Building Bridges

Supporting SMEs—with Pizza: Professional Development Offering

Final Activity
In our final activity, groups shared one action they will try for each of the pie slices.

In April, I enjoyed facilitating a virtual event for the Hawkeye (Iowa) Chapter of ATD. The topic was titled “Supporting SMEs—with Pizza” and trust me, pizza always gets folks’ attention! We started out voting on our favorite-looking pie from among four images. The losing choices were either too rich (appeared too difficult to digest), too visually unappealing and with unappealing ingredients (hard to stay engaged), or not enough meat (why bother?!). I carried the metaphor through the session as I shared six slices of the pie, or six practices for partnering effectively with your SME.

Here are the six practices we discussed, with a short description of each:

  1. Set Expectations early and often: Communicate the time, content, and other resources needed and on what schedule. Review and agree on learning objectives, the target audience, and definition of success for the learning solution.
  2. Set Context: Together with your SME, strive for clarity around how the topic correlates with the target audience’s job and what challenges the audience faces, as well as the knowledge and skills they need before learning about the given topic.
  3. Guide your SME in how to Curate Content: Keep the learning objectives front and center and keep asking the question, “Is that ‘must have’ or ‘nice to have?’ If it is not ‘must have’ but is still important, can it be provided as a reference?
  4. Scaffold content in a logical manner: Discuss missing steps, content “holes,” and how each topic is related to the next.
  5. Determine delivery time: Instructional designers are the experts in identifying the best learning modality for a given situation and estimating the necessary learning time. Provide the SME with realistic time estimates and explanations about why 2 hours-worth of course content cannot be learned in 15 minutes. Or why an 8-hour elearning course may not have the desired effect.
  6. Evaluate effectiveness of the learning experience. Of course, you’ll create the evaluation plans in partnership with the SME from the start of the project with questions such as “What does success look like?” and “What are the problems you are seeing and how do you know?” and “What measures are already in place?”

The group came away with many useful tips – and having regular and clear communication was the primary one! Asking a lot of questions was another, including questions about why the SME wants certain content included, questions about the best order of a process, and questions about what success looks like. One useful pointer was remembering that it’s sometimes ok and appropriate to say “no” and re-negotiate.

If you are interested in a professional development mini-workshop on this topic or others for your organization, please contact Irene Stern Frielich.

Fun Times: Engagement in the Virtual Classroom

Ginny Maglio and I just completed our third round of EnVisioning Virtually: Creating Engaging Courses in the Virtual Environment this month. During the five-session Zoom series we share tons of tips, guide the participants during demo activities as they try out new approaches, and get to try out some different techniques ourselves.

This past year, we’ve observed that virtual participants consistently love using the annotate tool. In case you haven’t had the pleasure of using it yet, this tool allows you to annotate on a whiteboard or any shared screen by typing text, drawing lines, and placing “stamps” such as stars, arrows, or hearts.

In our final session, we prepared two pages of ideas for engaging virtual learners. Below are a few of our favorite activities that feature the annotate tool.

  1. Map Ice Breaker
    Display a map covering the geography of your learners. Instruct learners to place a stamp near where they are participating from. This is a nice way to get started in a course and is a great activity for introducing use of the annotation tool.
  2. Getting to Know Your Learners
    Display an image, such as a continuum or a graph, with labels. Post a question and instruct learners to use the stamp tool to mark the location on the image that best aligns with their views or feelings related to the question. For example, for the question, “How many times have you interviewed people for an open position?” create a horizontal bar on the slide and label one end “Never” and the other end “More than 10.” Even better, label a few points in between “1-2,” “3-5,” “6-10,” and “>10.” (For very large groups, consider using polling functionality instead.)
  3. Matching
    Prepare a slide with a list of words on the left and associations on the right. For example, list new terms on the left and related definitions on the right. Ask learners to draw a line from the term to its definition using the draw tool. Then you can review the responses, reinforcing what is correct and discussing what is incorrect. Depending on the number of learners, you might assign each person or pair one term. You can do something similar with an image (a piece of machinery) on the left and labels related to parts of the image on the right. (Best for smaller groups.)
  4. Brainstorm
    Post a brainstorm prompt on a whiteboard or otherwise blank slide. Instruct learners to use the text tool to write their response. As the host, you can select and move the responses around, allowing you to ensure people don’t write over each other. You can even group responses into affinity groups and create a new text box to label the group, then use the draw tool to circle each affinity group. Don’t forget to save the annotated image before clearing it!
  5. Voting
    As an alternative to using the poll functionality, prepare a slide with items—words or phrases—you wish the learners to vote on. Instruct them to use the stamp tool to indicate their vote(s). To mix things up a bit, have them “heart” the item they like the most and “X” the item they like the least. For example, post the question “Place a star next to the item with highest pH, and an arrow next to the item with the lowest pH” and show images of lemons, coffee, bleach, and milk. You will quickly see what your learners already think, believe, or know.
  6. Recap Round Robin
    Display a slide with the learner’s names or headshots with space next to each. Ask them to use annotation to write one thing they took away from the class, one thing that surprised them, or one new thing they are going to try in the next week. Summarize responses, then save the slide and share it with learners after the class. Optionally, display the completed image at the start of the following session.

