Book Review: Design for How People Learn

Julie Dirksen’s book, Design for How People Learn (San Francisco: New Riders/Pearson, 2016), came recommended by Connie Malamed on her list 12 Instructional Design Books You Should Know About. Since Ms. Malamed has also written a review of the book, I won’t go into details about the content. You can read Ms. Malamed’s review here.

Modeling Good Instruction

In many ways, the strengths of Ms. Dirksen’s book lie in how she models the very design strategies she recommends. Her presentation style is conversational and engaging and easily serves as a Dirksen_book_imagemodel for how to communicate information well. The relaxed tone, combined with sometimes irreverent humor, lighten and enliven the theoretical points she has to make. Likewise, her frequent use of scenarios helps illustrate the more abstract design concepts. She is adept at combining text, graphics and a range of explanatory techniques to present complex information. For example, to give the reader a clearer picture of cognitive functioning she builds on a curious, but effective analogy. First proposed by Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis (2006), this analogy suggests that an elephant rider can stand in for the conscious, verbal thinking part of the brain and the elephant itself acts like the emotional, visceral brain.

Through a serious of humorous photos, image captions and explanations, Ms. Dirksen both discusses the analogy in more detail and considers the implications this understanding of the brain has for learning [124-27].

Ms. Dirksen regularly integrates graphics of various kinds (e.g. photos, line drawings) into the text. They are often deployed in ways that reinforce the contrasts or progressions she is describing. Additionally, she uses headings and subheadings liberally. These, combined with the graphics, help chunk the content so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed with large amounts of text. A book intent on introducing brain science and instructional design methods could easily get caught up in abstraction and technical descriptions of research. A strong point of the book is that Ms. Dirksen avoids the technical jargon while still firmly basing her points on the relevant psychological and brain science research. I also appreciated the amount of time Ms. Dirksen spent discussing design techniques for enhancing motivation and emotional engagement. As a new teacher, I remember being primarily focused on the ability of my students to acquire knowledge and build skills. I soon learned, however, that very few students were going to acquire any knowledge I had if they weren’t first motivated to learn it. By devoting several chapters to these learning challenges and the design solutions for them, Ms. Dirksen clearly demonstrates her understanding of key conditions for learning.


The title, Design for How People Learn, suggests that the book could potentially address learning in a very broad sense. Indeed, the focus in a couple of the early chapters on memory and brain functioning could be useful for anyone with a beginning interest in cognition and memory. Nevertheless, it becomes clear that Ms. Dirksen is addressing a particular audience and has developed her book with new trainers and instructional designers in mind. Given Ms. Dirksen’s own experience with corporate training environments, it’s not surprising that she frequently includes stock photos featuring office work and creates scenarios that involve trainers and sales staff. Her choice to appeal to this audience and to focus primarily on the corporate context, however, leads her to make several key assumptions about the goals of learning that are problematic. Consequently, her design solutions don’t really speak to the true range of adult learning situations.

One working assumption in the book is that learning is primarily individual and cognitive. That is to say, learning is about a person getting knowledge into long-term memory. As has become clear to me through my own humanities research and through engagement in the Coursera eLearning Ecologies class, memory and learning are highly social and environmental. I’m reminded, for an immediate example, of the studies that show how a person’s ideas of acceptable body type (and ability to gain or lose weight) can depend on whom they socialize with. While it is certainly important for workers to commit information to memory so that it can be immediately accessible, most work (and living) is not done in isolation. The collective wisdom of teams is often of greater accuracy than individual memory anyway, so it makes sense to leverage it in learning too. For example, one would expect an EMT to be able to recall certain information from his long-term memory. In a life-threatening situation it doesn’t make sense for an emergency worker to be looking to a job aid or reference card. But really, how often do EMTs work alone? In most cases, I would imagine, emergency workers have to work with a partner or as part of a team. In training EMTs, then, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on ensuring that the EMT can work with his partner so that their collective knowledge can be used most effectively? To concentrate primarily on developing individual cognition is to ignore the real contexts in which people work and live and remember.

The belief that learning is about individual memory, however, rests on another set of assumptions: that improved workplace performance is the goal of learning and that tracking individual performance is the best way to understand if it is happening. Assessing employees’ performance depends on having an accurate understanding of how learning interventions have worked. Companies usually rely on measuring of one kind or another, since social science and business researchers typically use quantitative methods in their analysis. If we accept that a person is a definable base “unit,” individuals become easy to track. One could measure the performance of larger groups (and I’m sure companies do), but the makeup of teams and groups can change and the quality and quantity of individual contributions to group work may be very diverse. This makes evaluating workplace performance difficult, particularly if the goal is to identify talent for promotion or to pinpoint areas of individual weaknesses. Unfortunately, this approach operates on an unsophisticated understanding of the nature of individuals. Biologically it may be fairly easy to identify an individual. But, as much humanistic, sociological and brain science research has shown, people are tied up with other people and the environment in ways that make it very difficult to see the lines of division between them. Developing learning interventions that are measurable may still be a worthy goal and yield important information about the quality and extent of learning. It is important to understand, however, that there are many other possible goals of learning beyond improved workplace performance and that there is likely quality learning happening that will never be revealed through quantitative measuring.

Consequently, the design solutions provided in the Design for How People Learn work best for shorter-term training programs whose effectiveness needs to be evaluated for external reasons. They do not really address the development arc of fundamental skills, such as critical thinking or the so-called “soft skills,” that require more instructional engagement over a longer span of time. To her credit, Ms. Dirksen recognizes that the atomized interventions she mainly describes are not intended for this kind of learning [73-74]. While she also does pay attention to social and informal learning and to designing learning for the environment, she views them primarily as supports to other kinds of formal instruction rather than being primary methods of learning. Given the corporate concern with team work and a growing breakdown of traditional reporting structures in modern business environments, however, it would seem that helping workers learn through collaboration would be part of a trainer’s basic job description.

In any case, Design for How People Learn is a worthwhile read. Many of the design suggestions are easily transferable to a range of instructional contexts. I would go so far as to recommend this book to anyone interested in communications and marketing as I think her recommendations for increasing motivation and supporting habit formation could be used to increase audience engagement generally. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind that a different world of learning exists outside the corporate environment, that learning isn’t always easily evaluated, and that learning has value regardless of its ability to contribute to an organization’s profitability. If a reader looking for an introduction to instructional design can keep these caveats in mind, she will find much of use in this book.

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