A Complete Guide to Training Material Development

The complete guide to training material development
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Let me tell you about the mistakes I’ve made building a training material development process for Curious Lion.

On one project, I found out far too late that the developers we’d hired to create eLearning modules had no idea what they were doing. I learned a valuable lesson that day: prototype and test. Rapidly. Test the most challenging problems first. Make absolutely sure your developers can execute on these before moving into full production mode. 

For another client, we had Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who simply could not make a decision. We wasted countless hours and thousands of dollars on voiceover and video when scripts kept changing. The lesson here? Set clear milestones and decision points upfront and always overcommunicate. 

Perhaps the hardest mistake to swallow is when we built an entire suite of courses for a client that never ended up using them. The client and ourselves had misdiagnosed the training need badly. WAY off the mark. I’ll never start a project without an in-depth needs analysis every again. 

If you’d like to avoid these mistakes and many more like them, this post contains my lessons learned from 15 years in training material development for companies in a wide range of industries and sizes.

I wrote this, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes I did.

Training Material Development Guide Contents

Click on a heading to skip to that section.

Step 1: Conduct a needs analysis for your corporate training solution

There is a saying in carpentry that goes “measure twice, cut once.” The Russians appear to be even more cautious, as this phrase is commonly thought to have originated in medieval Russia, in the form: “measure seven times, cut once.”

Whether you measure seven times or twice, the point is that you should be absolutely sure of your course action before embarking down the path of no return.

In designing corporate training solutions, this is no different.

Always conduct a needs analysis before you start training material development
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There is a popular theory of consumer action called Jobs to be Done (JTBD). The theory is that we buy things to improve ourselves, to make progress. Products enable us to get a Job Done. It’s a process. It’s not an activity or task, or something you have; it’s something you participate in.

My wife wanted to purchase a Peloton bike, and we did so recently after being in lockdown for two months. We didn’t buy the bike because we wanted the physical equipment. We bought it because we want to get fit, lose weight, and release those wild endorphins from their captivity.

The same holds true for corporate training solutions: we build or buy them to help people make progress or improve in their careers. 

Let’s quickly recap. Corporate training solutions:

  • Involve a lot of effort and demand that you measure (2-7 times!) before you start your content development process.
  • Satisfy a need or desire in people to make progress, to improve.

Through this lens, you conduct your needs analysis, which should include the following steps:

  1. Identify the business goal for the training solution.
  2. Interview a wide range of people and look for expectation gaps.
  3. Employ a learner-centered corporate training technique.

Identify the business goal for the training solution

The budget for your training comes from the business. Ultimately the goal of your training needs to tie into a business goal too. Identifying the business goal now will be helpful when measuring your ROI in step 9.

Interview a wide range of people and look for expectation gaps

There are two key components to this. The first is to include a wide range of people in your sample. Include the key stakeholders with the business need for the training, but also include the learners themselves and their managers.

The second is to use a Socratic questioning technique to enter into thoughtful dialogue with the person you’re interviewing. Your goal should be to allow your interviewee to examine their ideas logically and determine the validity of their viewpoints.

Plan your questions in advance, and ensure you include a good mix of the different types of Socratic questions:

  • Clarification questions – e.g., Could you give an example of…?
  • Assumption questions – e.g., Why are we assuming here?
  • Reason and evidence questions – e.g., What led you to believe that?
  • Origin or source questions – e.g., What caused you to feel this way?
  • Implication and consequence questions – e.g., What effect could that have?
  • Viewpoint questions – e.g., How would you answer this objection to that point?

Notice how all the example questions are open-ended? That’s the key. Yes/no answers are not very helpful here.

Some additional prompts for you to use in your interviews:

  • If you could pick three things, what do learners absolutely need to know to achieve the Key Learning Objective (KLO)?
  • What skills are required to perform the KLO?
  • How would you show a learner how to do this?
  • What mistakes do learners most commonly make here?
  • What are the most common questions people ask here?
  • How will you know if someone has met the learning objective?

Employ a learner-centered corporate training technique

Never forget you’re dealing with adults. Frame everything you do around the motivational needs of adult learners. Adult educator Malcolm Knowles formulated six fundamental assumptions related to an adult’s motivation for learning:

  1. Need To Know – adults need to know the reason for doing something.
  2. Foundation – experience (including trial and error) provides the basis for learning activities.
  3. Self-concept – adults need to be responsible for their own decisions in learning.
  4. Readiness – learning subjects must have immediate relevance to work and/or personal lives.
  5. Orientation – adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented.
  6. Motivation – adults respond better to internal versus external motivators.

