Effective training

Inspiration for developing and improving your own trainer practice
This article was originally co-authored by

11 November 2015

Do you know the feeling of participating in training where you have been sitting all day just listening and looking at countless PowerPoint slides? Where the time between the breaks has been far too long? Where the involvement of the participants has been limited to a couple of questions from plenum at the end of lengthy presentations?

If you have experienced just some of the above, you are not the only one!

Fortunately, training forms and methods are continuously being developed, and it is rarely quite as bad as the mentioned description. However, there is still room for improvement and development of the training discipline.

This article is about bringing the training discipline into focus and aims to provide you with inspiration for developing and improving your own trainer practice. The first step is to become explicit about your own practice as a trainer and to realise that the choices you make in the design phase and during the training must be conscious choices that support the purpose of the training and what is to take place after the actual training.

The article will introduce you to basic adult learning and provide you with applicable tools for understanding the trainer’s role and for designing learning processes with effect. Recent research shows that the effect and learning from traditional courses are insignificant if the learning is merely based on a single course or isolated modules, and if the learning is not designed as a process with focus on before, during and after. The article, therefore, offers a number of specific suggestions for how to design effective learning processes.

The article is targeted at instructors, internal and external consultants whose work includes elements of training and design of training, e.g. in connection with change projects, workshops, processes and specific training tasks.

The article is structured in three parts:

  • the trainer’s role and basic adult learning
  • design with focus on learning
  • and effect, design of the actual training situation

In Implement Consulting Group, we use the terms training, trainer’s role and training design rather than teaching. In training, there is an element of something active, and the word denotes that the participant’s learning is in focus. In addition, the term teaching is traditionally associated with the classroomform whereas training also includes on-the-job and in practice.

Teaching is a wide concept and comprises learning forms in the elementary school and upper secondary school as well as the lecture form of the universities. We especially seek to differentiate ourselves from the lecture form of the institutions of higher education – thus the term training.

The trainer’s role and basic adult learning

The trainer’s role – specialist expertise and process-related strength

The role as a trainer is characterised by focusing both on specialist and process-related competences. Specialist expertise implies special knowledge about the relevant subject which exactly you possess. At the same time, process-related competences are just as important in the training situation, i.e. handling the dynamics among the participants, the conflicts that arise as well as to master questioning techniques and methods for creating a comfortable environment, reflection, atmosphere and energy among the participants. As a trainer, you will, therefore, need to be able to provide ”expert answers”, stimulate reflection and handle what happens in the room.

Specialist amd process-related consultant competences

The trainer’s role, thus, has common traits with both the role as an advisor and a facilitator. The role as an adviser to a larger extent focuses on expert knowledge and providing answers and to a lesser extent on the process-related aspect of the training. The role as a facilitator, on the other hand, primarily focuses on the process-related aspect and only to a small extent on providing answers (part of the process-related toolbox is the same for the facilitator and the trainer).

As a trainer, your mission is to train people in either new knowledge, attitudes and/or new or changed behaviour. We consider the three elements separate, but interdependent. More or new knowledge neither ensures increased learning nor changed behaviour. Consequently, we practise all three elements and do not just add knowledge, but regard knowledge as part of being able to change behaviour or attitudes.

When, for instance, training in change management, we will present different approaches and theories in the field (knowledge), and the participants will get the opportunity to reflect on their own practice in terms of using the approaches (attitude). Finally, there will be practical exercises in relation to the participants’ own cases to ensure that the participants both know how to apply and are able to apply the tools in situations from their own work life (behaviour), e.g. training in questioning technique, drawing up a milestone plan for the participant’s own project, design of his/her own meeting or workshop.

Know the principles of basic adult learning

When training adults, five principles would be advantageous to know. If you incorporate these principles into your design and on the actual training days, you are well on your way to creating a favourable learning environment for your participants.

  1. Adults learn if they wish to and perceive a need to learn
  2. Adults learn by linking the learning to previous, current or future experiences
  3. Adults learn by practising what they have learned
  4. Adults learn through help and support
  5. Adults learn in an informal and safe environment

Below, the five principles will be elaborated with examples of strategies to be used for complying with them.

1. Adults learn if they wish to and perceive a need to learn

It is a well-known fact that adults only participate in competence development if it contributes to their professional or personal development, career or other life situation and thus has a clear purpose or meaning for the individual. The ideal situation is, of course, when the participants at your course show up fully engaged and cannot wait to use the tools. However, this is not always the case, but much can be done by the trainer to generate an urge and need for learning. You may, for instance, work with the participants’ expectations before, during and after your training:

Ideas for creating an urge and need before the training:

Send out inspiring welcome emails to the participants, letters, links to videos, a small comic strip or a postcard describing a clear purpose and learning objectives (i.e. what are the participants supposed to know and master at the end of the programme) and posing questions for reflection, e.g.:

A colleague who was to facilitate a change management training programme sent out a tube of toothpaste together with a welcome letter to the participants and asked them to use it. At the introduction to the training, only very few participants had used the toothpaste. The letter had indicated no clear purpose, and the participants saw no meaning of why to use it. It was a new brand, and the taste was different from the usual toothpaste. The learning included that the participants were to be exposed to change themselves. Thus, the toothpaste served as a teaser for the training.

Another good idea is to arrange a common kickoff for the participants and their managers where the purpose and the elements of the training are presented as a whole. Here, the participants get the opportunity to share their expectations, influence the content and get to know you and the other participants. If you orchestrate your kickoff in the right manner, you have already succeeded in creating interest and ownership with both the participants and their managers, which is crucial if you are to ensure transfer between the training and the participants’ everyday work.

