Case Study: eLearning Engagement

My boss and I have been wanting to attend a course on project management for some time and were looking forward to a week-long workshop later this month. Until it was canceled. So we made a pact to complete a series of eLearning modules that covered the same content. We agreed to meet weekly to check in and share key learnings from the various modules until we completed the course and passed the accompanying exam for certification. Following is a recap of our experience plus expert commentary on how to move forward.

The Situation

Realizing we wouldn’t be able to attend a specific project management course, my boss and I chose to enroll in an 8-module eLearning course that covered the same content. At the end of the course, a certification exam would be waiting for us.

More than “certification,” our motivation for completing this course was twofold:

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Transfer of Training: A Case Study

I had an opportunity to attend a day-long training session called Hiring Winners which was delivered by a facilitator from Washington Employers. And over the next month, an amazing thing happened. I found that I was immediately using concepts and skills developed during this session. Following is a brief description of how this course seems to have hit upon the Holy Grail of training and development: actual skills transfer from the training room to everyday practice.

The Situation

Working for a rapidly growing organization, our HR team offered the opportunity for hiring managers to spend a day focused on our recruiting and hiring skills. This presented two immediate benefits:

1)      general professional development on an immediate need, and

2)      development of a common, organization-wide experience and language when it comes to recruiting and hiring as we go forward

The Training

Every participant was given a manual as the day started and we spent the day working our way through the manual. The course design included lecture, small group activities, large group discussions and role-plays.

The Transfer of the Training

Probably the most essential element of the session was a series of small group activities in which we were asked to develop a hiring plan and to develop behavior-based interview questions for an actual job for which we would soon be recruiting and hiring. The real-life nature of this activity and opportunity to leave the workshop with an actual plan that could be implemented right away led me to use these tools the following week.

A colleague of mine from India happened to be in town when this course was offered and brought some of her key learnings back to share with our co-workers in New Delhi. Immediately upon her return, she led a 60-minute session in the Delhi office to share highlights and to begin finding ways to transfer the lessons for our India-based context. The team then decided on and implemented several improvements to our ongoing hiring process in India. The team will have a longer session to discuss key concepts from this course after the new year.

What made this Course Sticky?

When so many other courses and workshop manuals simply gather dust on someone’s desk or bookshelf, what made this course achieve transfer of training?

There were several key factors that led to the immediate application and transfer of skills from our training room to our day-to-day routine.

Supervisor Support

My supervisor also attended this session and asked our team to begin using these new skills. He also set the expectation that lessons learned would be shared with other team members – both in the US and in India – who were unable to attend this session.


In espousing his theory on how adults learn best, Malcolm Knowles insisted that adult learners thrive when the education they receive can solve an immediate problem. As our organization (and more specifically, as my team) grows, we’re using hiring skills every day. This course allowed us an opportunity to re-visit our current process and make improvements in the moment during the actual training session. And with interviews already on my Outlook calendar, this was the perfect time to develop more effective interview questions.

Facilitation and Course Design

The facilitator was prepared, had obviously given this presentation in the past, provided a smooth delivery, and offered plenty of time for small and large group discussions. She delivered a course that was designed to offer three things that were of immense value to us: new content, a forum for staff from across the entire organization to discuss issues and align on processes, and an opportunity to either revise or create new ways to recruit and hire top-notch candidates.

Will our organization realize the return on the investment we were seeking when we brought Washington Employers in to facilitate this workshop? It’s too early to tell. But if an early indicator is whether or not people actually use the skills they learned in the training room, then we seem to be off to an unusually good start.

Know someone who could use some help designing learning experiences that will transfer of training from the training room into the real world? Get in touch with us.

Case Study: The Gamification of the Foster Care System

In 2010, I was asked to help design a 2-day training curriculum.  In a stroke of what I considered at the time to be genius, I worked with another instructional designer to create a board game as a final assessment activity.  As I wrap up Gamification Week on the Train Like A Champion blog, I present the following case study to offer details on how this situation played out.  Would you have done anything differently?  Add your thoughts to the comments section.