Once you’ve identified your business goal, got the answers to your questions, and framed your approach from the perspective of the learner, it’s time to look at what already exists as you build out your corporate training solution.

Step 2: Evaluate existing content for your training content development process

Any good training material development process starts with a thorough inventory of the content to be covered.

Content usually comes in two forms:

  • existing content and training resources
  • subject matter expertise / institutional knowledge

Existing Content

If good training content exists, you’d be wasting your time if you didn’t use it. At the same time, you want to be sure to assess the quality of existing training content to look for ways to improve it.

Here are a few questions you can ask about existing content in your development process: 

  • What training materials already exist, for example, presentations, documents, manuals, specifications, and videos
  • Are the existing materials complete in terms of containing all the necessary content?
  • Is the information still accurate?
  • Are the training materials past their sell-by date?
  • Is the training content interesting and engaging?
  • What kind of feedback did learners provide about the previous training?
  • What can be improved about the existing content?

Subject Matter Expertise

Adopt a thorough discovery process for your training material development process. Apply design thinking principles to solve problems starting with the learner.

Interview a wide range of people in your training material development process
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Our approach at Curious Lion is to:

  • Get into a discovery mindset
    • Observe subject matter experts in action
    • Ask open-ended questions
    • Prototype rapidly, gather feedback and make changes
  • Add artificial constraints to the discovery process
    • e.g., we ask subject matter experts, if you could only emphasize one point, what is the one thing you want people to learn about this?
  • Always make it about the application of knowledge
    • Ask subject matter experts how learners can apply the points you uncover in the previous step. Bonus points if you can link the application to business outcomes.

Most importantly, always ask yourself, if you could start the training content development process from scratch, what would you do differently? Existing material is only useful if it contributes to a high-quality learning experience that learners will enjoy and remember. 

Step 3: Incorporate the prior knowledge of learner

“The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly” – David Ausubel.

Think about the last time you learned something new for the first time. Maybe it was new software. Maybe it was how to conduct a performance review at work. What did you do to help you learn the new skill?

Perhaps you thought about how what you were learning was similar to something you’d already seen. Maybe you drew comparisons between one feature of the new software and the old tool you previously used.

Perhaps you related it to a story you were familiar with: the story of coaching your kid’s soccer team may come to mind when thinking about conducting a performance review at your new company.

What you are doing in these cases is activating prior knowledge to make sense of new knowledge.

David Ausubel pioneered the thinking about this topic and showed that by using advance organizers, you could help learners activate prior knowledge and retain new knowledge more effectively.

Advance organizers consist of information introduced before learning new material. It could be in the form of a story to make a concept come to life or an example of what is to come.

Construct your training to:

For more on advance organizers and how to activate prior knowledge in your learning design, check out this article.

Step 4: Create a course outline

I often tell SMEs at my clients that they should identify a single KLO for each component of their corporate training solution. This is the north star for deciding which content to include and which to leave out.

A course outline is the north star for your training material development process
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Leaving out content is the magic wand of the learning designer. After all…

Learners will only remember 3-5 things

Research has shown that working memory can hold 3-5 separate items at a time.

Working memory storage is what enables learners to carry the overall message of a unit of learning.

Working memory storage capacity is important because working memory is used in mental tasks, such as language comprehension (e.g., retaining ideas from the beginning of a learning video to be combined with ideas later on), problem-solving (remembering a fact pattern when attempting to come up with a solution), and planning (determining the best order in which to complete a task).

If you’re limited in the amount of content you can include, you better be…

Writing really good learning outcomes

It is helpful to use a taxonomy to think about learning outcomes. At Curious Lion, we use Krathwol’s revised taxonomy for learning outcomes.

Curious Lion training material development learning taxonomy
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The Knowledge Dimension

Learners attain higher levels of knowledge about a topic. Here the emphasis is on the nouns used, i.e., the what. 

The four levels are:

  • Factual – definitions of terminology, details, elements of the overall concept.
    • e,g, “what are decibels?” in a course about radio frequency
  • Conceptual – interrelationships between factual elements of knowledge that enable them to function together.
    • e.g., the decibel scale and how it compares to watts.
  • Procedural – knowledge of how
    • e.g., how to tune the antenna in a device.
  • Metacognitive – knowledge of one’s own thinking.
    • e.g., how would you respond to this antenna problem? After reviewing the solution, what did you do differently?

The Cognitive Process Dimension

Learners move through higher levels of comprehension for each given level of knowledge. Here the emphasis is on the verbs used, i.e., the how. 

