Understanding Your Learner

This is the first in a series building on the core concepts explored in Telling Ain’t Training. Click here to read the rest of the series.

Understanding Your Learner – What’s Your Approach?

When designing trainings, how often have you considered the learner? And in what capacity? Do you think about your delivery method? What about the classroom environment? A dozen things might go through your mind as you work off of your mental checklist. Before we get there let’s take a moment to think a little differently about what training means and align on what it should accomplish.

Telling Ain’t Training starts with a few key points centered around understanding your learners before they even step foot into your classroom, chief among them the tenant that we should be building trainings for the needs of the learners; investigating their roles, responsibilities and prior experience in order to build content that’s meaningful and relevant for them.

What Do You Want to Accomplish?

According to the authors, what we do falls into three categories:

  • Training – Is the goal to teach participants how to complete a step-by-step task?
  • Instruction – Is the goal to teach participants how to react in a situation with one or more variables?
  • Education – A culmination of life experiences and learning principles that go beyond reproducing or inferring; the road to expertise.
The purpose of training, instruction and education is to transform the learner, not transmit data. We want the learner to be able to apply what has been communicated and not just repeat it back.

Find Your Center of Focus

There’s a maxim repeated at the beginning of the book – educators must be “learner centered, performance based.” This encompasses not just your delivery but also the content you build, where you build it, and how you interact with participants. Lose sight of this and you risk losing your credibility and your learner’s interest and respect.

Learner Centered Means Adapting

How we learn is part of our genetic make up. Garden’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences tells us that we need to negotiate different senses and learning types in order to really make teachings stick. The question is how to cater to an audience you’ve never met. Educators can take advantage of what we know about the human body to build flexible courses that are designed to engage different types of learners.

Think About It!

Humans can store massive amounts of data. The issue lies in retrieving it. Assuming that it’s relevant to the learner, then organization is the key. Consider the acronym PEMDAS and the mnemonics My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. Can you remember what they mean? If the answer is yes, when was the last time you needed to use that information? Chances are you haven’t consciously thought about either in a long time but the information still lives on. That’s the power of organization coupled with effective teaching and the human brain.

This, of course, doesn’t mean the classes where we learned these pieces of info were perfect but rather that someone stumbled upon a great memory technique that may or may not have translated into other parts of the curriculum. For example, I can’t readily recall most of what I learned in Earth Science but I vividly remember Algebra. The teacher included hands on and group activities, employed a reward system and used visuals and audio cues to draw connections between prior knowledge and newer, more complex pieces of information.

Put it in practice!

Make a list of ways you can engage your audience. Include exercises and content that appeal to the following:
  • Musical-rhythmic and harmonic.
  • Visual-spatial.
  • Verbal-linguistic.
  • Logical-mathematical.
  • Bodily-kinesthetic

Self Directed Learning as a Training Solution

This is part of a 3-part series focusing on applying adult learning theory in the workplace. To see the other articles, view A Brief Intro to Adult Learning Theory and Using Inter-team Collaborations to Promote Critical Thinking Skills

Current Problem

Where I currently work, we are finding that our instructors need and crave more targeted professional development. As mentioned in the Methodology section, adults want to know that what they are learning is relevant and has immediate application. If there is something that an instructor needs to know to do his/her job, then it is our responsibility to provide it. As a relatively new company, our resource library is limited and does not necessarily address the different skill gaps of our instructors, nor the levels at which they need to address them. In other words, we aren’t practicing differentiated learning. We are taking a one size fits all approach that leaves some instructors feeling lost and others feeling stagnant.

Proposed Solution

At the very simplest – build a searchable repository of professional development resources and pair this with the observations and assessments that are already happening. Ensure that all instructors across all campuses have access to this database and leverage instructor and employee knowledge to further populate it.

It’s extremely important that the resources you provide are accessible, relevant and accurate. Forgetting these simple guidelines can result in frustration (why do I need to learn this?), confusion (what does this mean/this contradicts something else), and resentment (I have to pay/drive an hour out of my way for this information) from learners.

