Halloween Edition: Instructional Design…Horror Stories!

instructional design horror stories

It’s that time of year again! They’re ghastly, ghoulish, and certainly frightening! Naturally, we’re talking about instructional design horror stories.

The team here at Cognota gathered around the campfire to share our scariest instructional design horror stories.

Read them…if you dare!

Lack of clear instructions

The group of bleary-eyed learners was nearing the end of the long journey of their course.

Each clicked the Next button to find…..no more reading. No more lessons. What did they see instead?

Well, it was difficult to tell, but it appeared to be a blank screen with a single question, just staring at each of them in the face.

Just. One. Question.

Shivering, the group was unsure of what to do next.

Wait, remarked Cheryl, a product manager. There are five answer choices! Maybe one of them is the right answer?

How do you know that? remarked Sunil, in compliance. Maybe we can answer more than one? Maybe there is no right or wrong answer?

There’s no Next or Submit button either! We’re never going to get out of here! added David, in procurement.

Giving unclear instructions for interactive material, quizzes, or assessments can confuse learners. What might seem obvious to one learner may not be so to another. If instructions are not clearly laid out, learners may answer improperly (i.e., choosing only one answer when they could have selected all that apply). Worse, they may feel frustrated and simply not care about providing valid answers. This can all discourage the learner from participating 100% and completing the course. Instructions are key; lean on subject matter experts and instructional designers for assistance with this important element. Check out more design tips like these in this webinar recording.

Information overload

Kyu-Minh, a junior developer, was ready.

He was about to start his new employer’s compliance training. His manager told him, “don’t worry, it will take you less than 20 minutes to complete, you’ll be done in no time.”

Great, he thought. But after the first few intro screens, something didn’t seem right. Something was…off. Way off.

Kyu-Minh noticed the screen fill up with words. A lot of words. More words than he could keep up with. They kept coming at him and wouldn’t stop. What did they all mean?

Was this some game? His manager said he would be done in 20 minutes, but 17 minutes had already passed. What was he to do?

Courses with too much content are overwhelming and, ultimately, ineffective. If you plan to deliver a course that is language-heavy, such as that pertaining to a particular policy, ask yourself how you can deliver the content most effectively. Consider providing a link to the policy and then using your time to focus on the behaviours you want to see in the workplace.
Cathy Moore’s action mapping technique is a great way to avoid overwhelming learners with content.

Wrong difficulty level

Congratulations! You got that right!

That’s what appeared on the screen after Carlos answered the first question on the assessment correctly. He felt good.

After all, it was supposed to be a tough course and he wanted to do well. He proceeded with caution to the next question.

Amazing! You are correct!

That was odd. He got the next question correct again.


Yet again, he answered correctly.

This kept happening over and over again. Rather than celebrate, Carlos began to think, something is definitely wrong here.

There is no way I can keep getting these questions correct!

Paranoia set in. He felt like someone was doing this on purpose. What should be his next move?

Assessments that do not accurately reflect the difficulty of the material and that do not adapt to the learner will have unintended consequences. If a learner can pass a course too easily, or pass assessments without properly digesting the content, the course is probably too easy. Conversely, if you make a course impossibly difficult, learners are likely to become frustrated and lose interest. To ensure right-fit content and assessments, consider implementing adaptive learning in order to map question difficulty to different learning levels.

Visual clarity

Dana, in accounting, started to notice something strange about the public safety course.

In the lower right-hand corner of the screen, there was a tiny drawing. Was it a human? It didn’t say anything. It was moving, so it must be there for a reason…

She wasn’t sure, but she kept proceeding through the course.

But then on the next screen, the figure stared at her again.

And again.

The figure of unknown origin was essentially there throughout the course, and Dana was unsure what to do. Perhaps it was there to test her? To break her focus and concentration? That was all she could think about.

The figure on the lower right-hand corner of the public safety course, staring back at her, saying nothing.

It haunted her forever.

Irrelevant images or graphics can distract learners and affect learning outcomes. While sometimes we want to deliver a fun or lighthearted experience, keep in mind that opinions differ as to what constitutes fun. Further, consider how the material renders in different environments (browsers, operating systems) and endpoints (devices) to determine what stays in and what needs to go.

Project management produces particularly scary instructional design scenarios… Missed deadlines, blown budgets, last-minute changes… it’s enough to give you nightmares! Join this upcoming webinar with e-learning project management pro, Tim Slade, to learn how to avoid your worst instructional design nightmares. Register here!

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Halloween Edition: Instructional Design…Horror Stories!