Is learning design invisible? What is actually involved

Young man sitting in an airport cafe working on a laptop .jpg

Have you heard this quote?

Good design, when it’s done well, becomes invisible. It’s only when it’s done poorly that we notice it.

– Jared Spool

The same can be said for learning design. Since some subtle but foundational aspects of good learning design may be difficult to recognize when done well, let’s consider a few critical ones that are specifically related to the design of content. The success of robust next generation learning experiences, personalization, and adaptivity depend upon them.

Cognitive Load: We know from research that applying multimedia principles to the design of learning experiences can help with reducing extraneous cognitive load and have a significant impact on learning (Mayer 128-129; Plass, Moreno, and Brünken 210-211). While this sounds exciting, its application within the learning design of content may seem rather subtle:

  • If the learning experience spares the learner interesting but irrelevant information, the coherence principle is at work (Mayer 130):

learning design cognitive load

Example of the Coherence Principle:

learning design coherence principle

From Ch. 3,  Art History (REVEL), Volume I, 5e By Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren


  • If you’re viewing an image or graphic and there’s a description positioned adjacent to it, as opposed to in a separate narrative paragraph elsewhere on the screen, that seems obvious, but it’s the spatial contiguity principle in action (Mayer 191).

learning design contiguity principle

A Changing Planet (REVEL), Jason Neff, Ch. 1
  • If you encounter a complex graphic or animation accompanied by narration, rather than concurrent narration and text, that’s the redundancy principle at work (Mayer 167).


Example from Psychology, An Exploration; Ciccarelli, 3e (REVEL), module 2.3:

The right objectives: If you do a quick Google search about how to write objectives for learning, you’ll find plenty of focus on the mechanics of how to write good ones. However, an equally important but less tangible challenge is trying to identify the right objectives; these are ones that precisely describe what the successful learner will be able to do. Obvious, right? Since the objectives inform how the learning experience is designed, including content and assessment, missing the mark on articulating realistic and relevant objectives can have far-reaching learning design consequences.

For example, here is a revision of a Concepts-Based Nursing objective statement.

Original objective: Outline the procedure for calling a code blue

Revised objective: Explain a code blue

The goal for this learning experience is focused on conceptual knowledge rather than the procedural knowledge related to a code blue. Consider two points here:

  1. Making this distinction impacts the subsequent design, and therefore the alignment, of both content and assessment; a misalignment between any two of these is a design flaw noticeable to learners, educators, learning designers, and other stakeholders.
  2. The second point is less apparent, but equally important. If success in the learning experience is misarticulated in this way, learners learn a procedure such as a code blue, but ultimately lack the conceptual knowledge specified in the revised but hypothetically unarticulated objective. This design flaw may surface only beyond the learning experience; it’s what happens when you see learners memorize facts or procedures without knowing when or how to apply them in real life.

The fact that a learning experience is designed with the right objectives isn’t likely to dazzle you, but when this aspect of design is not fully realized, it’s noticeable to learners, educators, and other stakeholders, even future employers.  Moreover, it impacts the potential for a learning experience to optimally leverage next gen learning design capabilities (e.g., remediation).

Aligned assessment:  Aligned assessments are reflective of both the type of knowledge and the cognitive process specified in the objective and the content within the learning experience. A well-aligned assessment instrument is a foundational component of the assessment process, essential to the validation process, and supports learning itself (Cohen; Erwin; Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing)

If the assessment isn’t aligned to the learning goals, it’s likely to be problematic to everyone involved including learners, educators, and a range of stakeholders such as learning designers and institutions focused on continually enhancing learning through technology, design, and analytics. However, if it’s sufficiently aligned (and designed well in other respects), it blends seamlessly into the learning experience and can be leveraged to support next gen learning experiences. If it’s poorly aligned to either the objective and /or the content, stakeholders may encounter these difficulties as a result:

  • Learners feel their progress is inaccurately assessed (and they’re right!)
  • Educators have a less valid picture of their learners’ progress
  • Learning designers and other stakeholders do not have meaningful data to inform design decisions and next generation innovations, including those related to personalized learning.


Example of an assessment aligned to an objective :

Objective: Explain why nonpoint sources are a challenge in controlling water pollution
Aligned Assessment item:

learning design assessment questions

A Changing Planet (REVEL), Jason Neff, Chapter 8

While a well-aligned assessment may not wow you, a poorly aligned one will cause you to feel it in some negative way.

So, the next time you’re considering whether you or your learners are experiencing good learning design, remember that some aspects of learning experiences may not be particularly noticeable primarily because they are so well designed.


Read more about Pearson’s Learning Design Principles and their release under a Creative Commons license for public use.


Works Cited

Bishop, Thomas. “Cognitive Load & Multimedia 1.” Internal Pearson Slide Presentation. June 2015.

Cohen, S. A. “Instructional Alignment: Searching for a Magic Bullet.” Educational Researcher 16.8 (1987): 16-20. Web.

Erwin, T. Dary. Assessing Student Learning and Development: A Guide to the Principles, Goals, and Methods of Determining College Outcomes. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991. Print.

Mayer, Richard E. Multimedia Learning. 2nd ed. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.

Plass, Jan L., Roxana Moreno, and Roland Brünken. Cognitive Load Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 2014. Print.


Graphics created by Thomas Bishop, Pearson.