Try out something new to enliven your learning! We’d love to hear from you – if you have an activity that works really well for you, please email us and we will highlight you and your activity in our next post.

Building a Path to Bravery

Comfort zoneI was honored recently to have been interviewed by Ed Evarts about bravery in the workplace. Ed is a leadership coach, podcast coach, and author who helps successful leaders raise their visibility and value at their organizations.

The topic hit home for me. Bravery, including professional courage, has resonated over the past year for us more than ever, so it seems a fitting subject for a blog post at this moment.

Is bravery a choice? This question has always intrigued me. Sometimes we choose to be brave, but more often we are thrust into a situation in which we need to access the bravery we already have within us.

I believe that bravery can’t always be instantly achieved; rather, there’s often a journey we take to growing brave. During the podcast, Ed asked me about three words or phrases that come to mind when I think about bravery. Here’s what I shared:

  • Presence and engagement: interacting with others and showing empathy for their struggles, which helps build trust
  • Resilience: demonstrating flexibility, plus having a willingness to shift and question assumptions
  • Possibility: exploring fully the good the future can bring

I’ve learned that these characteristics are linked to authenticity. To be brave, it helps to be authentic, and I’ve found I’ve needed to summon my bravery when I’ve been asked to do something that deviates from my core self and values.

A specific situation comes to mind when I think about how I’ve faced a test of my courage. My team and I once worked with a client who placed her designee in charge of our project. After some time working together, it grew clear to me that my team and I would not be able to work with this individual and still succeed in the project. I felt this in my gut.

My discovery led to a difficult conversation with the client, in which I tactfully described that I didn’t think the project could continue in its current framework. When the client responded, I really needed to exhibit presence and engagement by understanding and empathizing with her point of view.

It turned out the client had also experienced differences with her designee. So, together we explored possibilities as we changed to a working model in which the client would manage the situation internally, and my team would work with the ultimate stakeholders. For both the client and me, this new communication plan became a win-win.

Courage helped to build trust with my client, as the relationship deepened when I was brave enough to be forthright. It also preserved the trust of my team, whose success would have been compromised had I not stepped forward.

Consider a recent challenge you’ve faced. Perhaps some of these lessons I’ve learned to help find a path to bravery can help you, too:

  1. Sit with the challenge that requires bravery and feel it, even though that’s hard.
  2. Talk with a trusted colleague or friend (or more than one). Often, it really helps!
  3. Be open to adapting in the challenging situation; it will likely be necessary.
  4. Welcome ideas and suggestions from others; you might not implement them, but they very likely could spark ideas of your own.

As our workplace continues to evolve in the coming years, may you experience all the rewards being brave can bring.

I invite you to subscribe to Ed’s podcast Be Brave at Work to hear more about other’s bravery stories.

Getting Invited to the Table: 3 Tips to Make it Happen

Have you ever been in a situation like one of these, experienced by two different colleagues of mine:

  • An IT group decided to upgrade a systems application and proceeded with the project. Dozens of elearning courses had already been developed for the legacy system. The L&D team was not included in the conversation about the upgrade but received direction to update all courses near the end of the conversion project, and was given a very tight deadline.
  • A subject matter expert taught new employees how to perform a process during on-the-job training. There were no job aids or checklists, and the SME was frustrated that the learners’ error rate was so high.

