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August 2009 Training Tip: Corporate Training or Corporal Punishment?

"Sitting still in confined spaces is one of the worst punishments that can be inflicted on the human species. Yet that is what we require of students in school." Edward T. Hall.
In the industrial age training paradigm, students would file into the classroom at precisely 8 a.m. and then sit rigidly in their seats all day as an instructor stood in front droning on interminably.
Current research now validates what all of us who have sat through such traditional all-day classes can personally attest: human beings do not learn well when forced to sit and listen for hours at a stretch.
The 21st century learning paradigm recognizes that the more stimulated we are, the better we learn:

  • Any activity longer than an hour is too long.
  • Two instructors are better than one.
  • PowerPoints in a darkened room are better than sleeping pills.
  • People learn best when they are moving around.
  • People learn more when they are having fun.

For some great ideas for keeping your students stimulated, moving around and engaged, check out The Accelerated Learning Handbook by Dave Meier.

July 2009 Training Tip: Magical Numbers

A few years ago at a conference in Arizona, I heard a presentation from the brilliant communications theorist, Jean-luc Doumont. Jean-luc's enthralling presentation, entitled "Magical Numbers," has stayed with me ever since. It concerned the latest research about how the human brain processes information.
Current research shows that small, multi-dimensional structures match our mental patterns better than long, one-dimensional sequences, Jean-luc said. Applying this finding to training, Jean-luc warned that we humans must struggle to remember a sequence with more than five steps or tasks. Above five, we resort to rote memory and comprehension shuts down.
To overcome this problem, Jean-luc recommends trainers break long lists of exercise steps into several smaller lists of no more than five steps each (optimal number is three) and then relate each smaller list of steps to the other by organizing them in a "tree" hierarchy.

June 2009 Training Tip: Orienting Your Students

After my camping trip to Oklahoma described in May's training tip, I took a class on using a map and compass. One of the coolest things I learned was how you should hold your map when you're hiking on a trail. Before, I always held a map flat, with the top, or north, facing away from me. This is fine if I'm facing north, but if I'm facing in another direction, then I have to mentally adjust the orientation of the map each time to what I am actually seeing. A simple way to solve this problem is to rotate the map so that it is oriented in the same direction you're facing. In other words, if you're facing south, then rotate your map 180 degrees, so that south on the map aligns with south in reality. That way you don't have to spend extra effort mentally reorienting the map to match reality.
This simple technique can also be applied to training. You want your students to stay oriented and on track. Your training will be more effective when students do not have to interpolate their training materials to match what is really occurring on their computer screens. Your training materials are like a map your students are using to find their way along a twisting mountain trail. Do your students have to go through complicated mental gyrations every time they need their bearing, or do your training materials clearly show them what lies ahead?

May 2009 Training Tip: Lessons from the Trail

A couple of weekends ago I went on a two-day beginners backpacking trip. There were two kind, experienced, and very patient guides. The rest of us were newbies, on our first true wilderness trip. Like raw recruits in an army platoon, if there was a mistake to make, we made it. I didn't bring enough water, I left my insect repellant at home, and I couldn't figure out how to pitch my high-tech tent without help. I almost set southeastern Oklahoma ablaze trying to cook my breakfast.
By the end of the trip, I was exhausted and hungry. I was ready for a hot shower and a soft bed. Nevertheless, as we trudged back to civilization, even though I was dead tired and humbled, I felt elated. I had done nothing but make mistakes for two days, but as a result, I had learned a huge amount about backpacking. As we reached the end of the trail, I realized that I was already looking forward to my next wilderness adventure.

April 2009 Training Tip: The 3T Rule

The 3Ts Rule is something you learn early on in public speaking in Toastmasters. The 3Ts Rule goes like this: Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em; Tell 'em; and then Tell 'em what you just told 'em.

This rule is used by good instructors as well: for each new topic or lesson, they Tell their students what to expect; then they Tell (teach) the students, and finally they Tell (review with) the students what they just told/taught them.

March 2009 Training Tip: Keep Learning Objectives in Your Training Plans

The common practice of listing learning objectives at the beginning of each training lesson is seen by many now as too mechanistic and linear for students who take a non-linear, hyper-linked approach to absorbing new information and acquiring new skills.

While listing learning objectives in each training module may tend to impose more structure than today's students want or need, the process of clearly defining learning objectives is still essential for effective training design.