The Problem

A non-profit organization had been awarded funding to create a training curriculum to assist professionals in the foster care system to improve outcomes for adolescent youth who “age out” of foster care.  These professionals would be asked to assist youth in envisioning a healthy and successful future while addressing the looming uncertainties of access to health care, higher education and independent living.

The Solution 

A 2-day training curriculum was designed that included theory, best practices and job aids such as a specific checklist for the professionals to use when interacting with the adolescent youth.  In order to tie all of the content together and to assess whether or not the learners “got it,” the designers crafted a final activity in the form of a board game.

In order to advance through the board game, different learners were given different dice – some had 6 sides, some had 12 sides, some had 18 sides.  Before reaching the end of the game board, learners needed to respond to a number of challenges an adolescent youth might face – an encounter with a relative that would expose the youth to some bad habits, some type of housing crisis, a problem at school.  If the learner reached the end of the game board without having helped the youth with all of these challenges, the youth would “age out” of the foster care system without being prepared.  Learners were required to use the job aids and checklists they were given throughout the training to assist them through the game (and so that trainers could assess whether or not learners could properly use the tools).

Learners with 18-sided dice moved through the game much more quickly (and generally much less successfully) than learners with 6-sided dice.  This was an intentional design element to simulate the fact that some professionals would be working with youth who were much closer to “aging out” than other professionals, and it would be important to be prepared for the inconsistent and unfair nature of the work.

The Results

Initially confusion reigned.  There were so many elements and tasks that learners had to complete, very few learners finished the game successfully.  Challenge – almost to the point of being impossible to be successful in the game – was an intentional design element.  The game designers wanted professionals to understand the difficult nature of their work.  However, because it was so challenging, some of the learning points became lost in the confusion and frustration felt by the learners.  The designers allowed trainers the latitude to revise the game rules in order to simplify the activity.  When they interviewed the curriculum’s beta testers, the designers discovered that some trainers remained faithful to the game rules stating that it was useful in reinforcing the skills and tools introduced during the training.  On the other hand, some beta test trainers had adjusted the rules though they still found the game helpful.  Some trainers discarded the activity altogether.

An Expert Breaks Down The Gamification Aspect

By nature, humans are a competitive lot, so after spending nearly two days together the participants of this workshop were allowed to “win” by playing a board game with their colleagues. By using media (a game board & dice) that most people have used before in social or familial settings the initial introduction immediately evoked a sense of fun.  Although the true training objective was to practice fluently & spontaneously using the tools introduced and having conversation with integral components embedded in these conversations, some participants were focused on “winning.” From a trainer’s perspective, I like to sum this up as “whatever it takes to get them engaged!” This game turned out to be a great interactive capstone experience, mixing fun, competition and skills practice, while sprinkling in scenarios in which participants may not have yet experienced outside the classroom in order to prepare them for “the real world.”

– Peter Dahlin, MS, Principal of Dahlin & Associates Consulting

Additional case studies with expert commentary are also available on the Train Like A Champion blog.

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Case Study: Converting from Classroom-based Training to e-Learning

Putting together an interactive case study for learners followed by an in-depth de-brief is one of the most effective training strategies I know.  But what happens if an experienced facilitator isn’t always available to lead such a session?

Part 1: The Case Study

The Problem

By September 2011, my organization had replaced an old, log book-based “database” with a new IT system across multiple locations.

A tale of two databases

A tale of two databases

While managers complied with the compulsory use of this new IT system, the benefits for individual and organizational performance improvement weren’t readily clear.  I designed a training session (click here to see the actual lesson plan) in which managers would run a report generated from the new IT system and use it as a data point to have a one-on-one conversations with a fictional staff member.  The session required that the participants use critical thinking skills and it required constant feedback from a facilitator throughout the activity.  It led to some significant ah-ha moments for the managers in how they could use the IT system to drive performance.

Unfortunately this training session cannot be repeated every time there is a new manager.  It requires a skilled facilitator and generally works best in a group setting.  I wondered if there was a way to replicate this learning experience via elearning.

