Breadth first vs Depth first in Learning Design

It’s been long since I last wrote, as actually this post was supposed to be shared over a month ago, but things got hectic and I wasn’t fully focused or in other words not in a breadth-first mode.


I heard about the idea of breadth-first and depth-first design at a conference. I really liked the concept and searched more about it. That’s when I came across Donald Norman’s articles and videos. What I’d like to share in this post is how to relate and apply it to learning design. You can see Donald Norman’s video here and judge for yourself.

Here’s his definition of depth-first and breadth-first design:

When you’re anxious you squirt neural transmitters in the brain, which focuses you, makes you depth-first. And when you’re happy, what we call positive valence, you squirt dopamine into the prefrontal lobes, which makes you a breadth-first problem solver: you’re more susceptible to interruption, you do out-of-the-box thinking.

He then shares the three ways of good design:

  • Visceral level: Pleasant things work better. It is expressed by bright colors, pleasant sound, balanced look, font choice
  • Behavioral level: It makes you feel in control, which includes usability, understanding.
  • Reflective level: The design that reflects one’s personality. It’s that little voice in your head that says, it’s good, it’s bad. I don’t understand.
Now as an L&D professional, how would we apply this in your learning design? How Can you make your courses/trainings more Breadth-first?

In your usual design process, you focus on a model or strategy to make learning more effective. But have you considered that providing a breadth-first experience can help learners learn better?

One could certainly think the look and feel of the course in terms of aesthetic aspect of it can help. But there’s more to it. Some of which you surely know of are:

  • using a good attention grabber
  • organizing content in an easy flow
  • relevance of it to learner’s needs
  • creating activities and assessments with moderate difficulty
  • providing feedback
  • including examples
  • getting learners to create concept maps & analogies to help them retain knowledge
  • considering usability & user experience
But does the above list really diminish learners’ anxiety and help them think more out of the box? When I reflected on my own design process, I realized I focus on the outcome and learners’ needs, then make it look appealing. Once the course is evaluated, learners are asked whether they achieved the goals they had expected, not how they felt when they did the course.

I once thought assessment could cause anxiety in learners, especially if they have to pass it in order to get a promotion or job confirmation. But what if we approach the assessment design differently and communicate it to learners that the purpose of it is merely for their learning. While the scores matter, their learning from feedbacks and assessment results matter most. I always used to say this to my students before the final exams to relieve their stress. I told them to see the exam as a learning tool, and shift their focus from the result to the learning experience when doing it, to take down new things that they might not know their answers and later search to learn about it. If we could come up with a system that could design learning experience and evaluate their learning journey, perhaps a graded assessment wouldn’t be the focal point of most of trainings and courses.

Or perhaps we should ask if points and scores really represent learners’ level of learning?

Another thing that could add anxiety to learners is having deadlines for course tasks. I understand this depth-first design is widely used in our work and courses, but does it really prove that we have learned or have completed a task with a better result? Then, how can we include spaced practice, which is proven to be effective?

Should we avoid depth-first at all costs?

I believe a bit of anxiety does no harm if that helps us achieve our goals. Some prefer to be under a bit of pressure like myself. But Don Norman believes that’s not a good idea and it would prevent us from thinking out of the box. I personally prefer deadlines, but I admit when it gets near the date I feel pressured and might not be as productive as I expect. That’s what Don considers a hindrance to creativity and productivity.
All in all, I will make sure to use the three design levels in my course design to provide a great learning experience for learners. How they feel does matter after all.

Cognition is about understanding the world, emotion is about interpreting it.  – Don Norman