Webinar Recap: Using Gap Analysis to Improve Learning Design

Webinar Recap: Using Gap Analysis to Improve Learning Design Featuring Julie Dirksen

In the How to Use Gap Analysis for Learning Design webinar, guest speaker Julie Dirksen, author and learning consultant at Usable Learning, discussed the importance of instructional designers’ ability to identify gaps between learning analysis and design.

“So many people come into our field from domain knowledge. The ‘Hey! You’re a good customer service rep; we’re gonna let you train the other customer service reps kind of thing,’” Julie explains.

“That means that there’s a lot of people who have a lot of expertise about their topic, but not a lot of knowledge about how do they translate that and kind of create good learning experiences for other people.”

To create effective learning experiences using gap analysis, learning designers need to have a certain level of understanding of their audience and their content. To accomplish this, you should start by analyzing the instructional goal and where the learners are.

The information discovered from this analysis will help you determine the most useful design strategies for different parts of your content.

What is Gap Analysis?

The webinar starts with Julie defining gap analysis by explaining its parts. First, a gap is a difference between where a current learner is and where this sort of “awesome future learner” needs to be.

While analysis is the process of determining the missing ingredients that will give someone the personal knowledge, skills, and capabilities that will allow them to be successful in their environment.

6 Categories of Julie Dirksen’s Gap Analysis Model

Next, she walks through the different categories of her Gap Analysis Model, which she describes as an expansion of the more standard Knowledge, Skills, and Attitude (KSA) model. Her model is comprised of six types of content gaps:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Procedural
  3. Skills
  4. Habits
  5. Motivation/Affect
  6. Environment

Understanding how to identify and differentiate content that falls into each category is key to successfully creating engaging learning experiences that accomplish their intent.

She continues the discussion by delving deeper into her gap analysis model’s categories, along with relevant and understandable examples.

What are Knowledge Gaps?

“Knowledge gaps are when you have identified that the learner doesn’t know something, and they need to know that something in order to be successful,” explains Julie. “The learner needs information, and not having the right information is kind of like not having the right equipment or gear.”

She illustrates her definition by pointing out how important it would be for someone who suddenly decides to climb Mount Kilimanjaro to have the necessary stamina, to know how to climb a mountain, and the right supplies and gear to do so.

Continuing with this example, Julie compares knowledge to the supplies and gear the person would need. While important, this stuff is only one part of ensuring someone has everything they need to climb the mountain successfully.

So to determine if there are knowledge gaps, once information is shared, you must ask, “Is the learner now fully prepared to complete the expected task?” If the answer is “no,” a knowledge void exists.

What are Procedural Gaps?

The next gap analysis category she describes is the procedural gap when learning needs to meet a well-defined performance or step-by-step process. It is when you know how you want the learner to execute something.

For example, you design learning for step-by-step procedures by submitting a report or completing a checklist. However, you must ask yourself, do I know exactly what the correct performance looks like?

Is there maybe some variability? Is the learner expected to complete a procedure the same way every time, or does the learner have to bring in some experience or personal judgment?

The latter is when you move from procedures to skills.

Differentiating Between Procedural and Skills Gaps

To define a skill, Julie suggests asking one question: “Is it reasonable to think that someone can be proficient without practice? If the answer is yes, then it’s a procedure. If the answer is no, then it’s a skill.”

Some examples of procedures are attaching a file to an email, saving a file in Microsoft Word, and filling out a timesheet. On the other hand, skills include playing volleyball, giving performance reviews, or calming an irate customer.

One important distinction is that if you decide something is a skills type of learning, you must consider how that changes the overall learning design. Specifically, a procedure-focused learning design could include a job aid.

Once a learning goal includes a skill, you must consider how learners will practice and get feedback. Some examples of skills-focused learning are playing golf, becoming a surgeon, a pilot, or a driver.

“And we understand this for certain domains like nobody expects anybody to be able to play golf without practicing. You don’t want doctors who haven’t actually had hands-on practice or a pilot who’s just practiced the written test,” Julie explains.

