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Designing Great Learning Experiences: What Great Teachers Do

Becoming a Learning Experience Designer

Designing great learning experiences is what great teachers do. Educators have much to gain, and to offer, when they define their roles as creative work. Teachers, in particular, can keep their practice motivating by choosing an energizing definition of teaching— designing learning experiences for learners.

With time, experienced teachers can begin to feel that their work has lost its appeal. They may find their teaching activities repetitive or that their students seem less motivated than they used to be.  Boredom and frustration  can lead eventually to burnout.  To assure that their teaching practice remains vital teachers must start with a good definition of teaching.

Many people believe that teaching is about the “transfer of information”. However, this traditional model makes teaching a static, repetitive process in which the teacher is simply the pipeline between the sources of knowledge and the student destination. This belief can lead teachers to design learning experiences which are boring. As a result students may be unwilling to apply serious effort to the learning.

Designing Learning Experiences

Most teachers create lessons. These range from highly teacher-centered to highly student-centered depending upon what we ask students to do. If they are asked to listen and take notes the lesson is a lecture. Alternatively, teachers can design problem-solving activities which engage students in finding solutions. And there are many variations in between.

From a student perspective lessons are experiences. It makes sense, therefore, to think of lesson planning as designing learning experiences. This will change what you do.

There are two sets of principles you can draw on in becoming a learning experience designer. The first consists of pedagogical principles. 

Pedagogical Principles for Designing Great Educational Experiences


The work of researchers like Jean Piaget suggests that learning is an act of construction. In this model, learners have an existing base of knowledge. When they learn, they build new knowledge onto this base. It is a bit like building an addition onto a house.

This means that the learner is in complete control of the learning. A student can choose to learn or not. Consequently, any definition of teaching must include the teacher’s role as an indirect influence on students’ learning. Teachers lead the planned learning experiences but their influence on actual learning is always indirect.

The Professional Teacher

It is important to note that a student’s unwillingness to learn doesn’t exempt the teacher from a professional commitment to teach well. Teaching professionals are always looking for the best way. Teaching, therefore, is a continuous process of design, testing, and improving  learning experiences.

Active Learning

The Active Learning model hinges on engagement and is a reaction to traditional lecture methods. According to the model students are intellectually active when they engage with the subject matter. Supporters of AL are fond of saying, “Talking is not teaching and listening is not learning.” The traditional lecture is limited in its ability to fully engage students.

Learners must actively probe the subject under study in order to arrive at a deep and lasting understanding. This does not occur when students simply take lecture notes and then feed information back in tests or papers.

In addition, Active Learning activities should address the “real world”. This means that learning experiences should connect to issues outside the classroom rather than revolve around memorizing and doing exercises.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Benjamin Bloom’s ranking of intellectual activities is one of the most fundamental tools available to teachers at all levels.

Bloom's Taxonomy

Shown here is the updated version of the taxonomy. Educators generally accept the principal that teachers should design learning experiences at various levels of intellectual challenge. They should emphasize, where possible, the higher ones.

A course containing only Remember level activities will limit students to memorizing facts and figures. They would find this course incredibly boring. Such a course would not encourage or deepen their understanding of important concepts.

Many teachers still find it  challenging to engage students at the Create level. There are several reasons for this.

  • Teachers believe that they are expected to provide the course content. If they share the role it is only with text books and other educational resources.
  • Teachers are the experts on how content should be presented. Students will not be able to create presentations that are as effective.
  • The course content is already defined so there is no point having students produce material which risks lying  outside the curriculum.

All Professionals are Designers

Professional teachers learn from their practice. Each change they bring to the learning experiences they design produces new evidence about what works and what does not. This process of constant experimentation is clearly a creative one. It drives other other professionals as well. All professionals are designers.

Physicians design and revise programs of diagnosis and treatment for their patients.  Lawyers design legal strategies to help their clients. Accountants create financial plans and revise them to meet their clients’ changing needs. Architects design living and working spaces for various uses by people.

The professional teacher is a designer as well.

Designing Great Educational Experiences—Some Ingredients of Great Experiences

The second set of principles designing teachers can apply are experiential. These come from what we know about ourselves.