The six levels are:

  • Remember
    • Retrieving knowledge from long term memory
    • Verbs to use: Recognize, recall, list, identify, define
  • Understand
    • Determining the meaning of instructional messages
    • Verbs to use: Interpret, exemplify, classify, summarize, infer, compare, explain
  • Apply
    • Carrying out a procedure in a given situation
    • Verbs to use: Execute, implement, respond, provide, use
  • Analyze
    • Breaking material into its parts and detecting how they relate to each other and the overall purpose
    • Verbs to use: Differentiate, organize, attribute, select, integrate
  • Evaluate
    • Making judgments based on criteria and standards
    • Verbs to use: Check, critique, determine, judge, reflect
  • Create
    • Combining elements to form a unique, coherent whole or to produce an original output
    • Verbs to use: Generate, plan, produce, assemble, design, create

Another useful framework to use for writing KLOs is to ensure they are SMART. 

SMART stands for:

  • Specific – Have you described the KLO in as much detail as possible? This is typically satisfied by asking the 5 W’s – What? Why? Who? Where? Which resources or limitations are involved?
  • Measurable – How will you know the KLO has been attained?
  • Attainable – How realistic is it to achieve the KLO?
  • Relevant – Does the KLO tie into the business goals and needs you identified in step 1?
  • Time-bound – What is the deadline for the KLO? By when should it be achieved?


Now that you have a course outline, with a single KLO identified for each component, it’s time to dive into designing the perfect learning experience that will guide learners in achieving the desired outcome.

Step 5: Design your custom learning experience

We dedicated an entire post to a 5-step process for designing custom learning experiences, but let’s quickly summarize the main points here.

Pick the right multimedia learning asset for the job

There are four primary types of learning assets we consider in our training material development.

  • Video (Recorded Live and Animation)
    • Great for: managing cognitive load and motivation.
  • Live Online
    • Great for: capturing attention and interaction.
  • Print Media
    • Great for: concentrated study, factual information.
  • Curation
    • Great for: attention, motivation, and curiosity!

Check out the eBook we created for more details on each of these.

Speaking of which…

Storyboard or script your transfer of knowledge

From the article, there are seven elements in learning design you want to make sure you cover in your training material development:

  1. Craft a narrative flow for your content.
  2. Apply multimedia principles for managing cognitive load.
  3. For video, follow filming guidelines for rapid video development.
  4. Provide opportunities for learners to practice in new contexts.
  5. Provide opportunities for interaction with the expert.
  6. Check on learner progress by performing regular knowledge checks.
  7. Promote community by encouraging learners to give feedback to each other.

Check out the eBook for examples of each of these seven elements to get a good grasp of how you can incorporate them.

Consider how you will reinforce training content

The final step in the 5-step process is to reinforce learning after the course.

This is becoming increasingly important in a world in which remote work is the new normal for most companies.

What kind of support will you provide learners after the course is over?

Examples you could use include:

  • “Buddy” systems to continuously reinforce content through pre-designed interventions.
  • Office hours to address follow-up questions from your learners.
  • Email check-ins to ask pre-designed questions.
  • Discussion boards to seed discussions that continue after the course is completed.

Experiment with these interventions and always get feedback from your learners about what is working and what isn’t.

Right, so now you have your perfectly designed course. It’s time to find the right team to build it!

Step 6: Choose the right team to get it done

There are a handful of critical roles you’re going to want to fill to build this custom learning experience.

Most importantly, you need a Learning Experience Designer. A Project Manager will keep the wheels spinning. Then you might also need a Scriptwriter, a Graphic Designer, an Animator, a Videographer/Editor, and a Developer. Let’s explore what to look for when filling these roles.

Learning Experience Designer

Your Learning Experience Designer is the quarterback of your entire gameplan. They need to understand every element of the training material development process and how it all fits together.

Ideally, they’re involved in the steps before this, if not responsible & accountable for each of them. They also need to be able to step into any of the remaining roles on the team and execute on the vision.

In any learning project, there are a few core dynamics that need to be managed carefully.

Your stakeholders have certain expectations for what the course should achieve. If you’ve done a good job in your needs analysis, these expectations should be reflected in your KLOs. Managing these needs, and being able to translate them into what is possible in a custom learning experience is the role of the Learning Experience Designer.

Another dynamic involves considering the reality of what is possible. This rarely ever matches your stakeholder expectations perfectly. It’s the Learning Experience Designer’s job to translate the stakeholder’s expectations to the rest of the team and ensure the end product satisfies the requirements given any limitations.

They need to know what good looks like.