It is impossible to develop a good training plan without explicitly stated learning objectives. So, if you must remove learning objectives from your training materials, make sure your training plan is still built around well-defined and documented learning objectives.

February 2009 Training Tip: Use Virtual Training Environments to Save Time and Money

As applications become more networked and more complex, the difficulties and risks associated with deploying training environments increase exponentially. Use virtualization technology to make your training environment more reliable and easier to set up.

With virtualization, you only need to create your training environment once. You then copy your training environment to a CD or DVD and install it on each student's computer. Every student then has their own complete training environment for performing course labs and exercises.

Virtual training environments eliminate almost all of the tedious installation, networking, and maintenance chores associated with most conventional training environments.

January 2009 – Making the Shift to Distance-Based Training

As a result of corporate travel budget cuts, many of you will have to reduce the number of classroom courses you offer and rely on distance-based training instead. Distance-based training occurs when students take web-based courses or participate remotely with a live instructor via telephone/web conferencing.

Distance-based training requires you to rethink how you design your courses. Taking a few distance-based courses yourself can help you quickly adapt your approach.

With a little web surfing, you can find many short, inexpensive or even free online courses and web seminars. Select several courses that provide a different kind of learning experience. For example, take one course that teaches technical skills, one that teaches soft skills, and one that teaches concepts and facts.

As a student, note what works best for you and what does not. Then, when you are ready to design your own distance-based course, you can start with your own list of do's and don'ts!

December 2008 – Let's Get Physical (Learning by Doing)

Years ago, while working at a local high-tech company, I attended an internal training class that was so well-known and popular it was called the “Fabulously Famous Fab Class.” The day-long class was intended to provide new employees with an overall understanding of how computer chips are produced in the manufacturing facilities known in the high-tech world as wafer fabs.

The day began by our group of 20 or so participants being led to a large, brightly lit room with no chairs. Tables were arranged throughout the room. Oversize cut-out foam rubber representations of the various components of a computer chip were strewn on some of the tables. Other tables were designated as “work stations” and had plastic toy tools arranged on them.

We simulated the computer chip manufacturing process by taking the components, and “assembling” or “processing” them at each work station, laughing and joking as we made mistakes or worked clumsily with our toy tools. All the time, our instructor coached us along, demonstrating and explaining the process as we worked. After a couple of hours, we had a “finished” computer chip ready for shipping to a customer.

Afterwards, we talked about what we had just done, and peppered our instructor with questions about the different phases of the manufacturing process.

After lunch, we donned clean room white “bunny suits” and goggles, and entered a real-life clean room in a wafer fab. The mood grew more serious as we spent the afternoon visiting each of the actual work stations we had simulated in the morning. In some places, we were permitted to perform some of the simpler tasks we had pretended to do in the morning.

By day’s end we were tired but happy. We had a lot of fun, but we also finished the day with a solid understanding of the concepts, processes, and tasks associated with making a computer chip.

No boring PowerPoints, no thick training manuals, no expensive videos. Just a room full of toys, and lots of hands-on learning. Minimal expense, maximal learning.

November 2008 – Assume Nothing!

Many instructors mistakenly assume that the user interface of the software they are teaching is as intuitive to their students as it is to them. They forget this is the first time many of the students have seen the application. Usually this happens when the instructor is an expert user of the software, and is also an expert in the industry to which the software applies. To this instructor, the paradigm represented by the physical layout of the windows, fields, buttons, and menus is so glaringly obvious that it does not merit explanation. This is their fatal assumption. On the other hand, top-notch instructors realize that new users need careful explanation and patient coaching until they become familiar and comfortable with the software’s user interface and the paradigm it represents.

October 2008 – Reusing Learning Objects

How do you continue to develop and deliver training during this difficult time of budget and staff cutbacks? Scavenge and reuse “learning objects” from others in your organization. Learning objects are all of those miscellaneous activities and materials that others in your company already produce for their own use, or to help fellow employees or customers. Start asking around. You will be amazed at the number of corporate wikis, monthly customer/employee e-mail updates, quick reference guides, FAQs, canned or live demos, webinars, tutorials, user guides and other useful learning tools that you don’t know about. Search out and leverage these resources to meet your training purposes. Your new training materials will probably not be as attractive or cohesive as they once were, but they will get the job done.