Some of the following principles are adapted from those used by designers of physical experiences.

Physical Context

Elementary school teachers all seem to know how important the classroom environment is in creating effective learning experiences.

Elementary Classroom
Elementary Classroom

At the high school level the physical learning space often becomes less vibrant. In fact, because students usually move from class to class the classrooms tend to be similar and minimal in design. Nonetheless, older students do respond to the physical environment they learn in. While the elementary classroom can feel stimulating and offer each student a space that is theirs high school classrooms often imply that it really doesn’t matter who you; any other group of visitors would be just as welcome.

High school class
High School Classroom

Unfortunately, at the university level both the physical context and often pedagogical design, have even lower priority. AT this level teachers usually revert to the traditional role of information presenter. The physical environment defines a one-way dialog between presenter and audience. Anyone absent will not be missed.

Designing Great Learning Experiences
Lecture Hall

Here are some questions to consider.

  1. What does it feel like to enter the location in which you teach?
  2. Could you meet your students in other spaces? Sometimes this includes the outdoors.
  3. Can you enhance the space in any way? Could you make it more comfortable? Can you adjust the lighting or the seating or otherwise improve the comfort of the space?
  4. Does it feel like a place for learning?
  5. Is the space cared for?

Psychological Context

A learner’s personal experiences and their experiencing of world events can change their level of engagement in learning activities. A well designed learning experience  allows room for flexibility and spontaneous changes of plans. If there has been a significant event in the community, whether disturbing or exciting, it may deserve some attention in class.  This acknowledges that the participants in the lesson are people, not just students. Students have good days and bad days too.

People are context. Every class has its unique character and it can change from day to day. 

Responsibility for psychological currents in the classroom falls overwhelmingly on the teacher. Blindly plowing ahead in the face of some form of disruption denies the recognition of students as human beings and the organic nature of a group of human beings.

By adulthood we have all acquired some 


your class or my class

Concern for these elements is part of the design process for learning experiences. Sometimes, of course, the unexpected will necessitate a spontaneous change of plans. Interestingly, this kind of change often produces surprisingly satisfying results.

Here are some questions to consider.

  1. Do students have an opportunity to get acquainted with other participants, to discover their strengths and talents? Do these opportunities continue?
  2. Is there time to ease into the lesson, gathering scattered minds together and acknowledging any elephants in the room?
  3. Is there a civility which allows free, unintimidated sharing of ideas?
  4. Does respect prevail?
  5. Is there an atmosphere of inquiry?

Engaging the Senses

We are an eye-dominant species. Nonetheless, our other senses enhance our ability to understand and appreciate objects, ideas, and concepts. Many people develop other senses as compensation when, for example, they are visually impaired.

There is considerable evidence that people who are blind or deaf acquire enhanced abilities in other areas, largely due to brain plasticity. Although learners are capable of contacting the world in several different ways we tend to rely heavily on printed texts in teaching. This is at the expense of providing other ways of understanding and appreciating our reality. These other modes of contact are what we often use outside the learning environment. It makes little sense for our teaching to exclude them.

Here are some questions to consider.
  1. Will sound play a role in your teaching?
  2. Are there things to touch?
  3. Will participants move around in the space?

Building Community

 Building a community revolves around respect, and respect engenders trust. This allows learners to let down the guard they use to protect themselves against being attacked, embarrassed, humiliated, or otherwise made to feel inferior. There are several reasons why creating a sense of community in the learning space is essential.


Most teacher training programs include Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs . It is a longstanding theory that explains the priorities of the various kinds of needs human beings have.

Designing Great Learning Experiences
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The needs are:

  1. Physiological – air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing
  2. Safety – personal security, health, resources, property
  3. Love/belonging – friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connection
  4. Esteem – respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom
  5. Self-actualization – desire to become the most that one can be

The theory suggests that we cannot have our needs met at some level if the needs at lower levels are not met first . We will always be preoccupied with having the lower-ranking needs met. For example, we will have trouble learning  (self-actualization) when we are hungry, fearful, or unconnected to those around us.

Feeling part of a community in the learning space can help a learner meet these needs and then be able to address learning.