Knowing what good looks like means being up to date with learning trends, open to new ideas, and frequently presenting their own.

Knowing what good looks like means reviewing each and every element of the course to make sure it delivers on the vision for the custom learning experience.

Project Manager

It is the Project Managers’ job to facilitate the back-and-forth communication of action items, decisions, and deadlines in your training material development process.

Scriptwriter

The Scriptwriter is responsible for synthesizing raw content into whatever format is required by design. This could be anything from video scripts to infographics to interactive eLearning.

Key traits to look out for here are the obvious (the ability to write) and the not-so-obvious (the ability to quickly grasp a new topic, identify key points and weave this into a logical narrative that clearly communicates an idea).

Yep, you guessed it. Scriptwriters are extremely important and should be compensated well.

Graphic Designer

In the era of Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok, you need a Graphic Designer to make information pop.

Training material development should be highly visual
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I mention Snapchat, Instagram, and TikTok to highlight the fact that we’re living in an increasingly visual age, where pictures and short videos tell complete stories.

You want to look for a Graphic Designer with an eye for creating infographics. Communicating information is the name of this game, and someone who can design a better way to visually display information will add tremendous value to your team.

Animator

If images communicate information more rapidly than text, then video takes that to the highest level.

Animation is by far the most cost-effective medium for communicating knowledge. Animation can be quickly created if you have a good Animator with a strong working relationship with your Learning Experience Designer.

Again, what you’re looking for here is someone who can visualize ideas, and specifically in the case of video, swiftly prototype these ideas to get feedback to iterate on the original idea. This rapid feedback-iteration loop makes life easier for the Learning Experience Designer to marry the stakeholder expectations with the possibilities/limitations of the various forms of multimedia training delivery.

Videographer/Editor

These two are grouped together because the roles are often filled by the same person.

What we’re talking about here is live-action filming, so you definitely want someone with an eye for what looks good on camera.

“Learning is delivered in beats.”

From an editing perspective, you want someone with a sense of cadence, as learning is delivered in beats. Just like in music, each beat of a learning experience must keep the learner in the flow of learning and be punctuated at the exact moments you most want them to pay attention to.

Developer

Finally, you want a Developer proficient in the tool you are using to package and deliver your custom learning experience.

This could be your company Wiki, or an existing LMS. This could be one of the many cloud LMS’s that exist today. Whatever you choose for delivery will require certain technical specifications. Your Developer needs to be the technical whiz kid of the team.

And there you have it – the motley crew you need to for your training material development. 

Now that you’re ready to start building, you’re going to realize you need a way to keep track of the daily activity.

Step 7: Project manage your training material development

Every company has a different approach to managing projects. Companies like Basecamp make it their life’s work and write incredibly detailed manifestos about it.

This post isn’t going to attempt to do that.

Instead, I’ll share what we do at Curious Lion with the aid of the exact Trello board we use, complete with step-by-step instructions on how to use it to manage your learning project.

Training material development process Trello board
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It’s actually a combination of two Trello boards and a Power-Up to identify each of the deliverables and the milestones we need hit to deliver on time.

Click here to access the Trello board.

Step 8: The Final Product: Know what good looks like

Knowing what to look for in the production of a training course takes a trained eye with years of experience. It’s also a question of taste. The world of learning is packed full of conflicting ideas, so ultimately, what you think works might differ wildly from someone else.

I find it helpful to look at existing examples to analyze what they did well and what they could improve on.

We can also use Gagne’s 9 Events of Instruction as a checklist in our final assessment.

But first, the example.

I wrote a piece for Lessonly last year in which I looked at four explainer videos to break down what they did well and not so well.

One of the explainer videos in that article was this one from Virgin Atlantic.

Here’s why this video works

  • Personalization with a twist: Each narrated scene has a different theme with a different style of VO. This contrasts between scenes and highlights the KLOs. Attention is held by creating momentum and anticipation of what theme will come next.
  • The contrasting themes assist with another learning principle, segmenting. Each scene contains a single safety-related KLO (e.g., life jackets, seat belts, and exit signs).
  • The background audio mutes at 2:38 when flight mode is switched on. Did you notice this? There is a physical reaction, which reinforces the point. Sometimes, the absence of sound can be powerful but use it sparingly.
  • Another learning principle on display is coherence. Animations perfectly match the voiceover. The synchronization enables viewers to watch and listen to what to do at the same time. Check out from 4:40 onwards for an excellent example of this.