September 2008 – Breadcrumbs

Too many trainers assume students can follow their rapid-fire point-and-click sequences during demos. Most can’t. Help your students follow along by providing a simple set of “breadcrumbs” before each sequence in a demo. Two examples:

  • Insert >> Picture >> Clip Art
  • Start button >> All Programs >> iTunes >> iTunes

Use any format for these. They will help keep your students from getting lost.

August 2008 – Taking the Narrow Path

Many of us struggle with the difference between software documentation and training. Documentation should consist of everything you could possibly want to know about the product, with an emphasis on dealing with exceptions and troubleshooting. Training takes a “narrow path” through the documentation, emphasizing how the software fits into a user’s daily workflow. Derive your training from a careful analysis of how users need to use the software to perform specific job-related tasks.

July 2008 – Servant Leaders/Servant Instructors

Starting back in the 1970s, and continuing to the present, there has been a steady stream of management books revolving around the concept of “servant leadership.” According to Wikipedia, “Servant-leadership emphasizes the leader's role as steward ... It encourages leaders to serve others while staying focused on achieving results in line with the organization's values and integrity.” The best instructors also apply this credo to their teaching. Their goal is to do whatever they can to help their students succeed. A common characteristic of these exceptional instructors is a willingness to share with their students—they are always eager to share their own experience, their hard-earned knowledge, their time, and their ability. Moreover, they never do this with an aim towards self-aggrandizement, but rather with a focus on helping their students achieve success.

June 2008 – Training vs. Documentation

Many of us struggle to distinguish between documentation and training. The way I differentiate between the two is that documentation should consist of everything you could possibly want to know about the product. Documentation focuses on the “what” and the “how.” Training materials take a narrow path through the documentation, with an emphasis on skill mastery. Derive your training from a careful analysis of how users need to use the application to perform specific job-related tasks. Emphasize how the application fits into the users’ daily workflow.

May 2008 – Learning through Encouragement

When students are working through practice exercises and the instructor is walking around the classroom performing one-on-one coaching, it is tempting, when seeing a student struggling, to intervene and solve their problem for them. A superior instructor will encourage the student, perhaps coax them in a certain direction, and then give the student time to solve the problem on their own. If after a few minutes, the student is still on the wrong track, the instructor intervenes and helps the student, usually not solving the problem completely for them, but setting them in the right direction.

April 2008 – Certification Exams

Many companies want students to take a certification exam at the end of training to show that they have attained a certain level of mastery. Certification exams should be carefully crafted so that they test against the learning objectives of the course. If a certification exam is to be held at the end of the course, it is vital that self-assessment quizzes (See March 08 training tip) and reviews are held at the end of each day of training, so that students can assess their strengths and weaknesses, and study accordingly.

March 2008 – Self-Assessment Quiz

Conduct a self-assessment quiz at the end of each day during a course. These can take the format of a TV challenge game show such as Jeopardy, where the students compete against each other either individually or as teams. Try to keep these self-assessments as entertaining and fun as possible. They serve as a review, and thus help the students cement the day’s key facts and concepts before they leave class.

February 2008 – Practice Case Studies

Have your students spend one to two hours each day collaborating on a team to work through a practice case study specific to their industry. This gives them a chance to revisit and practice the skills they learned during the course by practicing them within a context with which they are familiar. Practice case studies allow students to reinforce their skills and gain confidence.

January 2008 – Lecture/Demo/Practice

The more formal portions of a class typically use the structure of lecture, demo, and student practice. The instructor gives a brief introduction of the topic or functionality to be explored, setting the stage and providing context. The instructor then demonstrates the exercise, usually using a computer hooked up to an overhead projector, so all in the class can see as she or he works. The students next perform the exercise on their own, with the instructor circulating through the class, coaching the students as they work.

December 2007 – Learning without Fear

The challenge for the effective instructor is to foster a learning experience that serves to counteract students’ fear of failure, so that while students feel challenged, they also feel safe. Students must be somewhat challenged by the learning experience, otherwise they will not learn. At the same time though, students must feel comfortable enough to risk a wrong answer or make a mistake without fearing that their classmates or instructor will ridicule them, or that their performance will be reported to their supervisor.