These issues resulted in unnecessary costs of dollars and time. It shouldn’t be a surprise that having an L&D leader at the table in business line decisions can not only be helpful, but also can make all the difference in preparing employees to perform effectively.

I was a panelist in a recent meeting of our local ATD Measurement & Evaluation special interest group. The conversation focused on using data with stakeholders. For example, how do we present findings and get on their agenda in the first place?

One of the takeaways from the panel was that you shouldn’t expect to just get invited to these stakeholder meetings. It takes a while to earn a seat at the table. So, what are some ways you can do that – whether it’s about discussing measurement and evaluation or what training is needed? Here are some ways that I’ve been successful.

1.  Plan for the year (a.k.a. start of a needs assessment): When I was a training manager, I had responsibility for multiple lines of business. I scheduled meetings with each business head my team supported. My goal was to document their business objectives for the coming year (or next few months) and identify where they felt the employees in their group might be challenged in working toward those goals. I dug deeper into these performance gaps and identified additional managers to speak with to determine where training might help close the gaps. One of my favorite references about this process is the Robinsons’ book (see resources below).

The key to being invited back is building the relationship. In these meetings, I am letting my stakeholder know that I care about and understand their business (because I’ll have researched it first if I needed to), that I want to help make a positive impact on achieving their goals, and I am a partner.

Business goal-setting and budget-planning often start in the fall. In what ways can you engage with your stakeholders now as they plan?

2.  Nurture the relationship: A couple of meetings a year doesn’t grow a relationship. Regular consultative contact can. What is important to the leader with whom you are meeting? What actions are you taking to help them achieve their business goals? What roadblocks do you anticipate in promoting a performance or learning strategy to support the goals? How are you striving to overcome those roadblocks, and what can your stakeholder do to help you? Eventually, once the learning strategy is implemented, you’ll have data to share with your stakeholder.

What are two things you can do this week to reach out to a couple of stakeholders? How can you help them?

3.  Focus on building trust: While this is part of nurturing the relationship, it is worth singling out. David Maister, et. al., include a table in their book The Trusted Advisor that illustrates how crucial trust is. The table lists levels of a relationship from service-based (answering questions, providing information) to trust-based (focusing on the client as an individual, having the ability to influence). While that last level will take a while to work towards, the levels in between these might be realistic as you continue to build trust. Those are needs-based (you help solve problems, provide solutions) and relationship-based (you provide insights and ideas). Identifying ways to focus on solving problems with or for your stakeholders will help you build the relationship to the point that they will seek you out when their decisions may impact employee performance.

What level are you at in your relationship with a stakeholder? What are two things you can do in the next month to move up to the next level with one of your stakeholders?


Dana Gaines Robins and James C. Robinson, et. al. (2015). Performance Consulting: A Strategic Process to Improve, Measure, and Sustain Organizational Results. Berrett-Koehler Publisher, Inc.

David H. Maister, et. al. (2000). The Trusted Advisor. Free Press.

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.

Making the Move to a Virtual Classroom

Perhaps our current distancing restrictions are just the gentle nudge—or powerful push—we needed to leap daringly into a virtual world that many have been part of for a long while. Collectively, we are learning how to make the most of our virtual tools, and I believe that in doing so we are positioning ourselves to create better experiences for our learners.

In my last e-letter, I wrote, “We are writing some new rules as we go, one day at a time, as we try to grasp what our workplace will hold for us next week, next month, and in the year to come. Let’s figure them out together.” In that spirit, we launched our EnVisioning Virtually Peer Group Forum. During our first meeting, a group of instructional designers and trainers gathered virtually to share and learn best practices for converting live to virtual instructor-led courses. Here are some of the takeaways:

1.  Focus on the Learning Objectives
This is no surprise to instructional designers, whose focus is always on supporting learning objectives. When we begin converting our live classes to virtual, we have a wonderful opportunity to review the learning objectives and content in our existing courses. Are all the objectives critical? Does all content support at least one of the objectives? If any content is “nice to have” and not critical, can it be removed or placed in reference materials?

