10 best books for learning design and learning science

(2020 update)

Understanding the way people learn allows us to create better training.

These 10 books for learning design and learning science are some of the most popular and highly recommended in the field, and we’ve chosen them as they are regular go-to sources of information and inspiration for many of us at Sponge.

Evidence-Informed Learning Design: Creating Training to Improve Performance

Authors: Mirjam Neelen and Paul A. Kirschner

Read for: How to assess and apply relevant scientific literature, learning science research and proven learning techniques to design your training in a way that will make a measurable difference.

Why it’s recommended: Full of tips, tools and examples, this book is essential reading for anyone responsible for designing learning. This book covers the authors’ evidence-based strategies for effective learning design, including worked examples and spaced learning; and how best to test, measure and reinforce learning in online, offline and face-to-face scenarios.

Review: “Brutally honest about the fallacies and myths that hinder practice, it is also refreshingly strong on contemporary research and recommendations. Read it and do it!” — Donald Clarke, LearnTech entrepreneur, professor, speaker and blogger.

100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People

Author: Susan Weinschenk

Read for: A high-level exploration of 100 principles that underpin learning behaviour, this book is an essential companion for any digital experience designer.

Why it’s recommended: Combining real science and research with examples and takeaways, 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People is an indispensable guide for learning how to match the way people think, work, and learn.

The book addresses key questions L&D professionals seek to understand, such as, how people remember, what motivates people, how people really read (tip: reading a computer screen is harder than reading a paper), and the truth about making mistakes.

Review: “I love this book. I refer to it often thanks to the concise overviews. Every time I open it, I discover something new about human-centered design, psychology or attention. Well worth it.” Kate Pasterfield, Head of Learning Strategy, Sponge

Map It: The Hands-On Guide to Strategic Training Design

Author: Cathy Moore

Read for: A humorous look at how to design experiences, not information, and a guide through action mapping – a visual approach to needs analysis and training design.

Why it’s recommended: Cathy Moore’s book provides excellent insight for identifying performance problems. Other focus points the book offers for enhancing productivity and performance include, how to choose the best format for your learning programme, how to create realistic and challenging activities, and how to determine the optimum period and regularity of engagement.

Review: "Recommended reading for instructional designers everywhere.”  — Megan Torrance, Chief Energy Officer of TorranceLearning.

Neuroscience for Learning and Development: How to Apply Neuroscience and Psychology for Improved Learning and Training

Author: Stella Collins

Read for: The latest research and concepts, plus practical tools, techniques and ideas to improve how trainers train and how people learn.

Why it’s recommended: Neuroscience for Learning and Development covers the design and delivery of face-to-face, online and virtual learning as well as how to create environments which make learning easier.

From explaining the neuroscience of attention, memory and habits, through the author’s top trumps for designing and delivering in a digital world, to the science behind creative training delivery for maximum motivation, this is an important book for anyone in L&D wanting to advance their knowledge.

Review: “If you want to transform learning in your organisation, this is a must-read.” — Amy Brann, author of Make Your Brain Work: How to Maximize Your Efficiency, Productivity and Effectiveness.

Design for How People Learn

Author: Julie Dirksen

Read for: As well as its invaluable guidance, the go-to book for learning designers has had an update with new chapters on social media, designing for habit and evaluating learning.

Why it’s recommended: The second edition builds on the original’s effortlessly compelling advice for putting theories into practice. Find out how to leverage the fundamental concepts of instructional design through accessible visual metaphors and solid methods and examples – for improving your own learning and engaging your audience. This is a must-have improvement and reference guide for those getting started with learning design.

Review: “This is the best book on learning design I’ve seen for the beginning designer. Buy it, read it, pass it on, spread the word.” — Clark Quinn, Learning Solutions Magazine.

Learning Analytics: Using Talent Data to Improve Business Outcome

Authors: Cristina Hall, John R Mattox II, Peggy Parskey

Read for: Understanding effective evaluation and measurement of learning and development initiatives to maximise the impact of training and identify areas of improvement.

Why it’s recommended: The second edition of Learning Analytics features updated chapters on learning technology tools and moving beyond learning analytics to talent management analytics. It also outlines how to ask the right questions of organisational data to build a learning strategy that boosts performance and competitive advantage.

Case studies from organisations who have applied such approaches are explored, and these evidence-based examples give extra credence to L&D functions and activities.

