Using psychology when designing L&D solutions

I’ve been spending some time over the last couple of weeks writing about the use of psychology in L&D. My first piece was about concerns I had in how many L&Ders use pop psychology when delivering learning solutions without any real depth of applied thinking or exploration of theory. Last week’s piece was about how we can use insights from psychology to create strong and safe delivery of learning solutions (be they digitally led or face to face). It’s been fun writing this short series.

So I guess one of the areas to help share further insights on are around the design of learning solutions. What can we learn from psychology about designing effective learning solutions?

I think there’s a number of things we can draw on and some you may be familiar with, others you may do already, and some may be different to what you expect. And if you’re an L&Der who still believes that’s using learning styles or similar in the design of learning solutions is effective you definitely need to read on for better methods.


People (in the main) have terrible memories. They mix up facts, dates, names and all sorts. You can learn to do that stuff better, but even then what you learn by rote one day will be forgotten pretty soon after. There are several things to bear in mind when designing learning solutions and remembering that memory isn’t reliable.

Use storytelling techniques to relay important messages. People will recall a story far easier than they will the facts. Don’t laden learning solutions with policy’s or legislation or anything like that because most people won’t recall it and most people don’t care. They just want to know why it makes a difference for them in the job they do.
Where you have key messages, keep them short and simple. And don’t forget the golden rule of repetition. If it’s an important message people need to hear it several times over in order for them to recall it. This is why politicians are so successful at creating narratives and why you see the same advert over and again over several months.

If you need people to recall facts, unless you’re really testing their memory recall skills, keep them to no more than 5 points.


I think priming is one of the best understood methodologies when it comes to learning solution design. The idea is that you can help people be better learners if you give them specific tasks to do before they do the learning event. For example, ahead of a workshop get people to watch a video, complete some self-reflection, or a worksheet. It’s a great way to build the right connections needed for learning to occur. Of course there are always people who won’t complete the work in advance and there’s no easy answer to resolve that!

And if you’ve read some of the work on priming you’ll be aware in L&D we don’t actually use priming. We use a form of it.


One of the key things we’ve learned in psychology is that people appreciate learning about others and creating connections with them. In the learning environment this means respecting that need and designing different ways for people to interact and have those conversations.

Instructional Design

There’s a whole world of work being regularly explored when it comes to digital solutions. In particular, how do people use digital tools for learning purposes? What we’re learning is that how you use e-learning is different to how you use a YouTube video to how you use a one page guide. They all offer different ways for you to access content and information.

What we’re learning about in this context is how to organise that information so people are most receptive to it. If it’s e-learning, you can design really great e-learning when the flow of information between screens makes sense, it’s based on real world application, and is easy to understand. 

If it’s creating a video or using pics we know that you can use the rule of thirds (not an insight from psychology at all but a good thing to know).

If you’re creating a one page guide, make the content based on performance improvement and nothing else. Sports players don’t have pages of information about psychology theory to help them play better in the moment. They have specific things they do that help them in the moment. They can do that well because they’ve done the other work in a  different context.


Representation matters in learning. If the learning context and content is not representative, it’s easy for people to dismiss the importance of what they’re learning. If a department is given greater prominence or a stereotype reinforced or a myths about people exacerbated, people will not choose to engage with the content. 


It’s very possible to engage people into learning by designing in exercises that involve them emotionally. For example, in presentation skills training, asking people to deliver a presentation on something they’re proud of is potent stuff. It taps into their sense of worth, pride and identity. That’s a powerful source of content. Similarly on leadership training, asking people to plan a difficult conversation is full of emotion too. The experience of anxiety, fear of saying the wrong thing, guilty for delivering the message. It’s all valuable information to the individual and helps them prepare for the actual experience. 

I’ve not mentioned many other principles or insights, mostly because there’s too many to mention! Instead I hope to have provided an idea of the richness for design we can create in L&D when we take the time to understand various things from psychology particularly well.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

One thought on “Using psychology when designing L&D solutions”

  1. Re priming, I started building a free Project Management 101 MOOC ( for free on Teachable ( as a hobby Q3 last year (after doing Making MOOCs on a Budget mooc). One of the initial post-joining tasks is the following:-

    “A few years ago the BBC broadcast a 6-part series “The 800 Million Pound Railway Station” about the renovation of St. Pancras railway station in central London. The series provided an insiders’ view of a high-profile project that you rarely get to see.

    To introduce the subject of projects, I would like you to watch the 30 minute opening episode “The Devil In The Detail”.

    As you watch this video, look out for the following:-

    (1) What sort of work is involved in this project?
    (2) What roles are people playing on the project?
    (3) What are the joys and challenges of being involved in the project?
    (4) At what point of the work would you say that this project is completed?
    (5) What surprised you about the programme?

    I need to get back to building it after completing my first WOL Circle (now in week 8 of 12) and the Foundations of the Social Age 12-week MOOC ( that started yesterday.

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