We can also examine knowledge-oriented (vs. skill-focused) content. Can some of that be pulled out of the class into pre-reading or elearning, ensuring learners come to the class with the same foundational knowledge and enabling you to reduce class time?

2.  Engage Learners
One key to engaging learners is keeping the virtual class size manageable – no more than 16-20 learners. That way, the facilitator can monitor individual engagement (we suggest creating a tracking checklist), appropriately call on people, and watch the videos for visual cues.

It is also helpful to keep the virtual class shorter than an in-person version. Many experts suggest no more than 90 minutes or 2 hours, including a break or two. Try different lengths and see how it works for you and for your learners. Just remember that, the longer your class, the more challenging it is to keep learners engaged. You may need to get creative about scheduling.

It is also helpful to remember that, though virtual meeting applications offer many ways to engage participants, it is important to select the approaches that support your key points. While polls can be very useful, just because polls are “cool” doesn’t warrant using them.

3.  Practice. Practice. Practice.
You will become intimately familiar with your virtual classroom application including how to monitor chat while you are facilitating, manage breakout rooms, create and execute a poll, and share your screen while watching learners. There are a lot more balls to juggle with a virtual classroom than an in-person classroom, which is why experts recommend having another individual in a “producer” or “host” role.

In addition to learning the facilitator side of the application, it is helpful to practice as a learner, experiencing their view of the videos, breakout rooms, and polls.

In our next EnVisioning Virtually Peer Group Forum, participants will have the opportunity to practice facilitating short course pieces while using virtual classroom tools. There are a few Forum spots left. If you would like a chance to practice or learn from others in a supportive setting, please email me please email me by 5pm on May 5 and let me know the hottest two topics you would like to see or try out.

How is your virtual network evolving?

My 2011 gorgeneering experience has guided me in recent weeks.

In my need to find adventures a few years back, I thought I found the perfect one: it was advertised as “gorgeneering” and I pictured myself wading through the low and slow waters of a rocky gorge. I didn’t know I would first need to rappel into the gorge, alongside a raging waterfall. For some unexplainable reason I forced myself over the edge, easing myself down the face of the cliff, sometimes more of a jerking motion than easing motion. Screaming the whole way, I sincerely thought I was going to fall out of the harness to my death on the rocks below. But I had started my way down and there was no going back, no one coming to rescue me. My husband still laughs at the story. I am still disturbed by my frightening experience.

Our two guides were brilliantly patient and helpful as we navigated through the gorge, shimmying over smaller yet not insignificant waterfalls that were over-filled due to the opening of an upstream dam in advance of aptly named Hurricane Irene, which was due the next day. We used ropes to swim across the freezing rapids, our wet suits keeping us warm enough. We paused for a break here and there, our guides moving ahead to scope the gorge and determine the best, the safest way forward.

I continually mustered my courage to proceed on this adventure in the only possible direction, the only way out, the only way to the exit. I made it to safety, exhausted, but stronger and wiser with lessons learned and stories to tell.

We haven’t chosen to be in this moment of time, but we are here together, mustering our collective courage in this gorge, helping one another navigate through to safety on the other side. I have no doubt we will be exhausted. I have no doubt we will be stronger and wiser. Most certainly we will have lessons learned and stories to tell.

We are writing some new rules as we go, one day at a time, as we try to grasp what our workplace will hold for us next week, next month, and in the year to come. Let’s figure them out together.

Even building a snow fort calls for project management!

It’s that time of year, and with an expected winter of bounty, it is time for snow fort planning! My husband, Seth, and I have made a snow fort or two in recent snowy years. We look forward to making another this year. But first, we do need to plan a bit!

Here is what we do to plan:

Initiate – We commit (usually, just to each other) to creating a snow fort once we have at least 18” of easily movable snow on the ground. We decide if we’ll do all the work ourselves or engage some friends, and we ensure we have the tools needed – snowblower, shovels, fire pit, seating, and decorations. Most important, we decide what the purpose of our snow fort will be, usually to have an outdoor entertainment area on a few wintery and starry evenings.

Real snow igloo house in the winter Carpathian mountains. Snow-covered firs on the background

Plan – We envision our ideal snow fort, even draw out the plan. Then we agree on who is doing what and if we will “outsource” any of the labor to neighborhood kids. Seth usually uses the snowblower to create our rough footprint, then we both shovel the snow into the desired shape. I select decorations, and we both set them out. We plan out the timeframe for doing all this work – usually over a weekend.

