Instructional Design

From Theory to Practice: Exploring ELM Learning’s Unique Approach to Learning Design

In a world where knowledge is constantly evolving and the constant development and improvement of skills are paramount, traditional training approaches are changing as well. Learning is no longer about the passive absorption of facts and figures but is now a dynamic process that involves understanding, application, and continuous improvement of information.

This shift in perspective has given rise to the concept of learning design, an innovative approach that aligns perfectly with the needs of today’s workforce. In this article, we’ll dive into the world of learning design, its core principles, and how ELM Learning’s approach stands out in crafting effective learning experiences.

What is learning design?

At its essence, learning design is the art and science of creating effective learning experiences. It’s the strategic process of crafting educational content that goes beyond mere information transfer, focusing on fostering understanding, skills development, and behavioral change. Unlike traditional educational models that emphasize content-centricity and lectures, learning design takes a context-centric approach, recognizing the importance of task-led activities and practical application.

Learning design vs. instructional design

While learning design and instructional design are closely related, they have distinct differences in their focus and objectives. Instructional design primarily centers around the creation of instructional materials and resources that facilitate learning.

On the other hand, learning design takes a broader view, considering the entire learning experience and how it aligns with real-world tasks and contexts. It goes beyond delivering content to shaping a holistic learning journey that empowers learners to apply knowledge effectively.

The core principles of learning design

Learner-centered approach

At the heart of learning design is the learner. This approach acknowledges that each learner comes with unique experiences, prior knowledge, and learning preferences. Learning experiences are tailored to meet learners where they are, catering to their individual needs and fostering engagement. This not only enhances understanding but also motivates learners to actively participate in the learning process.

Practical application and contextualization

Learning is most effective when it’s grounded in real-world contexts. Instead of presenting information in isolation, learning design integrates content with practical application. It bridges the gap between theory and practice by creating scenarios and simulations that mirror actual tasks and decisions learners will encounter in their roles.

Active engagement and interactivity

Passive learning often results in limited retention and engagement. Learning design emphasizes interactivity, encouraging learners to actively engage with the content through quizzes, discussions, simulations, and other participatory elements. This hands-on approach deepens understanding and encourages critical thinking.

Continuous feedback and iteration

Learning doesn’t end with the completion of a course. Learning design incorporates mechanisms for ongoing feedback and evaluation. Learners receive timely feedback on their progress, allowing them to identify areas for improvement and make adjustments. Additionally, the learning experiences themselves are subject to continuous evaluation and enhancement to ensure their effectiveness.

Qualities of good learning design in practice

Effective learning design isn’t just a theoretical concept; it’s a set of practices that drive results. A well-designed learning experience exhibits the following qualities:

  • Good learning design prioritizes content that’s relevant to learners’ roles and responsibilities. It connects learning objectives to real-world tasks, making the knowledge immediately applicable.

ELM Learning’s approach to learning design

ELM Learning’s approach to learning design is a testament to the company’s commitment to creating impactful and transformative learning experiences. Recognizing the shortcomings of traditional educational models, ELM Learning focuses on the practical application of knowledge and the development of skills that resonate in real-world contexts.

The ELM approach to learning design is meticulously crafted to foster dynamic learning experiences. By taking the time to comprehend the organization’s values and objectives and collaborating with knowledgeable SMEs, ELM designs courses that go beyond surface-level engagement. The focus is on facilitating genuine behavioral changes rather than mere procedural motions.

Allisun O’Connell, LXD Lead at ELM Learning

Education vs. adult learning

The contrast between traditional education and adult learning forms the foundation of ELM Learning’s approach. While education tends to be content-centric and topic-led, adult learning shifts the focus to context-centricity, task-led activities, and practical application. ELM Learning recognizes that true learning takes place when learners can apply knowledge in authentic situations.

EducationAdult Learning
LecturePractice or conversation
Source: Shackleton-Jones, N. (2023, April). The relationship between ‘learning’ and ‘education’ [LinkedIn post]. LinkedIn. Link

Designing for meaningful practice

To make learning truly effective, ELM Learning’s approach centers around meaningful practice. Instead of overwhelming learners with information, the focus is on creating opportunities for learners to practice and receive feedback. This mirrors the actions and decisions they’ll make in their professional roles, bridging the gap between theory and practice.

Collaborating with subject matter experts

One of the cornerstones of ELM Learning’s approach is collaborating closely with subject matter experts (SMEs). These experts bring deep industry knowledge and practical insights that are essential for crafting relevant and accurate learning experiences. By leveraging SME input, ELM Learning ensures that the learning content reflects real-world challenges and scenarios.