The Solution

My organization had worked with an elearning programmer in the past, but we had never done scenario-based elearning.  There would need to be some significant branching, and we didn’t have a big budget.

In the end, the elearning programmer used Captivate to create the branching scenarios and did some custom programming and graphic design as well.  We ended up with a program that not only replicated the learning objectives and real-life challenges of the original instructor-led session, we were also able to offer three scenarios to learners (the instructor-led session only featured one scenario).

Learner is presented with three choices

Learner is presented with three choices

Then the learner can see what an employee "thinks" of the choice

Then the learner can see what an employee “thinks” of the choice

The learner also receives an actual responses from the employee

The learner also receives an actual response from the employee

Finally, the learner receives feedback from a virtual coach

Finally, the learner receives feedback from a virtual coach

The Results

There was a learning curve involved in working on scenario-based elearning which meant development took a little longer than I anticipated.  Additionally, we originally took an “if you build it they will come” attitude, thinking once we announced that this course was available, managers would flock to enroll and complete the course.  We’ve had to re-think the way we marketed the course and are preparing to “re-launch” the course now.

One manager who piloted this elearning module has said it was helpful for her. She would like her supervisory staff to use it.  Once professional development plans (PDPs) are in place for other managers, this course will be recommended for a broader group of learners.

Part 2: What the Experts Say

A Good Beginning… There’s Potential For So Much More

“The simulation-like approach is one of my favorites because it provides a high level of ‘dialogue’ in the learning experience.  By providing a series of questions with three realistic alternatives (and it can be very challenging to write realistic and appropriate questions), learners enter into a dialogue that approximates an actual conversation.  This approach makes the learning more appropriate, more realistic and generally more fun!

It would also be exciting to extend this dialogue-based approach so that it not only included closed-loop communication between the learner and the on-line coach but also if you could introduce opportunities to engage in an open-loop conversation.  This would provide users the opportunity to post comments and exchange observations with other learners.  Open-loop would allow for another level of conversation to take place, increase the level of participation, and extend the learning experience beyond the confines of the e-learning module. Examples of open-loop communications in e-learning can be seen at”

Mike Culligan, Director of Last Mile Learning, LINGOs

Branching Scenarios Are Worth The Extra Effort And ROI!

“Branching, scenario-based learning allows the learner to make mistakes and take risks that might have dire consequences in real life but are safe in a simulated environment.  This allows the learner to practice critical thinking and analysis of a situation that isn’t always ideal, but most likely reflects a real-life situation.  The images of the people with their thoughts and dialogue add in extra clues that a manager, if perceptive, can use to help tailor their response.  Of course, in person, we will not have access to a person’s internal voice, but we can observe body language to give us hints of how they may really feel or what they may be thinking versus what they say to us.  The real-life photos (as opposed to avatars) in this course really helped bring it to life!

Although creating a robust simulation like this takes a knowledgeable SME and a sophisticated ID/ELD, taking ILT material and turning it into WBT is a huge cost savings when your audience is worldwide.  The course will pay for itself in the savings of facilitator/ learner travel, especially if there is high attrition for the role assigned this training.”

Cynthia  Elliot, CEO,  Sage eLearning Group

eLearning Case Study: Going to the Next Level

Wayne was looking to take his eLearning design to the next level – instead of a series of PowerPoint-like slides that learners click through followed by a quiz at the end, he wanted something more engaging and effective.  Part 1 of this eLearning case study includes the background and choices that were made.  Part 2 of this eLearning case study features advice from eLearning and instructional design professionals.

Part 1: eLearning Case Study

The Challenge:

Wayne had been working as the learning manager for a small firm specializing in online advertising and social media marketing for about four years.  Prior to that, he led a team of online advertising and social media specialists for six years.  He has deep knowledge of the industry and made it a point to continue to stay on top of industry trends.

Since its inception, the firm had emphasized a culture of learning that included in-person and online training.  Coinciding with Wayne’s transition into the learning manager role, the firm made a major investment in online learning courses in order to better meet the on-demand training needs of staff.  After implementing a new learning management system (LMS), which was initially populated with a series of off-the-shelf courses on sales, customer service and various recordings of webinars that had been delivered to clients, Wayne quickly added a series of documents and job aids that could be used by staff when they were in the home office as well as when they were in meetings with clients.