Active Learning and other popular learning strategies encourage teachers to have students work in groups to solve problems, to collaborate.

When students work together they can encounter the same challenges faced by any group. We can better prepare students to deal with the task of working effectively in groups by building a sense of community.

Overwriting Bad History

Students arrive in the learning space with a variety of past experiences. If they have struggled with unmet needs in their past educational experiences or in their home life a positive community experience can support  a successful re-orientation toward learning.

Here are some questions to consider.
  1. Will participants appear to be having a good time causing others to want to join in?
  2. Do you use ice breakers to create comfort among participants?
  3. Is there an established climate of respect?

Rewarding the Relationship

In an electronic age Social Media are constantly soliciting students  for their attention.  They compete particularly for the attention of young people. In fact, attention has become a commodity which has a dollar value in the ubiquitous world of Social Media.

Social Media

Business models now guide the evolution of Social Media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and others.  Among the negative consequences of business motives is the addictive behavior that it deliberately generates, particularly in young people. It is important for teachers to understand Social Media’s success. These sites compete for our limited attention by creating engaging experiences.

In order to attract attention Social Media platforms trade on our craving for social approval: feeling connected, validated, and liked. Attention turns out to be a commodity with a high value to corporate marketers.

The SM platforms invoke psychology in their pursuit of attention. “Likes” and other shows of approval give us random rewards which are very effective in creating a fleeting feeling of pleasure.
These random rewards keep us coming back for more in much the same way a slot machine does. Some platforms even build in deliberate delays between screen updates to heighten the intensity of expectation.

Social Reciprocity

SM members who read a message and know that the sender has been notified may feel obliged to reply. And the original sender may linger online awaiting that likely response. The net effect: more attention to the platform, more attention to sell to marketers.

One site uses “streaks”, advancing red lines to display the number of days since two users interacted. This can create anxiety if the streak gets too long.  Some SM users ask friends to babysit their streaks while on holiday, keeping the streak alive.

Push Notifications

Many web sites encourage visitors to become members or subscribers. In addition, the new member is advised to allow “alerts” or push notifications. When these messages arrive the member is likely to interrupt whatever she is doing and thereby be subject to frequent distraction.

The Addiction

The compulsive practice of seeking a reward by responding to Social Media’s prompts means building one’s life around avoiding discomfort instead of focusing on things that give joy.

Teachers’ Takeaway

The random psychological rewards provided by Social Media work very well in grabbing large amounts of attention, particularly from young people. With this as background teachers have to seriously address the question, “Am I also trying to attract my students’ attention?” And if so, “What rewards can students expect in return for their attention?”

The rewards of educational success are generally deferred: career and income, for example. What are the immediate rewards of a lesson? This is an important question. Is there something that brings a class to a rewarding conclusion?  Was there a Eureka moment in which something significant was revealed? Did your students feel they accomplished something challenging, either individually or as a group? Did the time spent (the attention given) lead to some satisfying insight or some newly acquired capacity? In short, was the value of the learning experience equal to the value of the attention demanded and were the rewards immediately felt?

Unfortunately, some teachers dismiss this question by putting all responsibility for student engagement on the student. Learning experience designers, on the other hand, start with the belief that the experiences they design should reward student attention.

Feeling empowered is a strong reward. So it is important that learners feel they have accomplished something significant.

Here are some questions to consider.
  1. Will students experience a reward for their attention?
  2. Do you feel that it is your responsibility to ensure these rewards are present?
  3. In thinking about the specific content you teach, does it contain something you find rewarding?

Bodies Moving

Babies learn quickly that, in order to get what they want, it would be very useful to do two things. If they could talk they could tell the grownups what they want. If they could walk they could just go and get it.

For many years we have sent young children to school where their newly acquired skills are devalued in favor of sitting still and being quiet. Students who struggle with these restrictions are sometimes drugged into complying. Students who make it to high school without taming their desire to speak and move about often drop out in frustration.

Early Classroom
Early Classroom
The Natural Movement of the Body and Frequent Changes of Position

Research is now suggesting that the body has a need to move spontaneously throughout the day in order to preserve health and enable concentration.

