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eLearning Design: Assess? When? How?

Michael AllenBy Michael Allen, Chairman & CEO, Allen Interactions 

eLearning can’t do everything. It can’t detect frustration by observing facial expressions and body language (yet). It doesn’t know if a learner is just throwing out any answer to see what feedback happens or if a learner is sincerely thinking the answer is correct. Today, elearning is pretty much blind to many of the cues a personal mentor or instructor would note and use to guide a learner.

But elearning is very well equipped to continually assess each learner’s abilities—something an instructor can’t do after class size grows beyond just one or two students. Assessment and the ability to act on assessment data is one of the superb capabilities of elearning technology.


Instruction often follows the legacy format of delivering a block of information and then testing learners to see how much of it was soaked up. A more valuable assessment, of course, is a measure of whether learners can perform at improved levels.

But regardless of what’s measured, if testing comes after instruction has concluded, the common practice I tag as “tell and test,” the assessment has no way to assist individual learners in their progress toward mastery. Whatever they learned, they learned.


One of the easiest ways to improve the effectiveness of instruction for each learner is to reverse the legacy sequence. Find out what level of knowledge and abilities the learner has initially. And then, based on the assessment, determine not only where to start instruction but also which elements, perhaps microlearning elements, to use.

One must hasten to say that just presenting information is hardly teaching or training. So even with the sequence reversed and therefore more powerful, the instruction following an initial assessment should always be based on CCAF Design (context, challenge, activity, and feedback) were possible. And further, because of the information known about the learner, each of the CCAF components would ideally be selected according to the learner’s needs and interests.

But wait. Why just one assessment?

Even with instruction made more capable by the use of an initial assessment, which not only provides critical data for the individualization of the following instruction but also give learners invaluable insight into what they will be learning, assessment doesn’t need to be “once and done.” Assessment should be interleaved with instruction. Again, this is where elearning technology makes possible and practical a powerful instructional approach: continual course correction (nice pun, huh?).



Insensitive, non-personalized, one-size-fits-all instruction is what we’re all used to. But with elearning technology, instruction can be adapted to our personal needs. Instead of a straight road through all the content, the best path for each of us probably swerves, loops, and takes shortcuts. To each of us, the bestorange-traffic-sign-arrow.png path would look like a straight road, but when compared to what others found optimal, our best path is probably quite curvy.

Interleaved course correction provides the basis for individualized instruction. Data from each elearning interaction with learners can help determine what should happen next. Does the learner need:

  • Another example?

  • Further explanation?

  • A more detailed demonstration?

  • Practice on simpler exercises?

  • Another similar exercise to work?

  • More difficult exercises?

  • Assistance from an instruction?

Following each interaction, and sometimes within interactions, adaptations can be made in real time. In this approach, instruction and assessment really become one. Learners don’t often, if ever, become aware they’re being tested. Yet they’re always being tested.

Not only does such individualized instruction keep learners highly engaged, each instructional event selected and/or adapted for them makes the very best use of their time. Overall, training time is shortened and performance outcomes can be assured.

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About Author

Michael Allen
Michael Allen

Michael W. Allen, our founder, has been a pioneer in the e-learning industry since 1975. He was the innovative force behind one of the most successful authoring tools ever created, Authorware, and our recently launched authoring and publishing system, ZebraZapps. Michael Allen has nearly 45 years of professional, academic, and corporate experience in teaching, developing, and marketing interactive learning and performance support systems. He has led teams of doctorate-level specialists in learning research, instructional design, computer-based training, and human engineering. For decades, he has concentrated on defining unique methods of instructional design and development that provide meaningful and memorable learning experiences through “true” cognitive interactivity. He developed the advanced design and development approaches we have used at Allen Interactions for the past two decades, including CCAF-based design and the SAM process for iterative, collaborative development. Michael is a prolific writer, sought-after conference speaker and recognized industry leader. In 2011, he received ASTD’s Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance Award. In 2012 Michael was selected by The National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) Advisory Committee as a recipient of the 2012 Ellis Island Medal of Honor. He holds M.A and Ph.D. degrees in educational psychology from The Ohio State University and is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. Michael Allen was the director of advanced educational systems research and development of Control Data Corporation’s famous PLATO computer-based education system used around the world. He was the founder, and former chairman of Authorware, Inc. and also the primary architect of Authorware Professional, which was based on Allen’s extensive research on creativity and creative problem-solving. It became a groundbreaking authoring tool combining power and ease of use, and ultimately the industry standard. Authorware, Inc. merged with Macromind/Paracomp to become Macromedia, which was later acquired by Adobe.

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