thunderstorm-71197_640Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of being an instructional designer is that you are never done learning. In fact, the very raison d’être of the instructional design job is to learn new things so that you can teach them to someone else. But if what you need to learn is highly technical or completely foreign to your experience, that excitement can quickly turn into intimidation. Couple that with a less-than-patient subject matter expert, and learning can feel downright daunting.

I can always tell when an instructional designer gave in to intimidation because the training feels fluffy. It falls short of explaining precisely what learners need to do when they get back to their proverbial desks. The problem is that it is impossible to design good instruction on something that you don’t fully understand yourself.

But, you don’t have to give in to intimidation. You can learn anything with the right approach.

Here is the 7-step process I use to quickly and consistently learn new content, even highly technical content.

1) Define what you are going to learn. Every training course should have a single course objective that clearly states what the course will teach learners to do. For example, here is the objective of a course that I designed for inventory managers at a national retailer, “Use KeyPlan to manage inventory pre, post, and during the merchandising season.” You can think of this objective as the mission of the course.

Identifying the mission of the course sets boundaries around what you need to learn. If something doesn’t tie directly to achieving the mission of the course, it is outside of the boundary and you most likely don’t need to learn it. The only caveat being that it is sometimes helpful to learn information you won’t include in the course, but that can provide you with context.

To help stay within the boundaries, continually ask yourself, “Is this information essential to achieving the mission?” “Important?” “Nice to know?” “Or, none of the above?”

2) Determine which model the work matches best. To the untrained eye, work can often seem like a spaghetti bowl of random thoughts, steps, interactions, tools, and decisions. Work is not spaghetti, though. Rather, it always falls into one of these three models:
a) questions and answers
b) problems and solutions
c) tasks with steps

This is true even if the work is softer in nature. How you execute specific steps is where the soft in soft skills comes in.

Figuring out a model first, provides scaffolding that speeds up your learning. Instead of trying to learn a confusing mix of steps, interactions, and decisions, you can work with your subject matter expert to identify tasks and their corresponding steps, questions and their answers, or problems and their solutions.

3) Map the 50,000-foot view. In fact, the next step is to work with your subject matter expert to identify tasks and their corresponding steps, questions and their answers, or problems and their solutions. You now have a series of buckets to fill with content.

4) Look for triggers to divide and conquer the content. The next step is to see if you can categorize the buckets you’ve identified. This way you can learn related content in an orderly way.

I’ve found the easiest way to categorize content is to look for events that trigger the need to do the task, answer the question, or solve the problem. In my experience, I’ve found that time is the most frequent trigger. In my inventory management example, time (pre, post, and during the season) was the event that triggered the need to do certain tasks. So, I grouped all of the tasks for each category of time and learned them in sequence.

Product, client, and customer type are also frequent categories.

5) Brainstorm interview questions. Do not wait until you are sitting beside your subject matter expert to come up with interview questions. If you do, your interview will be disorganized and your learning scattershot.

Instead, brainstorm as many questions as you can to gather the details of each task, step, question, and/or problem. Don’t forget to ask what denotes a job well done as well as what tools and resources are needed.

6) Interview the subject matter expert. I like to schedule my interviews in 2-hour blocks. I find that after about 2 hours my ability to absorb new information isn’t very good.

I also always record the interview while taking detailed notes in case I miss something.

Finally, I have absolutely no ego around asking dumb questions. I can’t learn if I am afraid to ask.

7) Write up your notes. As you write up your notes, you are going to find gaps in the information you captured. You may also find inconsistencies in what the subject matter expert told you or places where you need to dig a little deeper.

Writing up your notes helps you identify what you still need to learn.

Once you’ve finalized your notes with the subject matter experts, you should feel like more of an expert yourself.

This 7-step process works for any and all types of content.