The best instructors encourage students by continually urging them to take risks as they learn, saying things like, “Go ahead! Give it your best shot!” or “The only dumb question is one not asked,” and so forth. Most importantly, these top-flight instructors model the behavior they promote by acknowledging their own mistakes while teaching, and admitting when a particular student question stumps them.

November 2007 – Intros and Recaps

The intros and recaps in your training modules serve as directional markers. They orient the student, help provide context, and tell students how far they’ve come and how far they have to go. Another tip for multi-day courses: Preview the next day’s “coming attractions” so that students know what to expect, and if necessary, how to prepare.

October 2007 – Games and Simulations

Games or simulations first thing in the morning and immediately after lunch help to get students’ blood pumping so they are awake, focused and engaged. Games are usually activities like icebreakers or simple group problem solving exercises, and typically are not particularly relevant to the content of the course. Their primary purpose is to allow the students to interact with each other and set a tone of trust and cooperation. Simulations usually have a learning component and are related to the content of the course, for example students could simulate a manufacturing process—students could represent the different stages of the manufacturing process as a physical object representing the product is passed from student to student until it is finished and ready for sale. Both games and simulations should involve the students getting out of their seats and moving around, and they should be fun.

September 2007 – First Day of School!

This is the time of year when most kids in the U.S. start back to school. We all remember that first day of class, and the odd mixture of excitement and anxiety it produced. Keep in mind that when most adult learners start your training class, emotionally they are back in the fourth grade, starting school again after a long summer. This is true whether your class is conducted virtually or in an actual classroom. Plan accordingly. Rather than launching directly into the course materials, start with introductions and an ice-breaker or two. This will go a long way in releasing the students’ pent-up anxiety, and establishing a fun, trustful environment most conducive for learning by children of all ages.

August 2007 – Short and Frequent Breaks

Build in lots of short breaks into your class structure. Besides allowing students to answer the call of nature, breaks allow students to stretch and move around, take a mental break, and interact with other students. Breaks also allow students to answer e-mails and phone calls so that they are less likely to do this during class. Instructors benefit from breaks as well, as it gives them a moment or two to catch their breath and collect their thoughts. You can shorten breaks if the class is behind schedule, but never eliminate them Allow for at least two breaks in the morning and two in the afternoon in addition to lunch, and try to schedule breaks ahead of time so that students can anticipate them. Breaks should range from 5 to 15 minutes.

July 2007 – Creating a Safe Learning Environment

One way to foster a safe learning environment is to allow for “debriefs” or short discussions at intervals during the course, usually after completing an exercise. The instructor can facilitate the discussion by asking students to recount what they did right in the exercise, what mistakes they made, and what they could have done better. Discussion can also center on what was easy for them versus what was difficult. If these discussion sessions are started early in he course, say after the first set of exercises, they go a long way to establishing an environment of trust and sets the tone for the rest of the course.

June 2007 – Get Real (Use Industry Relevant Use Cases)

When it comes time for the student to practice a procedure, have them refer to a use case specific to their industry. This use case is packaged in a separate booklet. The booklet contains the same exercises as those in the training manual, but the exercise is particularized for their industry. Provide the overall use case in the beginning of the booklet. For each lesson, provide an industry-specific scenario and the values they need to enter, and then refer to the relevant lesson in the training manual, or--better yet--to the online help and/or System Admin Guide. This encourages active problem-solving and results in better learning. Adult learners learn more quickly if they can relate to their own context. Industry specific use cases are an excellent tool for providing context as they learn. Prepare a stockpile of these industry-specific case practices for all of your target markets.

May 2007 – Less is More

While doorstopper training manuals may serve to impress your boss, they tend to intimidate and discourage your students. Here are some alternatives to the 400-page, 40-pound manual:

  • Split the manual into separate, thinner binders, say one for each day of class.
  • Edit, cut, streamline, redact, reduce, and eliminate redundancy.
  • Revisit your task-role analysis and remove all that is non-essential to the student’s needs.
  • Replace procedural steps in training manual with references to the same steps in your online help or user guides.
  • Remove detailed information on product features and replace with references to the System Admin Guide.
  • Pull out graphics and charts and bundle them into a separate booklet or hand-out.
  • One last no-brainer that is too-often overlooked—make sure you print or copy on both sides of the page. You instantly reduce the thickness and weight of your manual by half.