“The standard day at work or school is spent sitting and the amount of time we spend sitting has increased enormously over the last 35 years compared to what is healthy for the human body.
One obvious result of this lack of activity is that the muscles throughout our body do not get enough use. Spontaneous and regular muscle contractions throughout the whole body are an important part of the circulation system and furnish the brain with the oxygen, proteins and hormones it requires for concentration.

To meet these supply requirements, the brain subconsciously sends signals to the muscles to move. The rigid furniture and environments that we find in office environments and schools today hinder this self-organized movement.” —Aquest Design

The importance of spontaneous physical movement is now more generally recognized for younger students. Nonetheless, at higher levels of schooling we are quick to assume that the need has disappeared. Students in higher education, particularly, are expected to sit in rigid seating for prolonged periods of time. The challenges for success in higher education should derive from the work itself and not from the conditions under which it is done.


Our need for spontaneous movement includes the opportunity to express states of happiness and joy.

Learning Narrative

Is there a learning narrative that starts somewhere and goes somewhere? Did students arrive at a new destination by the end of the lesson? When designing a lesson it is helpful to think about the “journey” students will make during the experience. Will they leave your class feeling they have moved forward in understanding, skill, or appreciation?

It is difficult to know how well students integrated the material explored during a lesson. Do you ever ask? A five-minute survey at the end of a class can:

  • reveal, for you and for them, the degree of understanding that was achieved
  • encourage students to reflect on what they learned
  • let students know that their learning success is important to you
The “Ah-Ha!” Moment

In designing an activity it is also useful to think about Ah-Ha! moments. Does your learning experience contain some surprising  revelations or concepts that suddenly become clear? Will participants get the main point of the activity? By the end will they have discovered something important?

Most lessons go right to the main topic without setting any context. By setting context first you create reasons for learning and can place the main idea as the prize worth waiting for.

Here is an example from Nursing:

In interaction with students explore the meaning of “pressure”. Where do we encounter “pressure”? (In many different contexts.) How would you define it? How is pressure increased or reduced? Now let’s talk about high blood pressure.

High blood pressure is a relevant topic in a Nursing program. But the underlying concept, “pressure”, is universal and has enormous importance. Having understood this context students will be able to predict many of the main issues associated with hypertension. Enabling learners to generate the key knowledge elements themselves rather than receiving  them from a textbook or the teacher engages them. It also creates a narrative in which the destination (high blood pressure) is eventually revealed. Ah-Ha!


What photographs or other memorabilia will they end up with at the end of a lesson? 

Having students listen to a lecture and try to write coherent notes has been shown to be an ineffective approach to teaching and learning. If not lecture notes, what will be the physical take-away of a lesson be? 

Many students now use their cell phone cameras to record board work and other reminders of the lesson. Could there be other reminders that they could take from a lesson? Perhaps they could leave with a card with an acronym, or a reminder of some important process that was explored? And of course photographs of board notes and drawings, preferably their own board work and drawings.


One of the fine points of teaching involves “keeping it simple”. This is important on two levels. First, does the key focus of the lesson stand out above everything else? Sometimes teachers devote too much time to the administrative details associated with their lessons: organizing for activities, collecting and returning assignments, explaining rules and grading, for example. While these are important we should not allow them to dominate the learning experience. Keep it simple.

At another level when studying a particular idea it is important to know when to stop developing additional connections, digging into more detail, or adding more examples. The key concepts need to stand out. At the end of the lesson would your students be able to easily identify its main purpose?

End on a High Note

Assuring the learning experience ends on a high note requires, first of all, that you are attentive to time. The class will not end on a high note if you run out of time and don’t make it to the rewarding conclusion you planned.

Is there time at the end for a quiet word or a loud cheer? It is an excellent idea to get some feedback on how things went.

Creating a Platform

Each learning experience you design contributes to the building of a learning platform.  This platform supports students in taking on greater learning challenges. Their learning experiences should lead them to the creation of unique expressions of their expanding fields of understanding.

We treasure what we create. Our creations help to define us. The entire set of learning experiences you create are the platform from which students can develop and express their unique perspectives. Their creations are a reward for their efforts in learning and will encourage them to continue learning forever.