Seeking to take full advantage of the technology available, Wayne began using Camtasia to create 5-10 minute eLearning segments focused on various product features and frequently asked questions.  In general, these eLearning components consisted of PowerPoint-like presentations that learners would click through in order to orient themselves to various product features.  Wayne included voiceover to make the presentations more engaging and included a 10-question quiz at the end of each segment to ensure learners could correctly answer basic questions about the content.  After churning out 25 of these segments, Wayne still felt something was missing from these online courses.

The Solution:

In this year’s training budget, Wayne included $50,000 in order to consult with an eLearning company on how to better create efficient and effective eLearning programs for staff.  After several meetings with the eLearning company, Wayne decided to use the money budgeted to invest in new eLearning modules for additional topics.

Together with the eLearning company, Wayne agreed that the money would best be allocated to create and develop 10 new modules over the next four months.  These new 5-10 minute modules would include professional graphic design and more interactive components where content would be integrated into true/false, multiple choice and matching activities.  Going forward, Wayne also agreed that future modules could benefit by including short video clips, in addition to solely featuring text on the screen.

The Results:

Wayne was impressed with the project management abilities of the eLearning company.  They were easy to work with, asked some questions that vastly improved the content and delivery, and completed all 10 modules within the originally estimated 4-month time period.

While post-module evaluation surveys included some grumbles from staff who just wanted to be able to read through the information and be done with the module, overall the feedback was very positive and enthusiastic.  One social media specialist commented that the new modules were “light years better than the other PowerPoint-style modules.”  When asked what could be improved, one online advertising specialist suggested “to make these modules accessible by smartphone as well.”

Part 2: What eLearning Experts Say:

Definitely Mix It Up

“Including multimedia as part of eLearning works to ensure students remain engaged in the process. Whether it is video or interactive games and presentations, adding even a small number of these activities helps to vary the educational rhythm for the student. Integrating a story as a unifying thread is also an important part of ensuring students retain information.”

Michel Hansmire, Principal, Sparkworks Media

But what about more complex training needs?

“Wayne should address some of the more nuanced subjects such as sales techniques, dealing with difficult people, and complex budget management. Wayne can take advantage of his budget allocation to work with a professional eLearning company in order to create scenario-based eLearning, grounded in the real world. By putting a case study into a realistic context, Wayne can build courses that assess a learner’s ability to solve real-world problems—and isn’t that what it’s really all about?  Check out Cathy Moore’s SlideShare presentation if you’d like to learn more about how to build courses that include real-world context.”

Kirby Crider, Sr. Instructional Designer, Windwalker Corporation

Go Gamified and Make it Fun (because life is too short for boring eLearning!)

“Wayne’s next step should be to think more audaciously about how to get learners to absolutely LOVE their learning. He should be thinking about how he can get the learners to look forward to every new course he publishes in the same way they would the next big blockbuster film. That way he can get a better ROI for his company, at the same time build himself L&D rock star status! He needs to think more about how he will improve user engagement first, not what subjects he will teach or what tool he will use.

Research shows that learners involve themselves more with gamified learning and LMS features than other types of training. In fact, they spend 50% longer on an LMS with gamification features, and in the world of eLearning, gamification increases participation, such that staff experiencing gamified training are 86% more active than non-gamified training.

The fact is that employees training on a gamified LMS, deploying game-based eLearning acquire more factual knowledge, attain a higher skill level and retain information for longer.”

– Juliette Denny, Managing Director, Growth Engineering

Do you have an eLearning case study that you want to get expert opinions on? Contact us or let us know in the comments.

Case Study: The Rise and Fall of an Online Training Program

I’ve spoken with a slew of training colleagues over the past year.  Many of them have online training programs with learning management systems.  And many of them struggle to attract consistent traffic to their LMS.  Part 1 of what follows is a fictionalized case study based upon a number of these conversations. In Part 2, I’m joined by another training colleague to offer our thoughts and insights about the situation.