She compares this to becoming a manager and points out that being a manager is more complicated than driving. Yet, managers rarely get a good amount of supervised practice when they assume the role of a manager for the first time.

When a skill is less visible and more cognitive, the practice tends to be less prominent in the learning process, maybe even forgotten.

“People don’t necessarily die if you manage a team or a person incorrectly, but that’s not always true. Some of the things where people are managing and supervising our tasks when they get it wrong can have implications,” Julie points out. “But it’s not as obvious a connection. A lot of the time in the areas where we can kill people…pilots, doctors, we understand that practice is important.”

What are Motivation/Attitude Gaps?

The presentation then shifts to describing gaps in motivation or attitude. During gap analysis, motivation gaps show up when you have people who know what to do and when to do it but are still not doing it.

Maybe the gap is there for legitimate reasons, the learners may just have competing priorities, or they may have a broken system. They’re operating within it the best they can. So how do you design for this kind of learning gap?

The answer for how you think about learning design for those situations is probably a bit different than just sort of telling them louder and more emphatically what to do.

What are Habit Gaps?

A habit is an automatic or near-automatic behavior that happens in response to a trigger in the environment. Something tells you it’s time to do this, and you respond automatically out of habit. A lot of our daily life is very habit driven, so these are powerful.

Habits cannot be created simply by telling people what to do. It is important to understand the process and procedure for creating a habit and the motivation and skills needed to make it a regular part of a learner’s life.

Julie gives the example of flossing your teeth. You can understand the procedure for flossing, and you can even be skilled at it, maybe even motivated, but you still might not have gotten it over the line into being a regular habit.

What are Environment Gaps?

Environment gaps are found when people want to do the right thing. They are ready, but something about the environment is not working for them.

For example, when you train people on a patient-centered care method, the organization might make the bureaucracy so overwhelming that the learner can’t deal with it. Another example of controlling the environment is automatic headlights and windshield wipers in modern cars.

Sometimes you can fix the environment to achieve a goal instead of fixing the people to change their behaviors or habits.

How to Design Learning for Gaps

According to Julie, one of the issues with designing to address gaps is that so much training and development tends to focus on the first two categories of knowledge and procedural gaps.

When you focus on designing to alleviate gaps, it is usually not just one category you need to consider. It is a combination of categories. You must think beyond knowledge and procedural gaps and account for skills, habits, motivation, and environmental gaps.

To really design learning that covers all the gaps, it is important to consult a subject matter expert (SME) willing to have a longer conversation and give you information necessary to succeed in a task.

Learning Design Strategies for Knowledge Gaps

It is important to consider the issue of cognitive load when designing learning for knowledge gaps.

Julie illustrates this point by using the example of a 90-slide presentation on the regulations for asbestos handling for construction workers. From a cognitive load point of view, it is a problem.

Using the cognitive load description by John Sweller, Julie explains how when designing for knowledge learning, you should take the different types of cognitive loads, intrinsic, germane, and extraneous, into account. She also suggests looking at how people process information, focus and pay attention.

Understanding how memory works is also essential to effectively designing for knowledge gaps. It is important to consider a learner’s sensory, working, and long-term memory processes.

As an example, try to remember what kind of cars you saw on the way to work. The things that stand out and make it into your long-term memory are usually cars that hold your attention because they:

  • Were unusual or surprising
  • Caused an emotional reaction
  • Were meaningful or relevant to you in some way
  • Reminded you of a previous experience or interaction
  • Were seen multiple times (repetition)

Any of these characteristics can help you retain what you remember. People are more likely to discard observations or what they learned without them.

So, in learning design, one of the checklists/toolkits you can use when focusing on knowledge problems is to ask yourself, “Do people really need to carry this information around in their head all the time, or can they reference it through some other means, maybe a job aid?”

