The Importance of Learning Experience Design for Higher Education

Apr 21, 2015

In 1972, approximately 25% of all 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in a postsecondary, degree-granting institution in the United States, such as a college or trade school. Forty years later, that figure had soared to nearly 41% and shows no sign of slipping anytime soon. Even more remarkable, this data doesn’t include students pursuing competency-based education (CBE) or MOOCs. The figure also does not account for students older than 24.


Clearly, there is a passion and a need for postsecondary education. But learning does not just happen through the simple completion of coursework. Across the learner spectrum, content does not teach itself; simply placing material in front of someone does not automatically result in positive learning outcomes. For highly motivated learners, some success may come from the “if you build it, they will learn” approach, but for most, this method will be less than optimally effective. This proves especially true for adult learners in higher education settings, many of whom juggle employment and family responsibilities, in addition to coursework.


Good Learning Experience Design can create relevant, engaging and memorable educational experiences that successfully address the specific challenges of these adult learners. The following guidelines are particularly salient for postsecondary students and adult learners in general:


  • Design a purposeful journey. It is important to remember that a student actively moves along a path toward successful learning. Adults participating in higher education want—and need—to understand the educational journey that has been laid out for them. They will respond positively to objectives being clearly defined and tangibly mapped according to the activities in which they are participating.

  • Make efficient use of limited time available to learners. Time is a commodity for adult learners in a way not typically applicable to those in grades K–12. According to recent research, 23% of adult learners attending a four-year institution and 59% attending a two-year institution do so on a part-time basis. Part-time students in four-year institutions often experience “disrupted college pathways,” or uneven college attendance.

  • Directly link learning goals to activities. An easy way to distract busy adults from course tasks is neglecting to clarify why they are being asked to complete them. Adults will lose focus as soon as they sense that what they are engaged in may be “busy work.” A clearly designed learning experience can mitigate this.

  • Build upon existing understandings and address gaps in understandings. Learners who do not adhere to the traditional higher education path have likely learned much on their own; they also may have inadvertently missed out on key concepts. The Learning Experience Designer can (and should) leverage the experience and knowledge of the adult learner wherever possible. Linking educational material to real-world situations already understood by learners is an excellent way to bring concepts to life and to make them immediately relevant. Case studies, “war stories” or even simple personal anecdotes from the instructor or subject matter expert can go a long way toward promoting improved learner understanding and recall. Assessing and/or giving credit for prior learning can be helpful as well; adaptive learning techniques can help personalize the experience to best fit the needs of each student.

  • Provide immersive, real-world simulations or experiences. Learning experiences can simulate real-life situations that learners have encountered or will encounter, providing speedy, targeted, specific feedback on the decisions they make. This creates a high level of engagement, relevancy and information retention.


Emerging trends in competency-based education (CBE) and personalized learning approaches provide new opportunities as well as new challenges for Learning Experience Designers. CBE, which dispenses with the traditional “seat time” metric and emphasizes content mastery as a measure of student learning, offers more flexibility than traditional models.


All of the above guidance still applies, however. How do we create a more flexible, competency-based model that offers the adult learner a sense of participation in an experience that is intentionally and logically designed? Learning Experience Designers are currently in the process of determining the most effective ways to provide credit for prior learning, to accommodate different learning styles and to assess incoming students in exciting ways. As the phenomenon grows and gains more attention, we can all look forward to seeing the types of Learning Experience Design approaches that different institutions will create around competency-based education.


Whether future higher education students attend lectures and study groups on a campus or create their own custom degrees from a selection of coursework, Learning Experience Design practices can help to ensure that students’ time and money are properly spent on memorable, effective and enjoyable learning experiences.


For more, see:


This blog is part three of a three-part collection on Learning Experience Design. For more, see:

Learning Experience Design vs. User Experience: Moving From “User” to “Learner”

Five Ways You Can Improve Learning Experience Now

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