Also featured in this revised text is new content on measuring informal learning, increasing data literacy, and framing L&D's contributions through a portfolio evaluation approach.

Review: “Learning Analytics not only builds a strong science-based business case for ‘why learning analytics’ is needed, but goes beyond to identify the gap between what L&D is measuring in most organisations vs what CEOs want to be measured and achieved” — Jeff Higgins, Founder and CEO of HCMI.

The Science of Storytelling

Author: Will Storr

Read for: A scientific and neurological approach to understanding what makes a good story – how our minds are capable of such creativity and on the flip side, why they prefer some storytelling devices and styles over others.

Why it’s recommended: Will Storr’s inspiring book reveals how the best storytellers manipulate and compel us; from the Hebrew scriptures to Mr Men, from Booker Prize-winning literature to box set TV.

Through applying psychological research and pioneering neuroscience to the foundations of our myths and archetypes, Storr demonstrates how we can use such deep insight to tell the most compelling and engaging stories. The Science of Storytelling provides an indispensable background for why and how storytelling works. 

Review: “Will Storr is unparalleled in his skills in translation from psychology and neuroscience to real lives, and he writes beautifully.” — Professor Sophie Scott, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

e-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning

Authors: Ruth C. Clark, Richard E. Mayer

Read for: A recently updated manual for delivering learning using evidence-based techniques.

Why it’s recommended: Dr Richard E. Mayer is described as “the most productive instructional research scientist in the world and developed his 12 principles for multimedia learning in 2001, which have become a go-to for learning designers”. Ruth C. Clark is a respected author who focuses on proven techniques that work in the real world.  

The latest edition of e-Learning and the Science of Instruction includes a detailed look at some of the core principles; contiguity (align words to graphics), modality (words as audio, not on-screen), and redundancy (omitting extraneous material). New chapters on evidence-based games design have been added as well as updated instructor’s materials to make the most of the practical guides.

Review: ‘I have found this book to be a helpful source for best practice throughout my career as an instructional designer. The advice on segmenting content serves me on a daily basis when working with complex subject matters’. Katie Hall, Senior Learning Experience Designer, Sponge

Digital Learning Content: A Designer's Guide

Author: Clive Shepherd

Read for: Learning fundamental principles that you can apply for successful and effective content creation.

Why it’s recommended: Explores universal principles, exploiting interactivity, creating scenarios, videos and tutorials. Contains a useful chapter on working with subject experts – especially useful for learning designers who want to build confidence with stakeholders.

Review: “This is a book I would recommend to anyone who is involved with creating digital learning materials. Even if you’ve been around the industry for a while there will be ideas to pick up. It would be an ideal source book for any training course for new designers and could even stimulate quite a few heated discussions amongst established design teams!” — Mark Berthelemy, Independent Digital Problem Solver

Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide

Authors: Megan Sumeracki and Oliver Caviglioli

Read for: An accessible guide to help integrate research-backed strategies into learning design. Understanding How We Learn: A Visual Guide explores exactly what constitutes good evidence for effective learning and teaching strategies.

Why it’s recommended: Drawing on real-life examples and case studies, and including engaging illustrations to simplify complex concepts, the book explores evidence-based judgments over intuition, the basics of human cognitive processes, and strategies for effective learning.

Review: "This book is an excellent source for the current evidence on ways to improve learning, as well as practical tips on how to use the strategies." — Henry L. Roediger III,  Washington University, and co-author of ‘Make it Stick'.

BONUS BOOK - Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Authors: Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel

Read for: The authors offer concrete techniques for becoming more productive learners, underpinning each and every strategy by drawing on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and other disciplines.

Why it's recommended: This book tells you how and why 'you're doing it wrong', and then shows you the principles and the ins and outs of doing it right. While some of the strategies described may at first appear counterintuitive, educators from around the world and from numerous different fields agree that it has been an invaluable resource on how to learn - and teach - effectively.

Review: 'This [...] book [...] describes important research findings with startling implications for how we can improve our own learning, teaching, and coaching. [...] It shows us how more positive attitudes toward our own abilities and the willingness to tackle the hard stuff enables us to achieve our goals. - Robert Bjork, University of California, Los Angeles

What’s your go-to book for learning design or learning science? Is it one that’s not listed above but you think should be? Get in touch to let us know.

This article was first written in 2016, and has since undergone several updates to keep up with the trends and times. All the copyright belongs to the respective authors and the content used here is exclusively for reviewing purposes.

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