Road Trip Lessons: Instructional Design Elements for Better Learning

a highway with a curve ahead
This post summarizes lessons from a road trip, resulting in five instructional design elements for better learning experiences.

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My husband and I have been on a road trip this week, visiting eight states so far, not including our home state of Oklahoma. I got to meet some clients and team members I’d never met in person, and we’ve seen some gorgeous scenery.

In Kentucky, we toured a couple of bourbon distilleries. (My husband’s a bourbon enthusiast. Me, not so much.) In North Carolina, we toured the nation’s largest home, Biltmore®.

I’m not just telling you this to share what I did on my not-quite-summer vacation. Naturally, my nerd brain couldn’t help noticing the instructional design elements behind each tour that affected the quality of the learning experience.

The Difference Instructional Design Makes

All the tours were fun and educational. But I noticed some stark differences between the distillery tours when analyzing them as learning experiences.

The first distillery tour was laid-back, with a friendly, personable guide who cracked jokes and interacted with the group like we were friends. We walked the grounds while he pointed out various buildings and what happened in each. We also went into a few of them to see barrels and the labeling process.

While the tour was enjoyable and worth the trip, it seemed a bit off-the-cuff and disjointed. When it was over, I had a vague idea of the ingredients for making bourbon (and how they smell!) and how it’s aged. But I didn’t know much else about the process.

Immediately into the second distillery tour, it was clear that it was expertly and intentionally designed. Signs and other visual aids lined the walls. It was well-structured, with each stop revealing more about the distilling process. By the end, I had a good understanding of how bourbon is made from start to finish. The experience was as entertaining as the previous day’s, with an energetic and enthusiastic guide, but it was much more effective as a learning experience.

The first distillery tour reminded me of a course created by a SME with no background in learning design—strong on enthusiasm but weak on organization and focus. The second tour was like a course developed by an instructional designer working with a SME—well-structured, focused, and informative.

I’m fairly certain that a learning and development professional had a hand in the design of the second distillery’s tour. Besides the overall sense of the difference that can make, here are some instructional design elements I noticed when comparing the two experiences, as well as the Biltmore® tour.

Instructional Design Elements

Learner Choice and Guidance

Good learning experiences provide the right amount of learner choice tempered by guidance. The Biltmore tour was a good example. When we purchased the tour, we had a choice between a tour guide and an audio tour. With the audio tour, we received an mp3 player that looked like a remote control. As we walked through the numbered rooms, we pressed the number on the device’s keypad to hear audio narration. This allowed us to complete the tour at our own pace. Roped off sections created pathways and the order in which we viewed the rooms. Although we didn’t have an assigned tour guide, personnel throughout the house answered questions and provided more information as needed.

Translating this tour to eLearning design, the pathways are like requiring learners to view lessons in order, or those requiring them to complete an activity before proceeding. Not being able to explore the house more freely was a little disappointing, but I would have quickly gotten lost. That doesn’t mean I want to lock down navigation in an eLearning course. But I think guidance is critical, and some learners need bumpers to keep them from going off-course. (Speaking of which, did you know Biltmore® has a bowling alley?)

The staff positioned throughout the home is like having an on- screen mentor, along with contact information for a real live person if a learner needs additional help. I don’t mean simply providing a Help Desk for LMS support, but also an actual subject matter expert learners can reach out to if they have questions. In my experience, this is the missing piece in most eLearning courses. And, as I discussed in a recent post, the ability to connect with an instructor or mentor is a critical part of an effective virtual learning experience.

The Right Tone

Mayer’s Personalization Principle tells us that an informal, conversational tone is better for learning. I noticed this on the tours. The tour guide for the first distillery tour had an easy-going demeanor and way of talking to the group that made him more approachable for questions and created a sense that we were in a conversation. The second tour guide, while entertaining and energetic, had more of a formal, scripted feel. It was clear that he had memorized his script. Asking a question felt like an interruption or intrusion, and there was much less interaction with the group in that tour.

We need to be careful not to over-script learning experiences. We need narrators and instructors who talk like real people, not robots reading from a script.

Have you ever sat in a class where it’s clear that the instructor is reading from (or has memorized) the facilitator guide? I’ve worked with organizations that don’t let instructors veer from the approved script. They have the best of intentions—they want to make sure that learners in different courses get the same quality of experience. But the problem is, listening to an instructor read from a script is just plain boring. It also makes the learners question the credibility of the instructor. They wonder, “Does he really know this material if he has to memorize a script to teach it?”

I’m all for including robust information in a facilitator guide to help ensure consistency and quality of instruction, but that information should be seen as a starting point, not a script. It’s the instructors’ individual flair and (relevant) stories that will make the content more memorable.

For eLearning, we need to write scripts as if we’re having a conversation with a friend—not like we’re writing a textbook or dissertation.


