Sep 162014

Someone posted in an instructional design forum the following question: If learning is not trackable is it still learning?
Below is my somewhat modified answer. I thought I would post it here too, as I have never seen this topic discussed in an ID context and people seem to find it useful.

If it is (in principle, for nobody, ever!) not possible to detect any traces that some sort of learning have occurred, then – of course – no learning in any practical sense – has occurred.

The question “If learning is not trackable is it still learning?” is a great example of what some call an ill-defined question/problem. Ill-defined questions are surprisingly common. They usually occur as a result of a good idea and intentions, but sloppy or rushed phrasing (it happens to all of us!). Often this can lead to wasted time and resources when people get lost in the hopeless search for correct – but impossible or meaningless – answers.

However, sometimes it is fairly obvious what the asker wanted to know and the inaccuracies in the phrasing don’t matter or even go unnoticed.
Chess players know this phenomenon as a “double blunder”. Both sides messup (one made a mistake, but the other one did not see it) but in practice it doesn’t matter since no-one noticed.

I think this may be the case with the above question too. However, it is not quite that clear to me.I think the OP probably meant something like “If learning occurs but could not be detected by the usual methods (often only automated summative assessment), can it still be called learning?” Perhaps she also meant “… can it still be a successful learning program?”

“Successful”, would also need clarification in this context. The learner may have learned something for “herself” only. Or perhaps the learner could have learned something that is useful for “the company” that sponsored the implementation of the learning program. Or both.

The great thing with these types of questions is that it can be easy to find the answers simply by realizing it is an ill-defined question and trying to formulate the question more precisely. It is not always so easy to spot these nasties though – or find the right phrasing. This is where good critical thinking skills are helpful.

Identifying and avoiding ill-defined questions is something I found extremely effective when designing and improving learning programs.

I have been chasing these tricky guys for years and still create or overlook them more often than I should. Nobody is safe from them and they seem to like hanging around me a lot.

The term “ill-defined” is also not my choice but a common term in areas like critical thinking and problem solving. We could also call them – perhaps more respectfully – “inaccurately formulated questions” or perhaps “misleading questions”.

Occasionally these questions do have useful (side) effects or can be used purposefully. For example, in order to trigger higher level learning experiences by trying to mislead the learner first, then let him discover his own mistakes and flaws in his original method.

The ill-defined question in this example could have such side effect. I certainly learned and refreshed a few things already while reading, writing and reflecting during this post. Thank you, ill-defined question.

Happy learning,


Keywords: exposing ill-defined questions, instructional design tips