Designing a CLE: It Takes a Village

designing a cleDesigning a CLE can be a lonely process, but it doesn’t have to be. Ideally, it shouldn’t be.

I was recently singing my own praises about a learning solution I developed at work. My friend listened, paused and then asked a seemingly innocuous question: “You wrote all the content?”

“Yep. Well, not all of it. Some of it. A bit. There were some other people who contributed… Anyway, see the game this weekend?” I asked, deftly pivoting away from the topic.

The next day, I reflected on all who had contributed to the project. Content experts, narrators, interviewees, developers and testers, to name a few. Then there were the colleagues I asked about a concept, a design direction or a turn of phrase. When I compared the finished project with where I’d started, I realized that the majority of the changes weren’t mine. What’s more, the project was all the stronger for it.

Collaboration is easier said than done

The fact is, while all good course designers strive to collaborate, we can be very controlling of our vision. Whether it’s a simple presentation or a full-blown conference, we often decide on a direction and invest significant time driving down that path before anyone else becomes involved.

There are several reasons for this. Learning experiences often have a narrative structure and course designers have specifics we want to say. Moreover, we may be passionate about the topic or determine there’s little time for feedback.

On the flip side, what if we do ask for feedback? People are reluctant to criticize work that seems close to completion. In addition, if course designers receive negative feedback on a project we’ve invested in, we may tell ourselves it’s too difficult to make changes. Learning projects are especially susceptible to this sunk-cost fallacy.

Questions to ask yourself

At this point, you may be thinking, “Dan, I’ve been designing and presenting CLEs for years. No one has ever told me I need to make changes.” This isn’t the forum to explore why that could be – you may just be awesome at presentations. However, here are some questions ask yourself when designing a CLE.

  • What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?
  • Will the audience like this course?
  • Does the audience care about the topic as much as I do?
  • Why isn’t the audience already doing the things I’m asking them to do?
  • How will I know if the audience learns anything?

Yet, the most important question is one we often overlook:

  • How do I know my answers to these questions are correct?

Understanding the learner’s perspective

We can never truly gauge how someone is going to react to a course. What we can do, however, is focus on the learner’s experience. We do so by bringing in outside perspectives, asking the right questions and testing to check our assumptions. This is key to understanding the learner and making the content accessible and valuable.

Sam Glover, founder of Lawyerist.com, explains his learner-centered approach:

“I spend most of the time [facilitating], while the audience works on something I’ve given them to do. When you are planning a CLE about practical skills or the practice of law, I think you should be focused on 30, 60, 90 days after your presentation. What is the change you would expect to see in the lawyers you are talking to? And how can you make sure they leave your presentation with a roadmap about how they are going to get to that change?”

At this point, I’d be remiss to not mention design thinking. Design thinking as a problem-solving approach has been around for decades, but has become more mainstream in the last few years. The principles behind design thinking can be applied in almost any context:

  1. Empathy – understand the learners and the problem they need solved
  2. Ideation – explore several ideas, solicit feedback early and build on them
  3. Experimentation – test the ideas to see if the results are as expected

Each of these principles is best achieved by collaborating with others early and often. By checking in with colleagues, sample audience members or other professional connections, you’ll likely be exposed to insights you hadn’t thought of. These perspectives can inform your process by confirming your assumptions, adjusting your direction or even changing your focus altogether.

When asking for feedback, remember this: for an audience of 50, you only need to sample eight people to get within a 10% margin of error for the whole group. That’s a pretty well-informed learning project!

Final thoughts and suggestions

The key to successfully designing a CLE is to ask for feedback early and often, and with an open mindset to criticism. None of us get it 100% right the first time. However, by embracing the mindset of a project facilitator rather than a content creator, you move the object of criticism from yourself (“I did this, so I’m wrong”) to the project (“It still needs tweaking, who can help me with that?”).

So, how can you bring others in quickly and effectively to check your assumptions? Let’s go back to the list of questions for earlier in the article.

*Top tip* – If you ask someone what they think, you may get a guarded answer. But, if you ask someone about the perceptions of others, you’ll often uncover more: “Well, I personally don’t think this, but I’ve heard…”

QuestionPossible approachesExamples
What’s the problem I’m trying to solve?Ask open-ended questions: Is it a problem from the audience’s point of view? What is causing the problem?

Remember to follow up with a “why” question to uncover underlying causes.
“In your view, the gender balance in this organization is leading to what outcomes?”

“Why do you think that?”
Will the audience like this course? Describe the structure of the course (not the topic) to a few people.

On a microlevel, describe activities/discussion formats to gauge reactions.
“I’m thinking of doing a CLE presentation. It would be a one-hour lecture on civility with a five-minute Q&A. Would people like this format people? Why or why not?”

“I want to do a 10-minute small group activity. People will spend two minutes writing down instances of work time lost to incivility, then brainstorm strategies to improve upon this. How would you respond to this activity?”
Does the audience care about the topic as much as I do?Ask around to see how the topic impacts the audience.

Follow up with questions on how important the topic is and how much the audience thinks about it.
“How often does stress impact daily work in your organization? In what ways?”

“In your opinion, is it something people worry about a lot? Would you rank it in the top three things people think about?”
Why isn’t the audience already doing the things I’m asking them to do?Ask if the audience if they’re familiar with the issue and the solutions you’re proposing.

If they are, ask them what barriers stand in the way of solutions, or why the issue continues to exist.
“I’m putting together a presentation on improving work/life balance and productivity. Do you think people are familiar with the impacts and solutions I’m proposing?”

“What has stopped people from making these changes? What may be future barriers?”
How will I know if the audience learns anything? Write down new behaviors or changes you’d like to see related to the topic.

Ask your sample if those changes would reduce or eliminate the issue.

If the answer is yes, assess if those changes are evident post-session.
“I’m developing a session on eliminating workplace bullying. If people in the office started to [insert behavior] before responding, do you think it would reduce bullying behavior?”

“How can we measure if workplace bullying has been reduced? How would you determine if efforts are successful?”

Good luck and remember – designing a CLE takes a village.



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Dan Davies
Dan Davies is the Education Manager at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. He manages the Commission’s educational programming aimed at promoting a more professional, civil and inclusive legal profession. Prior to joining the Commission, Dan was a learning manager at the YMCA of the USA, where he designed learning solutions across topics including diversity and inclusion, achievement-gap programming and data-based decisions, and fiscal management. In his free time, Dan can be found spending time with his wife and two teenage sons, coaching travel soccer and riding a motorcycle, when he has the chance.

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Dan Davies
Dan Davies is the Education Manager at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. He manages the Commission’s educational programming aimed at promoting a more professional, civil and inclusive legal profession. Prior to joining the Commission, Dan was a learning manager at the YMCA of the USA, where he designed learning solutions across topics including diversity and inclusion, achievement-gap programming and data-based decisions, and fiscal management. In his free time, Dan can be found spending time with his wife and two teenage sons, coaching travel soccer and riding a motorcycle, when he has the chance.

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