April 2007 - Test Your Learners

Short quizzes placed strategically throughout the course are a great way for students to assess their own progress, and for instructors to determine how well students are learning. Instructors can relieve much of the anxiety and fear in the beginning of the class by stressing that students will assess their own results and that the testing is only to help the students gauge their progress through out the course and to help them identify any problem areas.

March 2007 – Don’t Overestimate Your Audience

Many times what is perceived as a training problem has deeper causes for which training is only part of the solution. Make sure you gather all the facts about an issue or problem before your begin a training project, and before you assume that training is the best solution. Many times what, at first glance, seems like a training problem really turns out to be a process or performance issue, and it may go beyond the scope of training. In short, identify the root cause of a business problem and determine the best solution, before implementing a training program to resolve it.

February 2007 – Don’t Underestimate Your Audience

A thorough roles-task analysis gives you a good understanding of your intended audience. Use this information to gear your training materials appropriately. Gauge the skill level and expertise of the group to streamline the procedural steps in many of your exercises. For example, if you know your audience has extensive familiarity with Windows –based applications, instead of telling users in your instructions to: “1) Click File in the menu bar, and then 2) Select Open,” simply tell them to “1) Open the XYZ file.” Instructional shortcuts like this signal that you acknowledge and respect your audience’s expertise. This will encourage their attention and respect towards your training materials as well.

January 2007 – Variety Is The Spice Of Life (Vary Media)

By now, most of us are familiar with the three adult learning styles – auditory, kinesthetic and visual. Successful training classes provide a variety of learning media to appeal to these three learning styles. Very few persons are purely one learning style or the other. Most people respond to different shadings of all three. As a result, most people like to be exposed to a variety of learning media. Beside the standard training manual (visual) and instructor lecture (auditory), try including some of the following in your classes.


Learning Style Appeal

Booklet of instructor PowerPoints


Quick start guides, job aids


Instructor demos

Visual, Auditory

Student practices


Hands-on exercises and simulations


Student presentations and recaps


Group activities


Online tutorials

Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic

Classroom discussions


December 2006 – 30/60/90-Day Surveys

Follow up your training by periodically contacting a representative sample of your students and evaluating how well they have adapted to using your product after training. Prepare four or five short questions, select a small representative sample of students (6-10 is ideal). Call each student about 30 days after training. Spend a few minutes asking your questions. (Calling is better than email, as you are likely to get more detailed feedback.) Take notes. Call each student back in 60 days after training, and again in 90 days after training. You can create new questions for each round or use the same questions. Each time you call, you will get different responses about different issues. Stop after 90 days, because beyond that, most students have become adept with the product. Use this feedback for improve your training.

November 06 - Basic and Advanced Courses

When you are developing a course, and you find that it is becoming overly long, you might consider splitting the course into two parts—a basic course and an advanced course. Also, beware the temptation of teaching the advanced course immediately after the basic. Your training will be far more effective if students have several weeks to months of using the new product back at their jobs. This allows them to build basic skills, and gives them time to determine which advanced features are of interest. Students will come to class highly motivated to learn about features that can make their job easier or improve their work. Because of this motivation, your trainer’s job will be easier as well.

October 2006 – Avoid “Feature-itis”

Keep in mind the needs of the people you are training. If you have done a complete role/task analysis, you should have a pretty good idea of which product features are pertinent to your audience. Trying to cram every single feature into an initial training course will overwhelm and intimidate your students. In the beginning, most students just need a basic understanding of your product. Wait until after they have used your product for several months and have developed solid skills with its basic functionality before you offer additional courses about advanced features.

September 2006 – Is It Really a Training Problem? Getting to the Root of the Problem

Many times what is perceived as a training problem has deeper causes for which training is only part of the solution. Make sure you gather all the facts about an issue or problem before your begin a training project, and before you assume that training is the best solution. Many times what, at first glance, seems like a training problem really turns out to be a process or performance issue, and it may go beyond the scope of training. In short, identify the root cause of a business problem and determine the best solution, before implementing a training program to resolve it.

August 2006 – Start with a Role/Task Analysis

When designing a training course, first conduct a role/task analysis of your intended audience. A role/task analysis tells you what specific roles exist within an organization, the tasks for which each role is responsible, and what type of training is required for that role. Create specific training courses for each role. Each task performed within a role should map to a training lesson. This way you can quickly build a course structure with confidence that students will gain the skills and knowledge they need.

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