Thursday, August 23, 2012

Practice Early and Coach the Details Later

By Shelley A. Gable

A typical training design is to start by telling learners everything we want them to know about a topic or a task, and then we eventually give them an opportunity to practice.

For a training project I recently started, a team member said something that resonated with me: Let’s make sure learners are practicing this stuff as early as possible. In other words, minimize the presentation and discussion at the start of a lesson, and unleash learners to practice performing new tasks and solving problems as quickly as possible.

That’s not to say we should push learners into practicing a task they’re completely unprepared for. After all, letting learners flounder too much can result in frustration, shaken confidence, and wasted time. Instead, the trick is to tell and/or show learners just enough to help them start trying a new task. Then, let them dive into a scenario, perhaps allowing them to experience some trial and error, and then offer additional information in the form of post-practice coaching.

What are the advantages of this approach?

Reduces cognitive overload early in the lesson.

Research on cognitive load tells us that people can only absorb a limited amount of information in a single sitting. So, if an eLearning lesson begins with several pages of new information, learners will likely forget a portion of that.

Why would we spend time presenting information that will likely be forgotten?

If we limit the amount of information a lesson initially presents, we increase the likelihood that learners will recall it. Prompting them to apply that new information as soon as possible further helps promote long-term recall. And, it helps ensure that we use training time productively.

To offer a very simple example, suppose an eLearning lesson teaches learners how to change an address in a customer database. You might start the lesson by simply showing them how to access the function, and then teach them about nuances later (e.g., which line to indicate an apartment number, proper abbreviations, forbidden characters, etc.).

Maintains attention.

We’ve all been there: Long lectures or pages of reading often leaves our minds to wander.

But if we’re in the midst of solving a challenge, we’re more likely to feel engaged. So, if we spend less time presenting information upfront, we might have fewer drifting minds. And, if training has a continuous pattern of short spurts of information followed by immediate application, learners might feel more accountable for paying attention to that information, knowing they will need to use it right away.

Increases reflection and processing.

Suppose you’ve only provided enough information at the start of a lesson to help learners ease into some initial practice. Chances are, there’s probably more they need to learn (e.g., consider the nuances of changing an address from earlier). By presenting this additional information after learners experience the task, you can now prompt them to think about it in the context of their experience.

For example, suppose the address change scenario that learners practiced right away included an apartment number…

If an initial presentation at the start of the lesson instructed learners to indicate an apartment number in Address Line 2 (for example), this fact may have just seemed like one tidbit in a sea of other facts at the start of the lesson. Therefore, learners may or may not recall it by the time they get to a practice scenario later.

If you wait to address it until after the scenario, you can now present it as a form of coaching and feedback. Learners will likely take interest in the information at that point, because they want to confirm whether they did it correctly during the practice scenario. So, you’ve increased their level of engagement with the fact and prompted them assess their performance. Even if they did it incorrectly during the initial scenario, they will likely feel a sense of accomplishment when they perform it correctly in a later scenario.

How do you do this?

Do you already make it a point to get learners “doing” as early as possible in training? If so, how do you accomplish it? And what benefits or challenges have you observed? 

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