An employee training session may be a staff member’s first return to the classroom since high school or college days. For others, continuing education may be a regular part of their professional life. The skilled trainer must be prepared to create a learning environment conducive to both genres of students, frequently at the same time in the same session.
For many years, I trained new users on automated systems for the hospitality industry. Today, my work is in the government arena overseeing curriculum development and delivery for law enforcement personnel. While these experiences clearly represent two opposite ends of the training spectrum, I believe seven general principles apply to all professional training efforts regardless of subject matter.
- Keep to an agenda. A key prerequisite to classroom success is preparing a training agenda and sticking to it. No matter how skilled a teacher you are—or how much expertise you possess in the subject area—it is never a good idea to “wing it” in a training session. An agenda simultaneously assures that the trainer covers all key information and that material presentation follows a logical sequence.
- Know your students. Everyone’s learning style is different. So, if at all possible, familiarize yourself in advance with the background of students registered for the session. Also, take a few minutes on the first day to allow attendees to introduce themselves and share their skill level relative to the subject matter. These insights will help you predict who is likely to have an easy time grasping the material and who may not.
- Check retention periodically. Independent of any formal testing that may be necessary, it is important to assess students’ grasp of course content informally at various intervals across the training session. Everyone generally should be on the same page, although individual differences are likely. Ascertaining areas of confusion through question-and-answer sessions identifies content in need of further review and often provides a focus for class breakout sessions.
- Employ visual aids. In my experience, I have found visual tools to be particularly effective. I like flip charts and dry boards, and I use them for different purposes. Flip charts provide a great medium for recording the key concepts, ideas, or points I want the class to remember. I ask questions, record responses, and then post the pages around the training room. Dry boards can be an invaluable teaching device, particularly in presenting difficult concepts or clarifying material. I also use the dry board to record areas I need to research before the next class.
- Use various teaching techniques. While didactic teaching has its place in every classroom, switching between lectures, breakout sessions, and question-and-answer periods helps maintain students’ attention span. Leverage the enthusiasm of your “best” students to help other students, especially in breakout sessions. Appoint them as group leaders or pair them with students who are lagging behind the overall learning curve.
- Use real-life scenarios. In training exercises or case studies, present actual scenarios students might encounter on the job. As sessions typically combine individuals with different job responsibilities and functions, try to embrace that diversity in the examples you develop. Be attentive to the themes evident in student questions. They can be an invaluable source of future subject matter for case studies or in-class exercises.
- Use positive reinforcement. Rewards, no matter how small, are important devices to enhance knowledge acquisition and retention. Mild verbal praise (for example, feedback such as “great point” or “excellent answer” for a correct response or other class contribution) is a simple form of reinforcement that is effective in encouraging class participation. Even in adult learning situations, giving out candy or a similar small reward for correct answers can create classroom enthusiasm that bolsters learning.
Of course, trainer preparation prior to every presentation will ensure a positive learning experience for everyone involved. It is so easy to fall within the trap that reviewing content is not necessary because you’ve presented it so many times before. Go over the material you plan to present before you enter every training room. New experiences, new studies, and feedback from prior sessions all will affect content and its delivery. We live and work in a dynamic environment that means change is a constant. Stay abreast of change for optimal learning experiences.
If you follow these seven simple tips, the training session will not only meet all the course objectives but also yield satisfied participants who believe the experience was worthwhile on many levels.
Sheldon Royal, PMP, is a program manager for DHA Group in Washington, D.C., a management consulting and contracting firm primarily serving federal civilian and defense agencies. He possesses more than 10 years’ experience in program management, project management, account management, job task analysis, and change management in the government, information management, hospitality, and legal industries. He holds a B.A. in business administration and marketing and is PMP certified.