creating a new approach to solving a problem. While these goals are reflected in the learning objectives, the learners should also be given the opportunity during the learning to actually do these things.


The app provides feedback throughout the course. While there’s no official “test” there are opportunities to test myself, receive feedback about the correct answers, and retake the lesson if needed.

Without feedback, how would I know I actually learned? Whether through a formal, scored final exam or unscored, check-your-knowledge, quiz-type questions interspersed throughout a course, it’s best to have an opportunity to recall what I learned, and receive feedback.  This testing/feedback approach is one way to help me remember.

Learner choice and self-direction

Skipping lessons early on might not have benefitted me. However, once I got a few lessons under my belt I could select from a long list of specialized grammar and vocabulary lessons. For example, there is a lesson just on pronouns. That was a great review for me, as I found them a little overwhelming to remember. Another lesson is on names of foods. That came in handy so I didn’t need to look up every word on a German menu! If I were forced to complete the courses in order, I would have spent time learning things I would never need to know. Instead, I could move through some things quickly, jump ahead, or skip around as worked best for my needs.

Learning is most effective when the learner chooses to learn. Sometimes that’s not practical as in the case of compliance training, for example. But providing learning activities “just in time” helps learners find the information they are interested in, when they want it. A classroom course does not provide this. But job aids, performance support tools, and well-constructed elearning courses like my app can meet this need.

As instructional designers, it’s important for us to use techniques and tools that enable learners to apply their knowledge immediately. With scaffolding, spaced repetition and reviews, practical application, and self-direction, learners successfully gain new knowledge — even a new language like German.