Learning Science Made Easy: Use Action Mapping to Help Learners Improve Job Performance

We’re big on differentiators. We’re always on the lookout for ideas to help you design and deliver educational programs that will stand out from your competition. Here’s another one: action mapping. In a bit, we’ll explain what it is, but first we’ll tell you why it’s worth investigating.

When it comes to professional development, associations usually follow the lead of higher education with its focus on teaching and delivering information. What do we get with this approach? PowerPoint-driven lectures featuring the sage on the stage. Assessments measure retention of information, not the ability to apply new skills. Learners are conditioned to expect credits and certificates. If they’re lucky, they’ll see a change in their behavior too. The program’s focus is on knowing, not doing.

Action mapping is the impetus associations need to think beyond that traditional framework. It’s an instructional design model that gives learners opportunities to practice what they need to do to improve job performance. The focus is on doing and practicing—the knowing comes along naturally. 

woman prepping at the whiteboard for an action mapping session

The basics of action mapping—a common sense approach to professional development

Instructional designer Cathy Moore developed action mapping in 2008 so she could help “save the world from boring instruction.” When she spoke with Celisa Steele, co-founder of Tagoras, on the Leading Learning podcast, Moore said she thinks activity-driven professional development could be a differentiator in the association market—so, yes, that caught our attention.

With action mapping, you create a map to visualize the actions or activities needed to achieve a learning outcome. Education is focused on activities (practice), not the traditional information dump (presentation).

•    Start with a needs analysis. What measurable improvements are needed in a person’s job performance or in an organization’s performance? Moore refers to this as “backward design.” You’re not starting with what you need to teach, but how learners need to improve performance. You analyze the problem first, then design a learning experience to solve that problem.

•    List what learners need to do on the job to achieve this level of performance—the on-the-job behaviors—not what they need to know, but what they need to do.

•    Identify challenges and pain points that might stand in the way of this improvement, for example, environment, lack of knowledge, or lack of skills.

•    Design activities that will give learners opportunities to practice what they need to do to improve performance.

As you can see (and we’ll keep drilling it in), action mapping focuses on observable measurable behaviors, not knowledge.

If you’ve been reading our Learning Science Made Easy series, you might think action mapping is the same as retrieval practice. But with retrieval practice, retrieving and producing information is sometimes enough. Action mapping goes beyond producing to practicing.

The most common examples of action mapping activities in online learning are branching scenarios, which help people practice what they need to do on the job and understand the consequences of mistakes. For example, branching scenarios can help learners practice the skills needed for decisions, discussions, negotiations, diagnoses, consultations, strategy development, and tactic implementation. The goal is to “design challenging experiences, not boring information,” says Moore.

The desired outcome of the learning experience is to improve or change behavior, successfully practice a skill, or solve a problem. Loyal readers will notice the similarity to Merrill’s Principles of Instruction, which focus on problem-solving, another common sense approach to instructional design.

woman jotting down ideas on post-it notes for action mapping exercises

Making the shift to action mapping

Spend some time on Cathy Moore’s site because she has an extensive collection of action mapping resources, many of which we relied upon when researching this post.

In a recent ASAE Professional Development Town Hall, staff from NIGP: The Institute for Public Procurement said they’re using action mapping. Their website points out that their virtual and in-person NIGP-certified instructors encourage active participation, group work, and hands-on collaboration with other students. Their focus is on observable outcomes: “skill development and competencies that drive results for the agency and the community they serve.”

Action mapping allows you to eliminate passive lectures and choose skill-practicing individual or group activities instead. Focus your content on giving learners and attendees opportunities to practice the skills that will help them improve their job performance.

The most challenging aspect of making this shift is training your SMEs. You need their involvement during the design phase, like you do when developing a course with the SAM instructional design model. Instructional designers and SMEs use action mapping together to figure out how learners will practice the skills they need on the job.

Cathy Moore says SMEs must do (or have recently done) the job you are helping learners do better. They must know what people need to do on the job and the challenges they face. If your SMEs are too far removed from that personal knowledge, tap into focus groups to get this information from the people who really know.

Associations that have adopted action mapping have also changed their calls for proposals. They no longer accept sessions offering a passive experience. They ask prospective presenters to explain how they will give attendees the opportunity to practice what they need to do back on the job. They also provide examples of the activities they seek along with an “over the shoulder” video tutorial explaining how to plan a session using action mapping.

Many instructional designers prefer using action mapping because they believe it’s a more ethical approach for their clients. With action mapping, educational programs have real value because the whole point is to improve performance on the job. When you think about it, why else would employers and learners pay for professional development?

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