Part 1: If You Build It, They Will Come… for a Little While

Darryl shut down his computer and stopped by Starbucks for a treat before heading home.  He deserved it.  He had been working non-stop for the past two years on the development, implementation and roll-out of his organization’s new Online Training Academy (OTA).  With great fanfare, it launched today.  His boss was pleased.  Considerable buzz had been generated over the past month and a half.  Managers from across the organization had been sending him emails letting him know how excited they were to finally have a more flexible training option for their employees.

A Brief History

Darryl had been working as a senior training manager for a 2,000-employee telecommunications company for four years.  The company had 13 offices across the country as well as offices in London, Frankfurt, Bangalore and Mexico City.  When he first arrived, training was relatively de-centralized and carried out by regional HR staff within the various offices.  Most training was offered as classroom-based training, though several offices had begun to use webinars.  Two offices had also begun using Captivate to develop brief eLearning tutorials designed to orient staff to their various computer systems.

A year after arriving at the company, Darryl had first proposed the idea of a company-wide online training portal.  Over the next year, he spoke with HR and training professionals across the organization and presented both the financial and business case for the training portal.  Overall project objectives included:

  1. Reducing man-hours and costs associated with the each individual office developing and delivering their own training programs
  2. Ensuring the consistent delivery of content across the organization, especially on compliance-related training topics
  3. Reducing time away from the office for employees to learn
  4. Building a stronger learning culture that could result from access to on-demand training

A learning management system (LMS) was selected and integrated into the already existing company intranet with a single sign-on interface so that employees would not have to memorize a new login/password combination.  Initially, a combination of short, custom orientation and compliance training modules were combined with a series of off-the-shelf skills training modules (leadership development, management, customer service, communication skills) to populate the LMS.

Four and a Half Months Later

On his way out of the building, Darryl passed by Starbucks.  There would be no treat today.  He had spent the morning huddled with his supervisor, reviewing the data for the OTA portal and the numbers were depressingly poor.  His afternoon meeting with the Vice President of Human Resources was disturbingly short.  Darryl had presented the data, the VP of HR had asked if there was anything to add.  Darryl said it was all in the report.  And then Darryl was excused from the meeting.

During the two-week OTA Launch, every employee was set up with an account for the LMS and each employee was assigned two courses: a basic “How To Use This New System” course and one course that was assigned to the employee by his or her local HR office.  Daily emails went out to all staff informing them of the overall company-wide completion rate of these courses as well as a ranking of the top 5 completion rates by regional office.

At the end of the two-week launch period, there was tremendous buzz.  A month after roll-out and there had been an additional 1,327 sign-ups for new courses.  Two months after roll-out, and the number of new course sign-up requests had fallen to 172.  The overall completion rate for all courses hovered around 15%.  By the end of the first full quarter with the online training portal, only 94 additional course sign-ups had been requested.  In the fourth month, 21 new course sign-up requests had been registered.  The only ray of hope that Darryl read in the data was that completion rates during the second, third and fourth months with the system had averaged 72%.

Following a euphoric first month, Darryl was extremely frustrated with the turn this project had taken. He was also concerned about the waning support for the system that he was sensing from senior management (or perhaps it was waning support for him).  Still, he was not ready to call this project a bust quite yet.  But he was also running low on ideas for how to re-energize the company around the online training portal.

Part 2: Some Real-life Training Professionals Weigh In on Darryl’s Situation

Rethink your statistics and the way you use online learning

The convenience of online learning is sometimes your learners’ biggest barrier. Online learning is always there, so it’s easy to push off until it’s “more convenient.” For employees who are used to a more social learning environment, online courses can seem boring and harder to relate too. Find your barriers and address them. In my agency, this is what I share with employees:

  1. Schedule it. Put learning on your calendar.
  2. Create a space that is disruption free. Close down Outlook, put a sign on your door or go to another part of your building so you can focus.
  3. Get support. Make taking one or more courses part of your professional development goals and get support from your manager.
  4. Learn with a friend. Most of us learn better with others so consider taking an online course with a colleague who shares your interest.
  5. Share the learning with others.  Present key lessons to your colleagues or discuss what you learned with others.
  6. Learn with your team. Identify a course that is relevant to all and complete it as part of your team’s learning agenda.