Unpacking decisions and actions

ELM Learning goes beyond surface-level content and delves into the nuances of decision-making and actions within a process or task. This meticulous unpacking of cognitive processes reveals the intricacies that even experts might overlook. By highlighting these hidden steps, ELM Learning adds a layer of depth to the learning experience, enhancing learners’ understanding and application capabilities.

Our LXD experts delve deeper into the decision-making processes and actions inherent in a task or process. This is especially crucial when interacting with subject matter experts whose cognitive functions have become automated due to experience. Unpacking these nuanced steps enhances the learning experience and ensures a comprehensive understanding.

Allisun O’Connell, LXD Lead at ELM Learning

Fostering real change

Ultimately, ELM Learning’s approach aims to create more than just superficial change. By aligning learning experiences with organizational values and objectives and by engaging learners in context-rich activities, ELM Learning’s courses have a profound impact on behavior and performance. This focus on authentic, tangible change sets ELM Learning apart in the field of learning design.

Learning design represents a paradigm shift in education, focusing on the practical application of knowledge and the development of skills in authentic contexts. ELM Learning’s approach to learning design embodies these principles, creating dynamic and impactful learning experiences. By catering to adult learning principles, emphasizing meaningful practice, collaborating with experts, and uncovering hidden decision-making processes, ELM Learning sets a new standard for effective learning design. Through this approach, learners are not just acquiring knowledge, they’re transforming their behaviors, capabilities, and impact in the real world.

“Ask Me Anything” with ELM’s LXD Lead Allisun O’Connell

Q: How does our traditional experience in formal education shape our perception of learning?

A: Our experiences in the education system lead most of us to think of learning as reviewing all the information about a topic and then passing a quiz. That’s learning.

Q: How does learning and development (L&D) in the workplace differ from this traditional perspective?

A: When it comes to L&D in the workplace, our goal is to support employees in their performance on the job and their growth in skills and competencies. This requires a shift in our focus to doing, not just knowing. And, as it turns out, an information dump and knowledge test are highly unlikely to lead to an impactful change in behavior.

Q: Why might an information dump and a knowledge test not lead to substantial changes in behavior?

A: Relying solely on providing information and testing knowledge retention doesn’t typically result in impactful behavioral changes. The mere transfer of knowledge from point A to point B lacks the contextualization necessary to apply it effectively in real-world situations.

Q: What’s the alternative approach to ensure meaningful learning and behavioral change?

A: We need to design opportunities for meaningful practice and feedback, creating the context for applying knowledge that mirrors the actions and decisions made on the job. Instead of simply trying to transfer knowledge from point A to point B, ask the right questions:

  • What do you want people to do differently as a result of this training? 
  • If this training is successful, what will that look like in their day-to-day work?

Q: When designing training, what should be the end goal in terms of learners’ behavior?

A: The key objective of training should be to prompt learners to exhibit different behaviors as a result of the training. Successful training should lead to observable changes in their day-to-day work practices and performance.

Q: How do we know when effective learning takes place?

A: Research suggests that on average, around 75 percent of an expert’s knowledge is tacit/implicit. Effective learning often stems from practical experience and observation of others. This suggests that a simple list of principles or broad best practices is insufficient; learners require specific examples and contextualized scenarios.

Q: How does ELM Learning approach the development of effective learning experiences?

A: At ELM, years of experience have taught us that it’s not enough to just get a list of principles or broad best practices. Learners need specifics and examples. To get that right, we spend time with our clients’ subject matter expert(s) to develop context through relevant examples and practice through scenario-based questions. 

Q: What’s the initial step in the learning design process according to ELM’s approach?

A: The learning design process at ELM starts by asking the fundamental question: “What should people be doing?” This helps set the stage for creating relevant and practical learning experiences.

Q: How does ELM Learning address the challenge of automated cognitive functions in experts?

A: We ask “Why?” to uncover common misconceptions and what makes a decision or action difficult for people in order to provide focused support. We further unpack the little steps and decisions made within a process or task and bring these to light when talking to experts whose cognitive functions have “automated” so much of what they do. 

Q: How does the ELM approach to design stand out?

A: The ELM approach to design has been carefully crafted and honed to create dynamic learning. By taking the time to better understand your values and objectives and working with knowledgeable SMEs, we design courses that stop learners from just going through the motions and effect real change. 


Allisun O’Connell

LXD Lead

Allisun O’Connell collaborates with SMEs and designers to create memorable, beautiful, and impactful learning experiences. As ELM’s Sr. Learning Experience Designer and Strategist, she uses her expertise for solutions that surprise and delight.