When we design learning experiences, we need to get inside our learners’ heads. Why do they (or should they) care about what we’re teaching? What motivates them?

The second distillery tour clearly thought about their target audience and came up with a way to make the experience truly special and memorable for the participants. My husband was able to fill his own bottle of bourbon (well, sort of—he handed the bottle to a worker who filled it). He got to put his thumbprint into the wax seal, and he had his name laser etched onto the bottle. So you know, my husband’s a quiet, easy-going, slightly grumpy, and completely lovable guy. (He’s a little like a younger version of the old man from Up. But don’t tell him I said that.) He doesn’t get hyped up about too much, but he was excited about that bottle and now proudly shows it off to anyone who’ll listen.

A middle-aged man in a striped polo shirt pressing his thumb on a wax seal of a bottle. Unsmiling, his expression is focused.

(Don’t let the face fool you. That’s excitement.)

What can we do to get our learners excited about the courses we create? Stories and scenarios are my favorite ways to make learning experiences more meaningful and engaging. Gamification can be very effective if done well. Even something as simple as addressing learners by name throughout the course can add a personal touch that makes the experience more appealing. However, as someone who goes by my middle name, I recommend using a text entry field rather than pulling the name from the LMS. That way you know you’re using the learner’s preferred name.

Visual Aids

The biggest thing that set the second distillery tour apart was the use of visual aids. Posters, signs, and captioned photos, as well as a few videos, appeared throughout the tour to explain and illustrate concepts.

Five signs carved into scorched wood, listing the standards of bourbon. See the graphic description for the full text.

Many thanks to my fellow tourist Kim for allowing me to use her photo!

Five signs carved into scored wood under the heading "Standards of Bourbon":

  1. Must be produced in the USA
  2. Must be aged in new charred oak barrels
  3. Must be made from a minimum of 51% corn along with other grains such as rye, wheat, & malted barley
  4. Entry proof into barrel: max 125 proof. Entry proof into bottle: min 80 proof
  5. Free from additives other than H2O (water)

We were also able to see part of the process and equipment through glass walls—further evidence that the entire experience was intentionally designed.

It’s easier to learn when we can see something rather than just listening to someone talk. But it’s not because we’re “visual learners.” (You’re not, I promise.) It’s because we have dual channels for processing information. Each has limited capacity, and they work together to help us process information more efficiently. Going back to Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning, we know that people learn better when we engage both the visual-pictorial and auditory-verbal senses.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to provide full narration for all our eLearning courses (more about that here), but we should consider how we can engage multiple senses for better learning. In one comic-book themed course I developed using branching scenarios, all the characters’ lines appeared in speech bubbles on the screen, except for the feedback that the main character gave, based on the learner’s choices. This feedback was read in a voice matching the learner’s pronouns, selected at the beginning.

Learner Access, Comfort, and Other Logistics

Effective learning design isn’t all about writing sound objectives and choosing good instructional strategies. We must also consider logistics. People won’t learn as effectively if they’re uncomfortable, they can’t access the information, or their basic needs aren’t met.

Here’s an example of this kind of logistical consideration. During the first tour, I had trouble hearing the guide as we walked around outside near noisy machinery. But the second tour guide used a microphone to make sure we could always hear him.

Another example from the second tour is that we took a bus to get to the different buildings, as they were spread out over a large campus. This not only reduced fatigue but also shortened the time needed for the tour.

The Biltmore® also provided buses—or the choice to walk—and was the only tour that seemed to consider accessibility as more than an afterthought. Although one of the distillery tour guides asked if anyone needed an elevator before we trudged up several flights of stairs, it was after we’d already walked all over campus on rough terrain. But the Biltmore® provided wheelchair-accessible buses and elevators, as well as a choice of transcripts or audio descriptions—although to my knowledge, these options weren’t available for touring the grounds and gardens.

As we design learning experiences, we must consider how to ensure everyone has access, as well as what we can to make the experience more comfortable and pleasant. For in-person training, this includes things like the temperature of the room, scheduling breaks, and providing lunch (or enough time to get lunch). For remote learning or eLearning, it includes understanding employees’ working environment. For example, if employees work in cubicles, can they temporarily move to a quieter location so they can better participate in breakout room discussions?

As with motivation, it’s important for us to step into our learners’ shoes and consider how they will experience the course. For more about that, see this previous post.


To recap, here’s a list of the instructional design elements I noticed that made a difference in the learning experience for each tour:

  • Learner choice and guidance
  • The right tone
  • Motivation
  • Visual aids
  • Learner access, comfort, and other logistics

Do you have any other elements to add? Let me know in the comments.

I didn’t name the distilleries we visited, but I’d be happy to share that information in a private message if you’re curious. Just email me at

Just for Fun

In case you’re yearning for some down time or a road trip of your own, here are some photos so you can vacation vicariously.

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