What can be improved

  • Not much, but if I had to nit-pick, it would be the ending. The sequence beginning at 4:40 acts as a summary of the key learning points, which is a smart way to hit the takeaways. However, it’s helpful to list these points on the screen to underscore their importance. As we witness the action, we have a record to refer back to. This saves us the mental effort of remembering the entire sequence of steps.

Gagne’s Checklist

Everyone loves a good checklist, and Robert M. Gagné doesn’t’ disappoint with his 9 Events of Instruction.

Use this checklist as a final quality check for your online learning:

  1. Does the experience start by grabbing the attention of the learner?
  2. Does the experience inform the learn of each KLO at the appropriate time?
  3. Does the experience encourage the recall and application of prior knowledge?
  4. Does the presentation convey information in the most logical and easy-to-understand manner?
  5. Does the experience include examples, case studies, graphics, storytelling, or analogies?
  6. Does the experience include ways for learners to apply what they’ve learned?
  7. Does the experience provide learners with regular feedback on their progress?
  8. Does the experience include ways for the learner to demonstrate their grasp of the content covered?
  9. Does the experience expose learners to new scenarios and problems in which to apply the skills they’ve learned?

Your custom learning experience is now ready for release into the wild! The final step you need to consider is measuring the return on investment in your training material development, so you can justify the budget used, and motivate budget increases in the future.

Step 9: Measure the ROI of your training material development

The most helpful model I’ve found for measuring the ROI of training content development is Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation. 

The four areas to cover (with related questions) are:

  • Employees’ reaction – Did the employees like the training?
    • Use post-course surveys delivered instantly via mobile to get the best response rate and, most honest, immediate responses.
  • Employees’ learning – Did the employees learn from the training?
    • Use pre-and-post course tests to measure knowledge gain from your custom learning experience.
  • Employees’ post-training job behavior – Are employees performing desired tasks on the job?
    • Interview managers and colleagues and analyze performance ratings and reviews. Enlist a good data analyst to tie this into the result of the first two levels to measure correlation.
  • Quantifiable business results – Was the business goal reached?
    • Finally, go back to your original needs analysis and quantify the impact on business results. Ultimately this is what will be the make-or-break of your training and the key to budget for future ideas.

Additional Tips For Your Training Material Development Methodology

If you follow the nine steps I’ve just covered, you’re 95% better off than most companies producing training content. But you want to stand out from the crowd. So here is a list of anything else that didn’t fit into the steps above, but will give you the edge your training content needs. 

  • Usually, the easiest way for subject matter experts (SMEs) to provide you with information is in the form of a PowerPoint, or even worse, the dreaded ‘Knowledge/Document Center.’ Take the time to get familiar with the topic and existing content. Spend time doing your own research too.
  • The existing material provided might be well organized and clearly structured. But the content might be nothing of the sort. Don’t panic. Develop a relationship with the SMEs by asking questions and being genuinely curious.
  • The training material might include very specific terminology. Take the time to understand it. Do your own research. Your ability to speak the language of the SME is what is going to get them to want to help you even more.
  • Weed out any and all unnecessary concepts and words. Keep your eye on the prize: the KLO.
  • Clarify deadlines upfront. Complex training material development takes time, so it’s important to remain on the same page about delivery dates.
  • Embrace feedback. Don’t take criticism personally. The key to understanding is to accept that you don’t know and be insanely curious about learning.
  • Proofread everything you create. Trust me.

References

  • Ausubel, D. (1963). The Psychology of Meaningful Verbal Learning. New York: Grune & Stratton.
  • Ausubel, D. (1978). In defense of advance organizers: A reply to the critics. Review of Educational Research, 48, 251-257.
  • Ausubel, D., Novak, J., & Hanesian, H. (1978). Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View (2nd Ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Baddeley AD, Hitch G. (1974). Working memory. The psychology of learning and motivation. Vol. 8. New York: Academic Press; 1974. pp. 47–89.
  • Cowan, N. (2010). The Magical Mystery Four: How is Working Memory Capacity Limited, and Why? Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2010 Feb 1
  • Gagne, R. (1987). Instructional Technology Foundations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc.
  • Gagne, R. & Driscoll, M. (1988). Essentials of Learning for Instruction (2nd Ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Gagne, R., Briggs, L. & Wager, W. (1992). Principles of Instructional Design (4th Ed.). Fort Worth, TX: HBJ College Publishers.
  • Knowles, M. (1975). Self-Directed Learning. Chicago: Follet.
  • Knowles, M. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (3rd Ed.). Houston: Gulf Publishing.
  • Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Krathwohl, D. R., (2002): A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview, Theory Into Practice, 41:4, 212-218
The complete guide to training material development
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