Sunday, June 01, 2008

How many objectives can a training session cover?

My favorite NLP presuppositions are:

  • People respond to their experience, not to reality itself
  • We already have all the resources we need or we can create them
  • If you want to understand, act.

These form the basis of my approach to teaching and what we call "experiential learning". A statement I've often heard in trainer discussions is - "But they need to know ____ as well!" This has often led me to think of whether there is a limit to the learning we can realistically transfer within a training session.

When I started off as a trainer, I was told that if you formulate learning objectives in the S (Situation), A (Action), R (measurable Result) format, then considering that your learners are unconsciously incompetent; to be able to raise their awareness to conscious competence, you should assign no more than 3-5 learning objectives to every 120 minutes of training. The number of objectives that you select would definitely depend on the complexity of the skill and the prior experience of the audience, but I've found this to be a good rule of thumb to follow.

This may seem like a very modest expectation from training, however I've observed from my experience that courses that are any more ambitious than this, invariably require continuous rework and are always in a state of flux. I have a couple of tips for anyone who's looking at designing new training:

  • Follow the SAR pattern to writing learning objectives. This is quite similar to the Given, When, Then format of writing Acceptance Criteria. For eg. lets consider a possible objective for Interview Skills

    Situation - In an interview
    Action - observe eye accessing cues, language and gestures
    Result - state an evaluation of whether the candidate is lying or not.

  • Once you have a list of possible objectives, sort them in descending order of importance. Agree this with another stakeholder, preferably the sponsor of the course.

  • Try to make a mental map of how many of these objectives you will be able to cover during the session through discussion and by modeling reality. Remember "telling-aint-teaching".

  • Set aside the objectives that seem to be unrealistic in light of the previous step. Remember to be flexible with this list as you progress with the the design and development of the session. Be sure to include the sponsor when deciding trade-offs.

  • When designing the session, include hooks to the unfulfilled objectives, to arouse your students curiosity about the topic. Ensure that you link to self study resource for those interested, so that the unfulfilled objectives can be achieved by those that demonstrate an interest.

  • Make sure you account for training downtime, such as questions, stretch breaks, minor off-topic discussions, difficult situations to facilitate when writing and sequencing

I expect resistance to this method, especially in strong hierarchical organizations, where most of the directives come from "above". One of the ways to mitigate this risk is to actively include the business user that expresses the initial training need and to use your training consultant hat to explain the perspectives surrounding each trade off. In my experience as a trainer, I've seen the expectation of a "training magic wand" being all too prevalent, where businesses are naive enough to expect 3 hours of training to cure a skill gap that could have been built over years. Including sponsors and business users in the design of your training solution ensures that the focus towards follow up actions, such as coaching or e-learning doesn't disappear.

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