Why Self Directed Learning?

You’re covering a few bases with this approach, most of which are covered in other parts of this site. Above all else, you are providing adults with actionable and applicable items. They can pursue as little or as much as they want to in order to meet the benchmarks set forth by their managers. They can also choose to expand their knowledge outside of the provided resources and are encouraged to improve their in class practice with the support of their instructional leaders.

In a classroom setting, this can be a useful tool for students who often finish early and crave additional knowledge. Conversely, it’s also a great tool for a student who is having trouble grasping a concept that everyone else has mastered. The missing information may be critical to the student’s success, so it cannot be glanced over. Instead, you can provide articles, textbooks, videos or other resources to allow the student to learn the concept on his/her own.

What it Looks Like

For me, this looks like a centralized web-based system that is managed by the instructional leaders across all campuses. Because this will be used by all instructors and is part of the message and culture of the company, it’s important that the information submitted is vetted and that it aligns with what you want to see in the classroom.

For you, this depends on the systems and process already in place for learning. Do you have a learning management system (LMS) like Canvas, Blackboard, Oracle or Schoology? If you answered yes, there might already be add-ons or functionality that allow you to build resource libraries. You may also be able to create videos, quizzes and other assessments that are specific to the goals of your course.

If you answered no, you can still create a system that ticks those three boxes. If you are working in an offline environment, have a listed of links, books, videos, etc to provide to students. Or, if you have books or articles in the classroom, suggest the student has a look during the break. You can also build a simple website, like this one, to act as an extension of the classroom materials.

How can I make this work for me?

SDL is best used when:

  • There are small or simple tasks the audience needs to know before you can move forward. This is sometimes called pre-work and has been used in as a requirement for trainings and classes.
  • A learner is struggling during class but you are unable to a)spend anymore time on the subject, b) provide the depth of knowledge necessary for understanding or c) adjust the lesson to address his/her preferred learning style.
  • A learner is excelling and requires more stimulus to remain engaged in the lesson.

Want to give it a shot? Download this Adult Learning Application Cheatsheet to get started.

Using Learning Contracts to Facilitate Success

Learning contracts can be a great tool to clearly define course or training expectations for the instructor/trainer and the student/employee. Although an employer may hope that information provided in a training environment is clear and relevant, it’s necessary to take into account context. Your audience needs to know why they are learning this information and how they are expected to apply it.  Take a look at the learning contract (above or view the PDF here) and course description (below), that I created for my sample ‘Data Management Across Systems’.

Sample Course: Data Management Across Systems

Course Description

This course has been designed to assist Data Administrators in evaluating current data collection systems in their department or company. Regardless of the size or purpose of your organization, you collect data in one form or another. Some of us are used to the old paper and pen method while some of us are almost completely digital. Both systems have pros and cons, which we will discuss in this course. Knowing the reason your company collects various types of data, who the responsible parties are and what the output format will be, has a great bearing on the systems you use and the issues you will face. We will take a look at all of these factors over the next 5 weeks to help you lead or support the implementation of more accurate and robust data collection.

 

Creation of a Learning Contract

Each of you come from a different background and may have slightly different expectations for this course. The purpose of this learning contract is to ensure each student sets and completes his/her objectives. The contract is between the student and the instructor, created as a way to clearly communicate course expectations for both parties. It will be completed at the end of the first week so that you have an idea of the material that will be covered and the options for projects used to demonstrate learning.

This contract should be personal to you and focus on what you intend to get out of this course. To help you begin this process, please complete the KWL chart provided on the first day of class. Use this document, along with the course description to begin developing objectives. During the submission of the Learning Contract, the instructor will meet with you to provide feedback. Once it is finalized, both the instructor and the student will agree on at least one in-person check-in and sign the contract. A copy will go to the student, one to the instructor and one will be kept on file with the department, to be revisited during the follow up meetings to ensure the objectives are being met.

After reading through the information, think about how learning contracts can be introduced in your learning environment to facilitate success.  Does this change the way you approach teaching or training? Are there any aspects of this that you can implement now?