Completion rates simply show that an employee took a course, not what they learned or if they are actually applying the learning. Learners may be using courses more as just-in-time learning, pulling out the few nuggets of information they were seeking without bothering to finish. My organization only seeks completion rates for our required, all-employee courses. It’s more important for us to know they are getting value out of their courses whether or not they actually complete them.

Shannon Dowd (eLearning Specialist, PATH)

It always comes back to the question: what’s in it for me?

Only after the novelty and buzz of a new initiative (like implementing an LMS) wears off can you truly measure whether that initiative was actually developed to meet a business need.  Course offerings can only meet that business need if they are directly connected to professional development plans or competency models and if they are seen as credible information sources by supervisors and managers.

If I was in Darryl’s shoes, I’d spend time over the next several weeks exploring the best way to connect the Online Training Academy with skills gaps – whether that means creating jobs aids for supervisors (“Hey managers, if your employees need development around customer service skills, then perhaps they should access the customer service course on the new Online Training Academy”) and/or perhaps working more closely with HR in connecting course offerings to the company’s performance management system.  He may also want to think of spending some time around the proverbial water cooler, asking staff and managers why they are (or aren’t) using the system.

Subject Matter Experts: The Michael Jordans of Training

Michael Jordan was the best basketball player on the planet. Yet he’s proven to be a mediocre (at best) team owner. Similarly, subject matter experts can be the smartest people in their field. But training is about more than expertise. The following tale illustrates how people responsible for training results can make the most out of subject matter experts who are unfamiliar with instructional design and adult learning principles.

Adrian knew the question was coming.

She had been managing training efforts in the international development field for eight years and now she was attempting to make the leap into the tech sector. Three minutes into the interview, the recruiter asked the question Adrian had been anticipating:

“I have to be honest, the hiring manager is really looking for someone with a technology background. But you bring some international experience, so we thought we’d bring you in to talk. You’ve been doing such meaningful work, but you don’t have a technology background. How would you make an impact here?”

Adrian was grateful for this question. Many recruiters had passed her over because she didn’t have deep technical expertise.

“That’s a fair question. To be honest, I’m a political science major and I didn’t have much experience or knowledge about malaria either until I went to work for my previous employer. In fact, they weren’t even sure they needed a full time training person because they generally sub-contracted their learning interventions to subject matter experts – doctors or researchers or others in the field who had been working on the problem for a long, long time.’

“They were struggling with realizing results from their malaria control training programs in sub-Saharan Africa. So they brought me on board.’

“I took a look at their training materials. They must have had a considerable source of funding, because I don’t think I’d ever seen such professional looking materials. So well laid out. So detailed. They had paid a lot of money to some of the top malaria experts in the world to put together this training program.’

“The materials had everything you wished to know about malaria… and a lot of things you probably don’t want to know about malaria. Honestly, that disease is just one big scourge on this planet.’

“The experts had put together a 2-day training program with a comprehensive history of the disease. The program had facts about what caused the disease and how to prevent it. They offered enormous amounts of empirical evidence. They instructed trainees how to use mosquito nets, what repellents were used with the nets and then they even gave out free nets to entire communities. Yet when they went to study the impact of this training program six months later, they found very few people using the nets.’

“Whether you’re talking about malaria or technology, the fact is that subject matter experts are just like Michael Jordan. He was the best player ever. SMEs are the best in their field. But Michael Jordan has been a disaster as an NBA owner, because a successful franchise is more than just an amazing player. And training is about so much more than technical expertise.’

“My former employer had spent tons of money on the training program created by the SMEs. And there was great content. I felt all we needed to do was to build around it a bit.’

“So I created an activity at the beginning of the training program in which the facilitator asked the group whether they would ever sleep out under the stars in a national park with lions roaming around. Participants laughed. It was a ridiculous question. They’d get eaten alive. And then the facilitator asked why people sleep without mosquito nets. It offered a way for trainees in the community to relate to the material.’

