This post is part of the “Effective Technical Trainer” series.
I knew I was in trouble when I walked into a week-long Microsoft Access on the first day of class as a student and noticed that there were no computers.
"Is this the where the Access class is being held?" I asked the stern-looking man sitting at the desk.
"Yes, have a seat." He picked up his clipboard. "Name please?"
“But....but where are the computers?” I asked.
“Computers will not be necessary for this course,” the instructor responded firmly. “This is a lecture-based course.”
Needless to say, it was an extremely long week. I was lucky if I retained 5 percent of what was taught – if even that. If you’ve never been yammered at continuously from 8:00 to 4:30 for five consecutive days, I do not recommend it.
Way too many technical training classes are spent with students staring at their monitors for hours at a time while the instructor drones on and on in front of the class. Such classes are not only boring, but ineffective (not to mention agonizing!) as well. The instructor has no idea how much learning is actually taking place. With little or no personal interaction with the students, it's impossible to measure any sort of competency. It's also much easier in a lecture type of class for the student to “hide in the background” and even shut themselves off from the learning process.
When developing curriculum and/or conducting a technical training class, I apply four techniques which not only assist the students in retaining the information from the class, but also make the class more interesting as well. These are: The Big Picture, Assisted Exercise, Unassisted Exercise, and Review/Questions.
1. The Big Picture
The first step is the “lecture” portion of the class. During this stage, the instructor provides an introduction or “big picture” of a particular concept or procedure, using visual aids, metaphors and analogies to facilitate learning. During this overview, the students should not attempt to follow along on their computers but rather have their full attention focused on the instructor’s explanation. The goal here is an understanding of the basic concepts of the material. It's during this step that any terms with which the students may be unfamiliar are defined.
2. Assisted Exercise
Once all of the students are clear on the basics, the instructor then moves onto an exercise which demonstrates the procedure or concept with the students following along. For instance, if the concept that was introduced in Step 1 was the creation of Microsoft Access select queries, the instructor would build such a query, with the students following along on their own computers, mimicking the steps of the instructor. The instructor explains the reason behind each step, tying the explanation back to the “Big Picture” where appropriate. The purpose of this step is to help the students take their first steps and assist them should they have any difficulties along the way. It is important to test comprehension after this step with questions to ensure that students actually understood the steps they performed during the exercise before they move on to working on their own.
3. Unassisted Exercise
During this stage, the students work on one or more unassisted exercises. This is the step which demonstrates if and how much the students have learned. I also find that it is during the unassisted exercise where most of the questions arise. I've conducted training classes where, after having worked on exercises together with the students, I believed that they had clearly understood the concepts. I saw no confused expressions or glazed-over eyes. When asked if they understood the material, the students all nodded their heads in agreement. However, when it came time to put the concepts into practice with unaided exercises, it became evident that the students, in fact, did not understand the lesson.
During the unassisted exercise, it's important for the instructor to walk around the room making himself or herself available for questions. Those students who were perhaps too shy to ask questions in front of the entire class may be more apt to ask a question in a one-to-one situation, rather than when the instructor is in front of the room in an “authority” position. A lot of valuable learning takes place during the unassisted exercise during which the trainer walks around providing individual guidance. Whatever confusion or lack of understanding the students experience become apparent in this step. Again, it's essential to ensure that competency has been attained before moving onto the final step.
This last step is an overall review of the concept or procedure. This is the instructor’s last chance to verify that understanding and learning has occurred. I prefer to wrap up each lesson with a question and answer period to test competency of the material presented or with an open discussion of the material. Any remaining questions or confusion should be cleared up in this step. The instructor should not move onto the next new topic until he or she is confident that everyone understood the lesson and that actual learning took place.