Why your students aren't learning

When you identify a problem your audience has, how many times have you assumed the solution is to create more information?

The truth is information isn’t usually the problem.

For example, when I recently asked some of my subscribers why they struggled with growing their email list, only one of the replies had to do with information.

In fact, most of them said there was too much information and they felt overwhelmed.

How learning domains affect your course

There are several reasons students don't learn: lack of motivation, lack of engagement, misunderstanding of actual learning needs, etc.

But there’s also a reason that’s often overlooked: misaligned learning domains.

(Think of learning domains as classifications or realms of learning.)

There are three (primary) domains of learning: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor.

  1. The cognitive domain deals with how we acquire, process, and use knowledge.

  2. The affective domain deals with our attitudes, values, and emotions.

  3. The psychomotor domain deals with skills.*

When you design your online course, you need to know the primary domain you’re dealing with based on the subject matter.

designing for the AFFECTIVE domain

For example, if you are teaching people how to express themselves in therapy, your students will need to receive and, in some cases, re-learn values, so your primary domain is affective.

When your information is well-designed, poor course completion rates often reveal unaddressed affective or psychomotor domains.

As online teachers we need to know the underlying feelings and values that will keep students from doing the work.

That doesn't mean you should spend entire lessons talking about feelings--that's a slippery slope that you should avoid.

What it does mean is you need to anticipate what feelings your students will encounter and design your course in a way to help them navigate those roadblocks.

Halley Gray nails this in her course, Be Booked Out.

Halley has a keen understanding of when students will encounter what she calls 'cockblocks.'

She gives her students a heads up for when they may pop up. But she also makes it clear that the course isn't about feelings, it's about action.

designing for the PSYCHOMOTOR domain

When it comes to the psychomotor domain (physical skills), one thing is true: skills are learned through application.

Show me a skill-based course that doesn’t provide opportunities for application and I’ll show you a course full of students who aren’t learning.

Jarrod Drysdale nailed this when he created Theory Sprints, a course about visual design.

He designed his course to be a series of 'sprints' that include videos of him performing a task, along with opportunities for learners to apply the task.

So far he’s been getting great testimonials from his students!

(Note: Some feel that tech skills are their own domain, but I think they are sub-domain of psychomotor.)


Learning domains rarely travel solo. In fact, they usually compound. 

This is why the best courses integrate information (cognitive) with community (affective) and skill application.

So if you're trying to determine why your students aren't getting the results you want, it could be that your course is designed for the wrong domain.

Understanding learning domains is a great starting point for designing a course that changes lives.

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