Implement – When we finally have the requisite amount of shovel-able snow, we get to work. We communicate as we work. What if I just can’t lift another shovel-ful? Or the snowblower goes on the fritz? Of course, our project is low risk, so if we don’t complete it, our friends will understand. Or maybe we plan to resume work the following weekend.

Close – Our celebration comes when we host our first snow fort event under the stars – complete with hot cocoa or a cheese fondue. Inevitably, Seth and I decide what we would do differently next time, perhaps create more seating or elicit more help.

This is a simple project, but these phases can apply to any project you work on, such as a plan to design and develop a training course. Key activities in each phase often include:

Initiate – Defining project deliverables, roles and responsibilities, and any assumptions you are making about the project.

Plan – Listing project milestones such as: complete needs assessment, prepare curriculum design, develop course modules, prepare evaluation tools, pilot course, and measure impact. Each of these tasks will have multiple subtasks, some of which rely on others to be completed before they can start, so the plan will quickly grow more complex than our snow fort. For each task you will determine a duration, responsible person, resources needed, and other information to help you monitor your progress.

Implement – Beginning the work! This is where the needs assessment tasks begin and the course is developed and piloted. To help you stay organized, you might create a Gantt chart, perhaps in a project management tool like MS Project or Smartsheet. With a Gantt chart, you can easily visualize the tasks to be completed and in what order. You’ll also see which jobs can be worked on simultaneously, so you can assign resources appropriately. Project management tools offer other approaches to staying organized.

You’ll also pay attention to risks and issues. What if your subject matter expert is no longer available or is running late? What if the information you need is unavailable? You may need to address unexpected snafus and adjust your plan throughout your project. Many organizations hold weekly or even daily meetings to ensure the project runs as planned.

Close – Finally, closing out your project once the course or curriculum has launched. In this step, you’ll determine what worked well and what you’d change next time. Perhaps you’d have a backup subject matter expert next time or you would create the learning assessment earlier in the process.

Whether your project is a snow fort or creating a course, it’s crucial to develop an organized process for managing its day-to-day tasks. When you follow the initiate/plan/implement/close model, you can keep your project on track and set it up for success.

A Bird’s Eye View from the Belfry

We recently took an amazing vacation, which included a couple of days in Bruges. Bruges is a UNESCO world heritage site because of its original medieval architecture throughout the city. During our first day in the center of Bruges, we were a bit overwhelmed. There was so much activity — horses with their carriages and their passengers, tons of people walking about, all kinds of buildings linked by cobblestone pathways, cafes along the entire perimeter, and so many stores including multiple chocolate shops — how can one select? There were pathways leading out of the square to museums, lakes, the famous swans of Bruges, pubs, and more chocolate shops.

We were overwhelmed trying to figure out what to do first, until we decided to climb the Belfry of Bruges. If you’ve ever been there, or seen the movie In Bruges, you know what I am talking about. We climbed the 366 steps, which became progressively narrower, winding, and more treacherous. Finally, we reached the very top where we could take in the central market square of Bruges. We could see from up above all the horses with their carriages and their passengers; we could see, with help from our map, where that one most special chocolate shop was that we just had to visit. We could see the layout of all the cafes and choose the one we wished to sit at, near the building with the architecture we most wanted to explore after sipping a local beer.

What we really needed was this bird’s eye view, the big picture, to help us figure out the detailed picture. Of course from the belfry we couldn’t see the intricacies, we couldn’t experience the tastes and sounds and smells of the square, but we could determine the context so that when we sat down at our cafe we knew what we were looking at across the way.

Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “Brügge (B), Belfort von Brügge -- 2018 -- 8611” / CC BY-SA4.0

The experiences that we immersed ourselves in were fabulous but overwhelming without a big picture first. In our case the belfry helped us do that. We also supplemented our overview with a walking tour. And then we spent the rest of the time diving into the experiences we had selected, with a better understanding of how each part fit into the greater whole of a bustling, beautiful city center.

Similarly, at the start of a training program we provide the big picture to help set context, so learners know where they are before beginning the learning experience itself.

