Sunday, April 14, 2024

Practical Techniques for Training Adults

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As we said last time, there is a high ratio of amateurs delivering IT training.  This is especially true for in-house training, where IT workers are asked to train their peers.   But it is also true to some extent among professional training organizations, and even in tertiary institutes.  In trainers, technical understanding is valued above the ability to train adults. 

(See the first three articles in this series: IT Teachers Suck, Teaching Adults (Yes, It’s Different) , and  Delivering Training to Adults)

Perhaps this is inescapable in such a complex field as IT, but we are all professionals.  If we can acquire the theoretical frameworks and practical techniques we need to do other areas of our work, we should do the same when delivering training.   There is a body of knowledge out there to be accessed.   This series of articles gives an introduction.   Hopefully those delivering training will be inspired to go find out more.  Why go to the effort of reciting all that information of it is not assimilated by your trainees?

Your results will be better and you will have more fun delivering them. There is great satisfaction in being a good teacher.

In the previous article we discussed the practical aspects of delivering training, based on four aspects: Audience, Yourself, Content, and Delivery.  That advice will help you design and prepare for delivering training.  This article looks at ideas to use in the classroom when delivering.

Lesson plan

Before we give you a bunch of smaller ideas, there is one big important recommendation: have a lesson plan.  If somebody else prepared the materials, they should provide one – ask for it.  If it is your course, then make a plan under the following headings:

Audience: what sort of audience is the course intended for?

Learning outcome: what are trainees intended to take away?  What do they need to learn?  Remember from an earlier article: knowledge, skills and/or values.

Content: where does it come from?  Where is it?   In what form?  How will it be presented? (e.g. PowerPoint)  How is it given to trainees? (e.g. printed book and CD)  What special content is required? (e.g. Introduce the instructor and establish credibility, or a creative opening to establish relationship and relax the room).

Method: the steps to go through and the techniques and tools used at each step (more about them later), e.g. this example from a lesson plan of mine on “Thing-Fixing”

1.      Establish learning contract

2.      Review of Thing-Fixing theory on PowerPoint, with buzz groups

3.      Thing-Fixing at our organization: instructor-led discussion, bringing out war stories from the more experienced students, seeking confirmation of key points

4.      Pyramid groups 1-2-4 on key points to bear in mind when preparing for Thing-Fixing

5.      Summary of key points

6.      Powerpoint examples of techniques for Thing-Fixing

7.      Discussion in groups of two of any questions

8.      Write down three key points they have learned

Assessment: how the students will be assessed to see what they got from the coursed, e.g. exam, practical test, on-the-job assessment, supervisor feedback…  Will there be a pass/fail?  A score?  Or simply a descriptive report?

Evaluation: how the course and delivery will be evaluated, e.g. feedback forms, consolidated assessment data, survey supervisors, monitoring future outcomes (is the job done better?)…

Resources: what is required to deliver the course, e.g. projector, flipcharts, bull-horn (just kidding)…

Comments: description of the course and any special considerations


Tips and techniques

OK you are IT people – you’ve had enough theory and planning, bring on the simple instructions to get the job done!  Of course anything to do with humans is never that simple.   There are no secret formulas for effective training or any guaranteed techniques.  The training is as good as the instructor, pure and simple.

Nevertheless, you can use tips and techniques to make yourself a better instructor and your course a better course.  Here are 15 to be going on with.   Make sure you collect more.  Keep some notes somewhere of all of them so you can call on them when you make a lesson plan.

1. Set homework before the course.  Ask for questions/problems/case studies the learners have prepared.  Assign other prior preparation: “deliver day one beforehand”.

2. Create a group learning contract as an icebreaker.  Agree what is in it for each party, what each must put in, what is acceptable behavior, rules.

3. Remember adults want some control.  Let them make choices about their learning: are there areas of control you could pass over to the students?  What skills to they need to make those decisions?

4. Recall also that students must understand what their needs are and see the relevance to those.  Start by drawing out a clear understanding of what they need.

5. Give mind-maps.  You have the whole lesson in your head.   The trainees are “exploring at night”, slowly building up the whole picture.  Provide high-level schematics of how the topic and the lesson all fit together.   People are either narrative-thinkers or visual-thinkers, so give them both kinds of mind-maps: a story and a picture, words and drawings.  Keep referring back to the mind-map as you go: “now we are here”.

6. Adapt to the learning styles of the individuals.  There are simple profiling tools you can use to understand your trainees.  I like DISC®.

7. Focus on the learner not the material. “I don’t teach IT, I teach students.”

8. Pause for note taking.  It is not about getting through as much material as you can – once – in the time allotted.  Give people time to assimilate, or organize, to get their heads around it. 

9. Allow review time at the end.  When you get to the end they won’t all have got all of it.  You must review with them to fill gaps and fix misconceptions.

10. Provide incomplete handouts.  If you give people immaculate photocopied notes they don’t have to engage with your teaching; they can get mentally lazy and just listen along.   People who have to fill in the notes are really listening and thinking about what you say. 

11. Provide follow-up activities.  If they walk away and never engage with the material again they will forget it.  Assign exercises to be returned to you.  Provide self-learning materials and references for those who want to develop further.

12. Have thinking breaks.  Everyone stops doing everything and just thinks about the material so far – insist on silence and of course no electronics.  Just think.  Note: many people have trouble with this nowadays.  They can’t stand the silence.  They giggle and make noise.  If it doesn’t work, give up.

13. Buzz groups.  These are small groups (three or four people) formed to quickly and informally discuss and brainstorm: either all groups on the same topic or each group on some aspect of the topic.  After a short fixed interval, one member of each group reports back to everyone.

14. Pyramid groups.  First each individual notes their thoughts on a topic, then they discuss it in pairs for a set interval, then the pairs join up into fours to discuss, then the fours join into groups of eight etc.  At each step they at least try to get a consensus view to take to the next level.

15. Expert panel.  Sometimes the trainees know as much or more than you do.  If so, find the experts and form a panel at the front of the class to teach by interviewing them.  You can also try asking the trainees to prepare questions with a neighbor.

If you want to be as professional about delivering training as you are about everything else you do in IT: (1) learn the theory (2) understand how adult training works  (3) know  how to deliver it (4) make a plan (5) have as big a bag of tricks as you can.  You will deliver better training and you will enjoy the experience. 

Rob England is an IT industry commentator and consultant, best known for his blog The IT Skeptic. 

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