The base of a healthy diet is finding the optimal balance between the different food groups. Unfortunately there is one big group that is just plain unhealthy and bad for you but so incredibly appealing and tasty. Nonetheless, most of us struggle to get our nutrition right but there are still things we prefer above others and when we are presented with the perfect plate that just has everything we need but very little of what we like we are not that happy with it.

Broccoli is a lot easier to swallow with at least a little cheese dip while lean meat on the grill slides down better with a smudge of our favorite gravy. Nutritionists may have the perfect recipes but we eat better when we follow their advice while personalizing everything to our taste.

Corporate learning often resembles this sort of artificial design meant to incorporate a little of everything and leave little or no room for personalization. That’s why Jillian Douglas of Idea Learning came up with a solution that would give employees more choice when it comes to learning.

What is Cafeteria Learning?

The concept of cafeteria learning refers to mixing the different learning approaches – experiential, action-driven and constructivist while adding a very important feature – choice.

The learner still has to follow the path designed by the L&D specialists but has a say on how they do that. It’s not a choice of whether or not to eat Brussels sprouts but what to combine them with to make them better tasting.


Read more: Why each employee needs a learning path


Whether applied in an instructor–led environment or in e-learning, this approach proves to be both engaging and effective. Instead of listening to a perfectly designed and flawlessly proofread lecture or clicking through a number of set slides, screens and online quizzes the learner can pick those activities, exercises and presentations that truly get his interest.

It’s like adaptive learning with the learner acting as the optimization engine. While it may be a lot more work for instructional designers it is also a great way to ensure a truly learner-centered experience.

How it works

In order for cafeteria learning to work it is important that all activities, videos, quizzes, podcasts and materials are designed in a way that ensure they all have the same learning outcomes. Eventually all learners, regardless of how they manage their experience, have to take away the same amount of information and reach a similar level of skill.

Since learning is generally a social activity, it’s paramount to have this component, allowing people to work together, share experience and build knowledge as a group. Just like in a real-life cafeteria, some may want to sample the courses that were not their own choice to get an idea if it’s something they will like in the future.

The key word when it comes to this approach is flexibility within a set (but varied) menu. There has to be a very clear set of rules so the participants are well aware of what type of content is on offer and how they will have to combine it in order to complete the course.

Always debrief

Regardless of how users chose to fill their learning tray, the end of any cafeteria learning experience should be a debriefing session.

In a classroom environment this can be completed by taking questions from the participants or going around the room to see what the general takeaway is. Online, it can be done by setting up forums or panels where people who have gone through the same learning modules can interact, work on common projects and give feedback both to the designers and to each other.

Games and quizzes are also great ways to help learners discern what the major items acquired were and how the new information will be useful either in the workplace or their day to day lives. It’s important to also add the element of reward – it can be a diploma, a small prize, a shiny frame on the leader board or a form of acknowledgement from the hierarchical superior or the organization.

Conclusions and closures are important in learning as they give a good sense of achievement. They are sort of like a tasty dessert after a healthy meal.

All in all

The creators of cafeteria learning deem it to be a careful selection of elements from “each of the experiential, constructivist, and action learning theories, added in choice as a twist, and organized it all into an approach that encapsulates what we believe is the best of brain science and learning theory.” The concept in nutshell is explained by Jillian Douglas here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRxhCzlE9yI&t=135s

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