A wise man once said: “Lectures can be interesting, but when we’re trying to become proficient in a new technology lectures don’t work well because people check out mentally. They aren’t able to follow unless there’s some hands-on component where they can try something out, then ask questions when things don’t work the way they expect.”
That wise man is Dave Wade-Stein, senior instructor for DevelopIntelligence. His first foray into teaching was more than 30 years ago. Since then he’s taught in universities, the Navy, and in corporate environments. He also has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology.
Lectures can be great, he said. Who doesn’t love to listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson? But when the subject matter is technical in nature, lectures aren’t always the right approach for learning.
Training Should Be Hands-On and Applicable
Too often technical training doesn’t work because the courses simply aren’t hands-on enough. If you’re lecturing without also offering labs, stop it immediately. Engineers and technical talent need not only to learn new material, they must be able to try it out. That means we need to avoid showing slides and screenshots, and instead, get interactive.
In a hands-on training situation, students can make mistakes, which are crucial to learning, and they can get an idea of how something works. When they try something and it inevitably doesn’t do what’s expected, students should have an opportunity to interact with the instructor to clarify their understanding. “Lectures don’t work because people are not able to completely focus,” Wade-Stein explained. “They’re hoping to become proficient in a technology; that can only happen by actually using that technology.”
Most companies don’t have the time, resources or inclination to offer employees training they won’t need on the job. But to truly promote knowledge retention, learning leaders need to think about why employees are in training in the first place. If the goal is to train employees on technologies that they desperately need, such as transitioning a team from one technology or platform to another, or on-boarding new employees, a hands-on learning delivery approach is the way to go. “It’s like anything else,” said Wade-Stein. “Any skills you don’t use regularly are going to disappear slowly but surely.”
Two to three days of class at a time, broken up by a rumination and application period where learners go back to immediately use what they’ve learned on the job, often work well. Learners can then go back to class if needed, in order to build on their newly-acquired knowledge.
“We get a lot of mileage out of intensive two-, three-, and four-day training programs. We engage in hands-on training and lab work, and actually have students think in the process,” said Wade-Stein. “With lecturing we sort of passively listen and maybe pick up material, but we’re less likely to think critically about it – what would happen if I do this? That’s more likely to emerge in a hands on setting.”
Problem Solving, Games, and Writing Code
Engineers and other technical talent often like to solve problems; learning should court that preference. Take programmers in a Python class, for instance, where the group already knows other programming languages. The class should demonstrate the particular language features of Python – some of which overlap with other languages, and some of which demonstrate new capabilities learners have never seen before – offer examples, then ask the programmers to write code using the features they just learned.
“I would solve a problem for them that uses a particular language construct such as nested for loops,” said Wade-Stein. “So they see how those work in Python for a different problem. Then their assignment is write a program using nested for loops to find prime numbers, or program a game which makes use of the same concept.”
Training should be incremental. When teaching a programming language, each new part builds on the previous one. Programmers and developers need to be able to stop and try each new concept. “It’s definitely a learn-by-doing kind of thing,” he explained. “Teach me something, I try it. Teach me something else, I try it. That’s antithetical to lecturing.”
Wade-Stein likened technical training to building a house. You can tell someone how to build a house, and go through all of the necessary steps. But unless they see the house being built, and try the steps out for themselves, it would be difficult to actually build one. On the other hand, if you watch someone framing a house, and have an opportunity to work with them during the process, you’ll have a much better chance of replicating the plumbing, electrical and other steps, and handling any problems that may crop up.
“Obviously people have choices in how they learn new material,” said Wade-Stein. “We’ve found that in-person, customized classroom training has the most impact. You owe it to your employees to do as much of that as you can in order to maximize the benefit from the learning activity.”