Ideas for creating an urge and need during the training:

After welcoming the participants and presenting the purpose and agenda, ask them to reflect on their thoughts concerning the application and relevance of the training in their everyday work (this also relates to principle 2 about linking learning to previous, current or future experiences). Even though you have done your preliminary work thoroughly, there may still be participants who pose the question:

It may feel uncomfortable to be asked questions like these, and, therefore, it is important not to be on the defensive, but actually to ”go with the current” as a colleague puts it. This is where to unfold your process-related competences as a trainer. You must welcome questions like these as you can be absolutely certain that there is more than one among the participants who has the same question, but has not worked up the courage to ask you.

Thus, appreciate questions and go with the current. To go with the current entails being curious and asking second-order questions, e.g. by saying:

Elaborate on your thoughts – in relation to what specifically do you have difficulties seeing the purpose? If this was to be more meaningful to you, what should the content be?

Often your curiosity in relation to the participant will lead to a constructive dialogue. A good idea is to sum up your conversation during a break where you can talk to the person in question one-to-one. Situations may arise where the participant should not have been selected to participate in the training, and it is your responsibility to handle this together with the person. By handling such questions and situations, you will also provide a breeding ground for an informal and safe learning environment, cf. principle 5.

Furthermore, you can use the room for creating an atmosphere that supports the purpose of the training (this will be elaborated on later in the article). Last but not least, let your own enthusiasm and commitment shine through. When the participants see your enthusiasm in relation to the subject matter, the participants’ learning and the training days, it will affect their desire to learn.

2. Adults learn by linking the learning to previous, current or future experiences

This entails that you must be sensitive in relation to adapting your content and process to the participants’ situation, levels of experience and specialist competences and give the participants the opportunity to reflect on how the content and the tools relate to their own experiences. It is also important to use the participants’ own cases and examples from their everyday work, which enables you to increase transfer, i.e. the transferability to the participants’ practice. Bjarne Wahlgren, Director of the National Research Centre of Competence Development at the Danish School of Education and researcher in transfer between education and work, states: 

It is about incorporating practice into the training and training the learnings in relation to different situations of application. The more the training incorporates elements from the situation of application, the more transfer. And the more varied examples we incorporate, the wider the transfer.

3. Adults learn by practising what they have learned

This entails that you must always include an element of training or exercise in relation to what you present. Research shows that we remember:

  1. 10% of what we read
  2. 20% of what we hear
  3. 30% of what we see
  4. 50% of what we see and hear
  5. 60% of what we reflect
  6. 80% of what we say
  7. 90% of what we say and do

Therefore, if your aim is learning, replace the long lectures and presentations with short, precise presentations and exercises in relation to the subject presented. For several years, ASTD (American Society for Training and Development) has carried out a training programme for trainers called Telling ain’t Training illustrating the point that if we want to carry out training, it is not sufficient to give a presentation.

4. Adults learn through help and support

During the training, you must be available to the participants when they e.g. are out training in groups or solving exercises at the tables. The participants do not always approach the trainer if they need help for an exercise, but if you make sure to approach the participants while working, it is absolutely certain that they will have some questions for you. At the same time, you can provide the participants with specific, caring and constructive feedback and ensure that they are on the right track in solving their exercises.

In case more than one trainer is assigned to the programme, it is an advantage to split the groups between you, allowing you to form a special relation to some groups and gain knowledge of their work. A good idea is also to encourage the participants to help and support each other during the programme, thus creating cooperation and team spirit. A possibility is also to let experienced participants take on the role as resource persons whom the other participants can turn to for help.

5. Adults learn in an informal and safe environment

Creating a safe environment is your responsibility as a trainer. It is possible to learn under circumstances which are not perceived as safe, and it appears that we learn and remember extremely well what takes place under circumstances in which we have felt uncomfortable, afraid or in some other way have been beyond our comfort zone. However, this is not the type of learning we want to foster at training programmes as learning under such circumstances will always be associated with negative feelings. An example is people who have had some bad teaching experiences from when they went to school and who, thus, show resistance as soon as they enter a setting reminding them of their childhood classroom as it is associated with negative feelings.

In the Danish book Kompetenceudvikling og videnmedarbejdere i staten (2006) (competence development and knowledge workers in the public sector), Professor Henrik Holt Larsen describes three zones in which employees may be when developing competences: the comfort zone, the stretch zone and the stress zone. The comfort zone is the zone in which you draw on known methods, your experience and routine. The stretch zone is the zone where you, based on own experience, break new ground, i.e. test new methods in line with already known methods. The stress zone occurs when you are in so deep that you find yourself struggling to survive.

Your training and the participants’ learning must take place in the stretch zone. This entails that you must challenge the participants in such a way that they step out of their comfort zone, but without bringing them into the stress zone. We often work with the phrase an appropriate disturbance – a concept stemming from the Chilean biologist Humberto Maturana. An appropriate disturbance challenges the participants in such a manner that they learn without being too disturbed.

Before the training days, you may already perform some activities to establish contact to the participants and create an atmosphere, e.g. sending out welcome emails/letters written in an informal language. Emphasise that it is OK to make mistakes as the setting is indeed training and thus learning. If possible, use metaphors such as: For some, the training programme can be compared to when you learn how to drive a car. You always start out in a closed area on a test track where you can make as many mistakes as it takes before actually getting out in the traffic – always accompanied by a trainer.

Remember to use suitable metaphors which do not patronise the participants. If you have spent some time on increasing your knowledge of the participants before the programme, e.g. through visits, interviews, kickoff etc., you will have an idea of which type of metaphor would suit the situation. A good idea is also to prepare small check-in exercises shortly after you have welcomed the participants where they talk in pairs or in small groups or icebreakers for the entire team in order to obtain knowledge of each other. You can also create a safe environment by being curious and sensitive in relation to the participants and by creating space for wonder and questions.

The text above is an extract – you can download the entire article at the top of this page.

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