As a trainer, your role is to maximise learning. Delivering a course can be hard work. It requires preparation and careful planning. You need to spend valuable time during the delivery as well as before the course. Having gone through all the effort, if your delegates don’t learn anything new or forget most of the lessons taught shortly afterwards, you might as well not bother with the training.
To deliver a useful training course, you must consider the seven most important principles of learning. Without keeping these critical principles in mind, you risk delivering a poor course, alienating your delegates from the training subject and wasting your own time in the process.
The 7 principles are as follows:
Principle 1: Attention span is limited
People’s attention span is limited. With so much going on in the world and the ever-increasing number of “stuff” to pay attention to, patience is running thin.
Research shows that people become increasingly more interested in a topic within the first 10 minutes of being introduced to it. However, after 10 minutes their attention drops sharply. Within 30 minutes you will be struggling to hold much attention.
What does this mean for your training? Get to the point quickly when you introduce a subject. Next, move on to a related topic swiftly to keep them engaged and keep them following you along.
To keep their attention, you cannot risk delivering a passive course. You must use frequent training exercises and discussions that increase participation.
Principle 2: Learning requires motivation
Recall from your past experiences that if you were not interested in a topic, how easy or difficult you found the topic. It is most likely that you found it hard when you were not interested.
Similarly, unmotivated leaners don’t learn. People lose interest when they don’t know why they need to learn something. This is crucial when teaching adults. We cannot stress this enough. If delegates don’t know what you are trying to get at, their attention wanders off. Soon they will be on their mobile phones shopping for shoes or checking their social media feeds.
Make your content engaging. Always follow this proven technique when teaching someone on any topic:
Tell them what you are going to tell them
Tell them what you just told them
Let’s call this TTT. As it happens, it sounds very much like Train the Trainer (also known as TTT). There you go—you should never forget this now; apply TTT every time you Teach. It’s T’s all around…
Principle 3: The learning curve is not flat
People don’t learn about a given subject at a constant speed. There is always a learning curve involved while learning anything. As learning continues, people’s progress starts to slow down as they reach a plateau. Learners need to become confident about what they have learned and relate this to everything else they know, which is why they reach a learning plateau. After spending some time in the plateau, learners can follow a second learning curve and move on to more complex topics.
As a trainer, you must be aware of learning curves and how individual they are. Some people might be quicker to learn but require more time to reach the plateau. Others might learn slowly, but once they “get it”, progress rapidly. When running a training course, awareness of the learning curves is crucial since a training course is, by definition, more interactive than a lecture and hence tailored to an individual’s skills, knowledge and learning capability.
In practice, this means that the course should contain a lot of hands-on exercises to allow delegates progress on their own while being supervised and coached by you, the trainer. Periodic discussions and question/answer sessions will help learners reach their learning plateaus and get ready for the next phase of learning.
Principle 4: Short term memory is limited, long term memory is limitless
Over the years there has been a great deal of research on human memory. It is now well established that human memory works based on two related systems:
- Short term memory.
- There has limited capacity. You can hold about 7±2 items depending on circumstances or the individual. This was first shown by George Miller, which led to the magical number 7, plus or minus 2 (Miller 1956). Although recent research indicates that a more realistic figure is 4±1 units (Cowan 2001).
- There is limited duration. Short-term memory decays fast. You can hold information for about 15 to 30 seconds without a form of rehearsal (Atkinson and Shiffrin 1971).
- The encoding is mainly acoustic. We tend to use sound for short term memory, even coding visual information into sound.
- Long term memory. Our long-term memory is somewhat unlimited. For example, research by Tony Buzan shows that if an individual is shown 10,000 images and then is shown a control image, he can accurately tell whether the control image was part of the collection or not! Amazingly, even if the control image is inverted or flipped, the success rate is still very high (Buzan 2009). The research in this area shows that humans are highly visual and that our visual memory is quite strong. This led Buzan to invent mind mapping, to help visualise information and hence improve recall.
So, here is when it gets interesting. Recall that learning is defined as change in long-term memory. The path to long-term memory is through short-term memory. Now as you have seen, short-term memory seems to be very fussy—limited and fast decaying.
To strengthen holding items in memory, you have two powerful techniques at your disposal:
- Chunking. Thisis about grouping units into a cluster, so you can store a bit more in your short-term memory.
- Rehearsal. Mentally repeating helps keep an item in short-term memory for longer. Rehearsal is the key to long-term memory and subsequently learning.
