How To Apply Repair Theory To Your eLearning Mistakes

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We all make mistakes.

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I’m sure you heard that when you were younger. You’ve probably said it a few times, too, maybe to a little kid who dropped a glass or couldn’t figure out their math homework. It’s solid advice for everyone, not just children, because of course we all make mistakes.

As it turns out, that’s a good thing. Mistakes are a part of how we learn. If you’re in instructional design, you already know all about mistakes and learning because of repair theory.

If you’re not familiar with repair theory, let me bring you up to speed: repair theory was born from a study of how we learn to do procedural tasks. If we don’t know what to do next in a task, we experiment a bit, trying out different solutions.

Sooner or later we mess up with these attempts. Interestingly though, those mistakes actually help us learn how to do the task more effectively, provided the mistake is corrected and we then use that correction to find a new solution.

Mistakes really do help you learn.

So maybe you messed up. Maybe you said the wrong thing in your last meeting. Maybe your avante-garde new eLearning course was a flop. Maybe you got the wrong LMS software and you’re struggling.

The last one is pretty likely. A 2012 study revealed that only 8% of people love their current LMS. Worse than that, the same survey indicated that more than 20% of people actively disliked or hated their LMS.


According to Capterra market research, of those seeking a new learning management system, 31% were switching from a previous system. And nearly 70% of those switching were doing so because their current LMS lacked the features they needed.

In short, they made a mistake. And while it may be feel like a big task to seek out replacement programs, that mistake doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Instead, think of it as a learning experience.

Here’s how you can use repair theory to fix your eLearning mistakes.

First, you need to stop fearing failure.

Consider Sara Blakely of Spanx fame. Her family celebrated failure as a sign that she had tried. This attitude encouraged a fearlessness that helped Blakely launch her now massive business.

Failure shouldn’t be approached as the worst thing ever. Not trying is the worst thing ever. Failure just means you need to try something different.

The trick to making the most out of your mistakes is to find what went wrong and use it to do better.

Second, find your bugs

In repair theory, mistakes are called “bugs.” When you make a mistake or find a bug in your process, you need to go back and repair it. In repairing, you create a newer, stronger connection in your process.

Knowing your bugs is the first step to fixing them. In the example of finding a better LMS, there are two ways to find your bugs most effectively.

The first is to test the system yourself. Approach it exactly as your learner might. Go through each lesson, reading through everything.

Testing out your software is a lot like a proofreading process: you can’t edit until you find what’s wrong in the first place. When you click every option and experience every lesson yourself, it’s much easier to see what works and what doesn’t. Are the buttons responsive? Is the layout confusing? What works? What could be better?

Maybe you don’t see a problem and think your system is perfect. Great! But now’s the time to get opinions that really matter.

The second way to find bugs is, once you try the system yourself and take your notes, to talk to your learners.

This is the time when learner feedback becomes extremely important. Whenever your learners complete any of your courses, you should be checking in with them to find out what they thought about it. (A survey will help, and there are a plethora of free survey options out there if your LMS doesn’t come with one already integrated.) All of the questions you considered in testing your own LMS are questions you should be asking them. Your greatest learning resource will always be your own students.

Third, take some risks to fix them


Hopefully not that bad of a risk.

Once you’ve rooted out all your bugs, you can start figuring out how to get rid of them. Don’t think of this as a huge struggle. The work you put into finding all the bugs makes searching for a new LMS that works better for you so much easier. In other words, you already know what you don’t want, so you can make sure to avoid it and focus on the shiny new features that you now know you need.

Put yourself out on a limb when looking for new software. It may be tempting to go back to a copy of what you already have, or even to keep your current software just to avoid the transitional phase. But resist the temptation. You already know your system isn’t working. Get out there and go for something new.

According to repair theory, the human mind moves in logical ways when attempting to solve a problem. That feeling of getting “stuck” on a problem or a part of a problem is called an impasse. Until you find a new way around it, you will remain stuck at that impasse. The solution is to try new methods and new ways to problem solve so that you can find a way that works. Those ways of making it work are the repairs that give the theory its name. In this case, your impasse is the software that isn’t working and your repair will be trying out new software systems until you find the solution you need. Making a list of all the problems with your software impasse is a great place to begin to find your repair.

And on the off chance that your new LMS isn’t a perfect fit either, at least it will be closer. And you’ll have even more data to root out all the bugs for next time.

Making repairs and moving forward

Making mistakes is inevitable. But when you think of them as a good thing that will make your life easier in the long run, they become much easier to take in stride.
How do you like to root out the bugs in your system? Have you applied repair theory to your eLearning approach? Tell me about it in the comments!

Looking for Training software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Training software solutions.

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About the Author


Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen is a former Capterra analyst.


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