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A Simple, Powerful Design Principle

Want Learning Impact? Apply the Topf Secret

"Expect from your learners what you see them DO in training!"

Experts who train sometimes are wrong or incomplete. We've known this for a while now. Much of what experts do, think, and apply in their jobs is what cognitive psychologists call non-conscious. They know they're doing it right but they probably aren't aware of HOW or WHY. That's odd, right? You'd assume that an expert who knows stuff and is good at their job would be able to explain it to others. Often, they are less than effective. One common problem is that the expert isn't focused on performance on the job, clear on the learning objective, and doesn't provide 2/3's of the time in practice and feedback. Also, the expert is left to plan their own content-focused agenda, "covering" the material as a way to define success. This approach risks training and learning that is ineffective and irrelevant to a novice. What to do instead? I suggest instructional designers and consultants encourage experts to apply the super clever, and aptly named TOPF Secret to instructional design. It's as follows: To assure that your training results in learners who feel competent and confident in their ability to perform back on the job, remember:​

Task = Objective = Practice = Feedback

Let me explain. The learner's task on the job, the learning objective, the in-class practices, and the learning feedback are ALL THE SAME THING! (Insert head explosion emoji here. Okay. Maybe not.) This simple principle has a profound effect on training success and the learner experience. Here's more on that. The "Task" is the learners' performance on the job. What is it that they must do, care about, and achieve to be successful? This is the "thing" that learners should be confident and competent about. You may have to do some analysis to determine exactly what this is. Cognitive Task Analysis is one technique. Interviews of high performers and average performers are another. Observation is a third. Consulting relevant literature on best practices is good too. Or, perhaps you can evaluate work product samples. Lastly, you may interview or survey managers of the work or subject matter experts, but see above for the risks (I'd never use interviews or surveys alone to design training.). The task is best expressed in a short, clear phrase of an action verb followed closely by a noun. Think: Checklist. The "Objective" is the learning objective for the training itself. What do you expect the learners to be able to do (or produce) once the training is completed? What are the essential declarative (book smarts) and procedural (street smarts) knowledge for their success? The "Practice" is what learners DO DURING the training that shows that they are proficient enough, and are confident and competent to apply the learning back on the job. And, the "Feedback" is your basis of assessment of the training. Did you achieve what you needed to achieve? What encouragement can be offered? When will they know they're doing a good job? So, for example, here's how this would work from the designers point of view:

  • On the job, the learners must USE PRINCIPLES OF CUSTOMER SERVICE IN THEIR JOBS. (Task)

  • After the training, the learners will be able to USE PRINCIPLES OF CUSTOMER SERVICE IN THEIR JOBS (Objective)

  • During the training, the learners will practice USING CUSTOMER SERVICE PRINCIPLES IN THEIR JOBS (Practice)

  • After the training, we will measure the learners' performance as they USE CUSTOMER SERVICE PRINCIPLES IN THEIR JOBS. (Feedback)

Just imagine that your training and learning programs follow this TOPF Secret? Why, you'd almost instantly have:

  1. Clarity in purpose

  2. Experts' insight the essential content (book and street smarts)

  3. Engaged learners in authentic, realistic, and relevant learning experiences

  4. Useful formative and summative training evaluation (How are we doing? How did we do?)

  5. Performance driven and learner centered design

Imagine that! Applying the TOPF Secret gives you the power to encourage the experts who train to be more performance-driven. I've found this simple yet powerful tool gives designers the confidence to shape how learning is designed and measured for impact. Imagine, indeed! Coming up in the next post, "The Wall of Reality."

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