Designing for Learning: Pearson’s Learning Design Principles

Illustration of a path to learning. Credit Lauren Rolwing

As I write this blogpost, I occasionally stare out my window to the Rocky Mountains looming above me. It’s amazing to think that these 4200m/14,000 ft mountains were formed by a series of small tremors and occasional larger seismic movements. Likewise, the tectonic plates of education are shifting, and seismic ripples are apparent globally.

Many are small movements—tremors really. But, as education places greater focus on the learning sciences and our understanding about how people learn expands, such tremors may occur more frequently. In fact, bigger shifts occur when such insights are increasingly applied to learning tools and experiences used by millions of learners worldwide.

As a part of this movement, Pearson is pioneering the application of learning sciences to education products at scale. For decades, many education research projects focused on basic or evaluative research, leading to discoveries shown to impact learning, but failing to do so at scale. On the other hand, many educational technology products have been built on solid user experience and market research, but have failed to impact learning. In the learning experience design team, we’re implementing a principle-based design process in which we apply design-based research methods to a variety of Pearson products across disciplines, supporting the outcomes of millions of learners globally (building on such efforts as Clark & Mayer, 2002; Gee, 2007; Koedinger, Corbett & Perfetti, 2012; and Oliver, 2000).

Using both the design thinking methods of user experience (Kelley & Kelley, 2016), and the design-based research methods of the learning sciences traditions (Reeves & McKenney, 2013), we’re building, applying, and refining a set of forty-five Learning Design Principles. By doing so, we’re working at the nexus of education research (i.e., products based on research) and product efficacy (ie, research-based products that evidence impact on outcomes). In that messy and exciting space of innovation, we’ve established a design function and process that allows us to build products that meet user needs, are delightful and usable, and, most importantly, impact learning.

Pearson’s Learning Design Principles

The Learning Design Principles (LDPs) are research-based syntheses of targeted topics within the learning sciences that serve as quick, reliable reference for learning designers when working with all key stakeholders in the product development process. The LDPs provide us with a research-based point-of-view to inform how learning and teaching theory are integrated into Pearson products and features. Drawing on the work of leading researchers in education, including some of our own authors and customers, we are building a research base that we can continually reference in making design decisions.

The LDPs are not official policy or “how students learn” type documents. Rather, they are focused on application, and are the first point of discussion on learning design, paving the way for further Pearson-led education research.

Surrounding this work, we’ve developed design tools and guidance documents that we use to apply the learning sciences in new product design. From this larger corpus, we’ve created LDP cards that summarize key concepts and applications of each of the learning design principles into a succinct and portable form. In addition to providing quick reference on applications, impacts, and possible capabilities, each card includes a self-assessment instrument that we use to better align our products to what consistently improves learning. Internally, we use these cards to set a common language and understanding of learning sciences research for everyone involved in the design and development process, which helps us link back all design decisions to a research-based “why.” They also provide preliminary measures of learning impact in our early stage product design, and act as the glue to the logic models of more robust efficacy and impact evaluations.

We’ve been using the principles in a number of ways that combine the speed of design thinking methodology with the rigor of design-based research. For instance, in one recent design sprint workshop with a university partner in our online program management work, we used the LDPs (Scaffolding, Motivation Design, Feedback, Self-Regulated Learning, and 21st Century Skills cards among others) in a card-sorting activity that allowed all participants--students, instructors, administrators and designers-- to quickly prioritize the key learning elements that would need to be part of program innovations.

The Learning Design Principles were also at the heart of recent product updates for Pearson Writer, a digital writing support tool. After analyzing the existing product using the LDP self-assessments, we identified a number of opportunities for features that would enable better learning. In creating a plug-in for Microsoft Word, learning designers identified LDPs best aligned to guide the efforts, including Cognitive Load and Multimedia, Scaffolding, Online Information Literacy, and Writing to Learn. Through several rounds of co-design with students, the application of these principles to feature requirements has been refined, measured, and iterated on. We’re continuing to refine the product through principle-based analysis and co-design, and measuring the impact of these developments to learning.

Sharing the Learning Design Principles

We are pleased to announce the public release of our summary cards for an initial forty-five LDPs in an attempt to initiate a larger conversation around how to better design learning experiences. (My sincerest appreciation to Dan Shapera and his team who tirelessly shepherded these to completion!)

We invite you to download these cards which are being released under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license which allows you to embrace and extend our work. By sharing these cards with you, we’re building with you a common vocabulary around how we’re making our products. You can use the cards to discuss with us what aspects of learning are important to you and your students, and how we can better support you in implementing these principles in your learning environments. Additionally, you can use these cards to begin your own principle-based design program, springboarding discussions around the kinds of capabilities, design implementations, and impacts you want to see in your own learning experiences.

Please join me in an extended dialogue about these principles. Over the coming weeks, we plan to have further conversations about the principles and their application. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what’s missing, how we might further refine our understanding of learning, and how you are using them in your own user-centered design processes. Together, we can cause seismic shifts in how people learn worldwide.

Find me on twitter, @DavidPorcaro

Access additional resources on Pearson’s Learning Design Principles


Clark, R.C. and Mayer, R.E. (2002). E-Learning and the Science of Instruction: Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer.

Gee, J (2007). What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: St Martin’s Griffin.

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. Crown Business.

Koedinger, K., Corbett, A., & Perfetti, C. (2012). The Knowledge-Learning-Instruction Framework: Bridging the Science-Practice Chasm to Enhance Robust Student Learning. In Cognitive Science 36, 757-798.

McKenney, S., & Reeves, T. C. (2013). Conducting educational design research. Routledge.

Oliver, R. (2000). When teaching meets learning: Design principles and strategies for web-based learning environments that support knowledge construction. In ASCILITE (pp. 17-28).