Think about this for a minute. Say you’ve gone into a library you’ve never been in before and you are looking for a book. Do you go directly to it? Probably not, if you’re not familiar with this library. But you might look at a library directory to see how the books are organized, you might check the online card catalog, or you might ask for assistance. Once you have a basic idea of where your book is located, you can go find it.

Now think about a training program you’ve been in. Do you dive right into the details of the experience: how to do a quality check, how to hold a performance review conversation, how to administer an IV? Wouldn’t you rather have the stage set for you, so you can figure out how you see yourself in that situation? When we work with subject matter experts we often begin with questions such as: What is the goal? How will the target audience use this information? What gets in the way?

So, next time you are developing a presentation, course, or curriculum, take a trip up to the belfry. It may take extra effort to climb all those stairs, but that effort will pay off.

Growing Your Knowledge Garden

Back in the spring, you buried your seeds in the soil. With the spring rain falling and the sunshine warming the earth, small seedlings began to poke their heads out of the ground. You intend to care for these small plants so they will flourish. But what would happen if you planted the seeds and watered them once, then simply left them alone?

If you’ve ever planted anything, you know the answer. In the absence of water, sunshine, and weeding, the plant won’t grow. Or, if one month happens to be excessively rainy, the plant may spiral out of control, taking over everything in its path and dominating your garden.

So, how can you avoid these two scenarios? You cultivate the plant — you water it, fertilize it, stake it for support if needed, and trim off dying leaves so the healthy part will sprout. For best results, you’ll check on your plant a couple of times each week, watering it and seeing if anything else can be done to best support its growth. You might even say encouraging words to your plant (while no one is looking.)

The same phenomenon exists in the training world. Too often, we “plant” a training program, then expect the learners to “grow;” that is, retain and act on all they’ve learned. We expect learners to apply their new knowledge effectively in their jobs day-to-day.

Unfortunately, this belief isn’t supported by studies from brain science, which have shown memory slippage following single training sessions. How quickly do we really forget what we learn?

You may have heard of Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist. Back in 1885, he conducted experiments in which he attempted to memorize random combinations of three-letter syllables. Ebbinghaus’s testing showed that right after a learning session, recall of the letter combinations was 100 percent. However, memory loss increased sharply over the next few days and finally leveled out 30 days after the learning experience. This discovery by Ebbinghaus became known as the forgetting curve.

Thus, instructional designers must actively work to combat this memory loss. Luckily for us, Ebbinghaus stepped up to offer a strategy known as the spacing effect. Just as with plants, we need to space out the “watering” (instruction).

Ebbinghaus wrote, “It makes the assumption probable that with any considerable number of repetitions a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.” (Ebbinghaus, Hermann. Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. University of Berlin 1885, English translation Martino Publishing 2011.) What does that mean? “If we space learning over a span of time, with spaces in between, the learner has time to process and internalize the information and is more likely to remember it over the long term,” according to a article (Meacham, Margie. “Don’t Forget the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.” Insights, 17 January 2016. Accessed 12 August 2019.)

In what other ways can we “cultivate” knowledge to interrupt the forgetting curve? Here are a few ideas:

Problem-solving activities. Encouraging learners to brainstorm solutions to a problem is one way to cement learning by contextualizing it. In a recent project completed by EnVision for manufacturing operations leaders, learners took a specific manufacturing practice and considered the question, “how can I mistake-proof it?” This enabled them to directly apply what they just learned in a creative way.

Push reminders. Text, images, audio, video or a combination can be sent to learners in a planned approach, providing reminders to learners who are working on their knowledge accumulation and retention. This spacing effect approach has the additional advantage of enabling learners to “remember” or to build on their knowledge whether they are at their desks or on the go.

Management support. By checking in periodically and providing ongoing feedback, managers discuss the new material with their employees. The managers’ involvement guides employees in using their knowledge appropriately and effectively. Think about those “nurturing words” we give to growing plants. As instructional designers, we can provide guidance to the managers to best support their employees.

So, when you plant your seeds, don’t leave them to the elements and expect that they will grow robustly and healthfully; cultivate them. Do the same with your learners as you plan your learning programs, and throughout the season, you’ll find that your learners continue to bloom and grow.