Write the questions first

'Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.'~ Rainer Maria Rilke, from 'Letters to a Young Poet'

Words to live by. And, it turns out, words by which to design instruction.

As instructional designers, our aim should be to help learners focus on what it is they need to be able to DO at the end of the program. But sometimes, the project team – which likely includes subject matter experts (SMEs) who feel extremely passionate about every bit of the 182-slide deck they’ve just handed off to you – forget that important fact.

So how can you get them to help you focus on the right things? Write the questions first.

Yeah, that’s right: sit down with your project team and ask them what questions the learner should be able to answer at the end of the program. Ask them what the learner should be able to DO.

Start by writing your assessment questions and then go back and make sure your course includes the content to help learners answer those questions. This will keep your program as short and sharp as it can be, with the right focus placed on the right things.

This is called 'backwards design', a term coined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their 1999 book Understanding by Design. They posit this approach as an alternative to traditional curriculum planning, in which designers write down lists and lists of the content that should be taught.

We did just this in a recent product knowledge e-learning program for call-centre reps. With a four-week timeframe from start to finish, we didn’t have time to mess around.

The team of SME handed us a stack of PowerPoint decks and Word documents that contained all the features and specs of their new product – a bit overwhelming, really. During the content kick-off and analysis meeting, we got through the basics of defining the overall project goals, its audience, and a product overview. Then we asked, 'So, what questions should they be able to answer at the end of this program?'

A lively conversation ensued, in which the essential content was identified. It all boiled down to ten key facts about the product that the learner needed to be able to effectively communicate to potential customers on calls. Our scoping table and design document practically wrote itself after that, and we were able to keep the SME focused on the right content – if they started itching to add content that didn’t map back to one of those key questions, we just pointed at the list. 'Oh, right!' they would say.

So go forth, young designers, and start writing those questions now...