So, how does this apply to training?
When it comes to long-term learning, the transition from short-term memory to long-term memory is critical:
- When presenting content, aim to present it in no more than seven parts. Help learners to familiarise themselves with smaller number of concepts quickly and efficiently so they are not overwhelmed.
- Use repetition and rehearsal, both short term and long term, along with spaced repetition, and visualisation for your delegates until the content is fully memorised.
This principle also suggests why we cannot learn too much too quickly. Trainers who fill a course or lecture with tons of content thinking that they are delivering a comprehensive up-to-date course are making a big mistake. Learners cannot take it all in as their short-term memory gets saturated and your effort will be wasted.
If you want to impress them or make them aware of some content, much like a presentation, this approach is fine, but don’t expect long-term learning. That only comes with rehearsal and practice. And as you might have heard, mastery comes with 10,000 hours of rehearsal, in the form of deliberate practice (Ericsson et al. 1993). You cannot cheat your own brain, nor those of your students!
Principle 5: People have different learning styles
People learn differently. There are many learning styles systems, such as Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory, Fleming’s VAK, Honey-Mumford Model, Gregorc Model, 4MAT, Howard Gardner’s Theory of Mind and many others. In addition, you also have numerous personality type systems categorising humans into various types—a famous one being MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator).
The essence of all these models is to make you aware that you cannot treat everyone the same. For example, in the VAK model, people generally have one of the following preferences:
- Visual. They like to see images, diagrams, words and illustrations to understand a given concept.
- Auditory. They like to listen to an explanation.
- Kinaesthetic. They like to learn by doing. For example, they prefer to hold an object in their hands, examine it and interact with it.
A good trainer should consider a variety of tools and methods to match a variety of learning styles. Accommodating all methods might not always be possible but it is possible to simulate conditions to cater for certain preferences by carefully planning and designing training materials and interactive exercises that meet each style’s needs.
Principle 6: Feedback is an essential part of training
Learning can be difficult and tiring. To keep learners motivated, a trainer must provide adequate and relevant feedback. However, not all feedbacks are good. When giving feedback, consider the following:
- Your feedback must aim to motivate rather than discourage or scare a leaner.
- Your feedback must make the learner feel more confident, not to destroy his self-esteem.
- Your feedback must be specific so the learner can benefit from it. A generic “You are doing well” might not be registered at all.
- Your feedback must reinforce new learning points and discourage old and bad habits.
- Your feedback must indicate the present state of learning to the learner and provide a way forward for the learner to move on to the next level.
Trainers must always be aware of the incredible power of positive feedback in encouraging learners to challenge themselves and push forward until they learn new concepts or techniques. A trainer’s role here can be critical since without feedback, learners would not know if they are doing well or which direction they should go next. Lack of adequate and specific feedback can considerably slow down the learning process and goes against the principles of accelerated learning.
Remember, 60% of factual information will be forgotten within 2 days if what was learned is not reviewed or rehearsed. Periodic review is much like a self-feedback. It is critical that leaners know about the potential memory loss. Properly designed training must consider this and provide course follow-up and action plans to reinforce learning and prevent learners from forgetting the content quickly.
Principle 7: Take advantage of all senses
Humans have five main senses. The primary ones for visual, sound and touch. Rather than appealing only to one of them such as sound, training can be greatly improved if all senses are engaged. This requires careful planning, use of quality training materials and introduction of interactive exercises that encourage use of other senses such as touch.
To summarise, to deliver a good course considering the following:
- You must establish the need before you embark on training anyone
- Attention span is limited, you must utilise methods to keep them engaged
- Get to the point quickly
- Short-term memory is limited and can be overwhelmed
- Use chunking
- Use repetition and rehearsal
- Use spaced repetition
- Appeal to visual brain and other sensors
- Structure any training using the TTT formula
- Apply Try, Practice, Demonstrate throughout your course
- Understand that delegates have different learning styles
- Make sure there is a feedback loop present which usually means you need a way to measure performance
Following these powerful guidelines allows you to provide fantastic courses that are well remembered for years to come. The training will prove to be a good expenditure of both your time and the learner’s time and of course, if your training is good, people will keep coming back for more.
Ponder over the above guidelines and score yourself from 1 to 5 on how much you use each or are aware of it while teaching. If you are not happy with your score, find out what you can do to improve your training delivery and take immediate actions.
Remember the last guideline above on measurement; if you want to improve your own training performance, you got to measure it—then you know what to do to improve it.