Learning Design Strategies for Skills Gaps

For the next category, Julie uses Gloria Gery’s Electronic Performance Support System (EPSS) model to design for skills gaps. Using the EPSS, learning to do something requiring practice to become skilled progresses through the following steps.

  • Familiarization: You are familiar with the skill.
  • Comprehension: You can comprehend the skill.
  • Conscious Effort: You can do the skill but are not 100% successful.
  • Conscious Action: You can do the skill, but you must think about every step.
  • Proficiency: You are starting to become proficient at doing the skill.
  • Unconscious Competence: You can do the skill without thinking about it; it is automatic.

Practice is necessary to reach unconscious competence, where a skill can be performed without much effort or attention. Take driving, for example. You may have reached the point where driving is second nature.

Now, what if you are in another country and suddenly have to drive on the opposite side of the road? You are still a skilled driver, but by changing the side of the road, you drive on, you have to think about what you are doing. It is no longer automatic.

When making changes to processes, it is important to provide practice and guidance to help people become comfortable with the new way of doing something.

Learning Design Strategies for Motivation Gaps

Julie introduces Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis as one possible strategy for bridging gaps in motivation. The theory uses a metaphor to describe the brain as being like an elephant. It is largely taken up with things focused on feeling, sensing, and perceiving the world.

The elephant has a small rider, though. This rider is where your executive reading, planning, and impulse control exist. Julie points out that bridging motivation gaps is often about finding ways for the elephant and the rider to talk to one another.

It is important to not only talk to the rider, to not only speak to people in intellectual terms but to also speak to the elephant, to offer experiences, to offer hands-on practice, to be able to see consequences, to learn more about sharing success stories and other experiences.

Learning Design Strategies for Habit Gaps

When tackling habit gaps, Julie introduces Peter Gollwitzer and his research on implementation intentions, which are strategies for achieving a goal through the use of if-then plans.

As a designer, you can create these types of plans and build them into your training. For example, if X happens, I will do Y. They can also be created for yourself, like breaking an unwanted habit like smoking.

Your plan might include statements like:

  • If I have a craving to smoke because I’m bored, I can play a casual game on my phone
  • If I have a craving because I am stressed, I’ll call my sponsor because he/she will help me deal with it
  • If I am in a social situation and craving to smoke, I will choose to chew gum

Creating small scripts for the learner to help build habits and create new feedback cycles is an effective way to include habit gaps in learning design.

Learning Design Strategies for Environment Gaps

When addressing learning gaps in the environment, you need to determine if it would be easier to fix the process or system or to fix the person. Depending on the answer, the solution might be to introduce job aids or other resources into the environment.

Designing for environment gaps is not limited to the learner. It can also put knowledge out in the world by using pictograms, quick-view manuals, or trail markers in your design.

The Freedom Trail in Boston is one such example that uses a red brick line in the sidewalk so you can walk along and see the city’s historical landmarks without having to ever consult a map.

Final Thoughts

Using gap analysis to improve your training is a great way to build more complete learning experiences. As an instructional designer, everything begins with understanding your audience and their level of knowledge.

From there, you can leverage Julie’s Gap Analysis Model to dive deeper into the content and go beyond simply looking at knowledge and procedural gaps.

This insight will help determine the most useful learning strategies for every aspect of your content.

Looking for more? Watch the video highlights from the How to use Gap Analysis for Learning Design webinar or read Julie Dirksen’s book, Design for How People Learn.

Marloes Rozing

Marloes Rozing

A true interculturalist with a passion for differences, Marloes has lived and worked in 6 countries (China, US, UK, Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium) across 3 continents and speaks 4 languages. She is driven by curiosity and seeks out individuals and organizations that demonstrate courage to grow and change. Marloes has a professional background in international business and project management.
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A true interculturalist with a passion for differences, Marloes has lived and worked in 6 countries (China, US, UK, Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium) across 3 continents and speaks 4 languages. She is driven by curiosity and seeks out individuals and organizations that demonstrate courage to grow and change. Marloes has a professional background in international business and project management.

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