3 Ways to Improve the Learning Environment

If you want to create a high-impact learning environment, start with genuine problems and end with real solutions. Avoid solutions that mask tactics as outcomes or call for miracles.

Sometimes it seems like we get caught up in the intricacies of instructional design or the bells and whistles of training technology and forget about the learners’ needs and the end result the training should achieve. In light of that, I’d like to propose three ways to improve the learning environment—they probably appear obvious at first glance, but, in my experience, they often are neglected.

1. Make It Relevant. At the heart of every effective learning environment lies a group of students who are excited about mastering the content. If you’ve ever taught a class of people who have come to the learning center kicking and screaming, then you know why I start any discussion of a learning environment with the importance of participant motivation.

So what can you do to ensure participants are motivated to learn? Nothing helps motivate participants more than the realization they’re about to learn something to make their pressing problems disappear. Nothing. When you drag people away from the workplace where they’re up to their neck in alligators, the training had better provide alligator repellant of some type.

That’s why savvy training designers refuse to produce and deliver any material that isn’t immediately relevant to the participants’ pressing problems. So start every training design with one question: “What do these people need to learn in order to be better prepared to solve their most immediate and important problem?” Design the training around those problems, and your topic will always be relevant and participants will always be motivated to learn.

2. Make It Helpful. Once you’ve identified a relevant topic, make sure the material you prepare offers genuine solutions. This recommendation seems obvious enough, but far too many training programs pretend to offer solutions when, in fact, they’re merely pointing to desired outcomes. This is particularly true when you teach interpersonal skills. When teaching people how to solve tough people problems, it is common for designers to swap outcome for tactics.

For instance, when teaching people how to begin a routine problem-solving discussion, a course I once attended suggested the trainees needed to “create a good relationship.” Who can argue with this? The only problem was this particular piece of advice was part of what they referred to as “skill building.” Unfortunately, it contained no skill whatsoever, merely an outcome—when you’re through, you should have a good relationship.

At some point, in order to be practical, you need to be tactical. That means when you’re teaching interpersonal skills, you have to teach actual behaviors. If not, people are forced to invent the skills on their own, or worse still, they think they’ve learned what to do, exit the training, face a tough situation, and don’t have a clue what they’re actually supposed to do. So don’t confuse outcomes with tactics.

3. Make It Real. In addition to masking outcomes as tactics, some designers build into every training session something I have come to call a “Red Sea Clause.” Here’s what it means. When Moses proposed to take the Children of Israel out of bondage, one of his followers asked him how he’d manage this monumental task. “It’ll be easy,” Moses explained. “We’ll put people in their wagons, gather their flocks, and head off into the wilderness. Eventually, we’ll arrive at the Red Sea.”

“And then what will you do?” the follower asked.

“Easy,” Moses explained, “God will part the Red Sea.”

For years, I’ve watched people deliver training that called for similar miracles. The training contained a detailed plan, but it wouldn’t work unless something magical happened. For example, in one course I attended, the leaders rolled out a complicated production system employees were supposed to use. It took thousands of hours and tens of millions of dollars to develop the system. Then it took dozens of hours to teach it. Buried deep inside the training manual was the following phrase: “Of course, the system will only work if employees willingly and ably embrace it.” The truth was, nobody wanted it, everyone was fighting it, and it was doomed from the beginning. The course called for a miracle.

If you think this type of naïve thinking is unusual, think again. Once I met with a personal trainer who said he had the perfect plan to help me in my quest to lose weight. He suggested I continue my rigorous workouts and then added the new “key to success.” “Here’s what you do,” he enthusiastically opined. “For dinner, load your plate up as normal.”

“And then what?” I eagerly asked.

“And then you put half of it back,” he said. “That way, you’ll cut your calories in half and lose the weight you need.”

Duh. I know how to cut my calories in half. What I don’t know is how to motivate myself to do so when I finish the light meal and still crave more food.

Not more than a half hour after finishing this unhelpful conversation, I tuned into a TV talk show where a national guru was offering up his advice for weight loss. “It’s simple,” he suggested. “Fast food and other fatty offerings taste good. Our body craves fast food. That’s why the industry has grown despite all the attention against the horrible health effects. So here’s what you have to do. You have to find a way to make healthy food more attractive.”

“Yes,” I thought to myself, and then, “How do I do that?”

But that was the end of the interview. He offered no advice whatsoever on how to make healthy food more tasty and desirable. Ah, yes, still another miracle.

So if you want to create a high-impact learning environment, start with genuine problems —pressing problems. End with real solutions. Avoid solutions that mask tactics as outcomes, offer up no tactics whatsoever, or call for miracles. That will save you a (Red) sea of trouble.

Kerry Patterson is the four-time New York Times best-selling co-author of “Crucial Conversations.” He has served as an expert in change management, interpersonal communication, and corporate training for more than 30 years and is the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development. For related information from Patterson’s co-authors, visit the Crucial Skills blog at www.crucialskills.com.