“Then we taught some of the SME-generated content about how to use the mosquito nets and how to teach other families who didn’t attend the training how to use the mosquito nets. We actually had them practice putting nets up. We gave the trainees a simple checklist for their family bed time routine.’

“In the end, we actually cut the training program in half! The experts had loaded the curriculum with lots of facts and figures that the SMEs felt important. I revised it to include only the information that was going to be important to the community members in order to change their behavior.’

“Within six months, we were finding that some communities had 90%-100% of families using mosquito nets. While subject matter experts with deep technical knowledge often have a desire to share their expertise with others, they don’t often approach training design with the end-user in mind.’

“I’m sorry, I’ve given you a long answer to your question. I don’t have a background in technology. But there are a lot of other people here who do. I’d see my role as figuring out what kind of training our customers need, then opening up the heads of our engineers and programmers to get answers, and finally putting together a learning experience that our customers can easily digest and do something with.”

Working with subject matter experts doesn’t need to be stressful if you’re willing to embrace their strength: they are the Michael Jordan of training. In the event that a subject matter expert has “designed” a training program for which you’re responsible, look for opportunities to build around the SME’s content. Sometimes, for political reasons, an expert guest speaker is enlisted to “train” an audience. Finding an opportunity to prepare the audience through a quick “anchor” question or activity prior to the guest speaker and then finding a way to de-brief the SME’s lecture afterwards are ways to ensure the learners will be able to use the material when they leave the training room.

Lecture Isn’t a Teaching Strategy (Part 2): A Parable

Last week’s post focused on three major problems with lecture and offered suggestions on what to do about them. As a reminder, the three problems were:

  1. In lecture, the presenter has no idea whether or not the learners get it.
  2. Belief in the myth that lecture is simply faster and easier for both learner and presenter to just tell people what they need to know.
  3. Lecture doesnt always provide a direct connection between the content at hand and how it can be applied to meet the needs of the learner in real life.

This week, I’ll illustrate those points with a short parable of how one attorney decided to eschew the organization’s typical lecture on sexual harassment during their new hire orientation in order to engage his learners and ensure they each understood the concepts.

Josh had been delegated the sexual harassment talk for the upcoming new hire orientation. His boss provided Josh a Word document with 19 bulleted points on the topic and a video to show next week’s group of 4 new hires. When asked for any words of wisdom in presenting it, Josh’s boss explained: “It’s pretty straight forward, just show the video and answer any questions. Check it off the box and let the new folks go to lunch. Anyone who’s ever heard of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill knows that sexual harassment is a bad thing. We just need to be sure we cover it.”

At 11:30 on Tuesday morning, Josh arrived at the training room, ready to ensure that the four new hires he was about to meet would always remember the organization’s policy on sexual harassment.  Josh found the new hires unattended at the moment by any staff members.  They said the previous session had ended a few minutes early and they were given a break until this session.  They were all hungry and looking forward to lunch after this 45 minute session.

Josh surveyed the faces of each new hire – they all looked relatively young.  Definitely in their early 20s.  After greeting them, he asked if any of them knew who Clarence Thomas was.  The new hires looked at one another, and at in unison two of them said: “a Supreme Court justice.”  One new hire continued on: “Jinx!  Buy me a coke!!”

Ignoring the last comment, Josh asked if any of them knew who Anita Hill was.  The new hires again looked at one another.  Nobody responded.  The room was awkwardly silent.  So much for “anyone who’s ever heard of Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill knows that sexual harassment is a bad thing.”

“You know what, never mind about those obscure references.  As you can all see from the agenda, we’re here to discuss sexual harassment.  What is sexual harassment?”

Silence again.  The new hires looked around the room.  Stared at the ceiling.  And the floor.  There was no eye contact with Josh.

“Actually, it’s not a rhetorical question.  I really want to know what you all know about the topic.  Why don’t we do this: each of you pair off and take 45 seconds to share with a partner everything you know about sexual harassment.”

After a moment or two, the new hires turned to a neighbor and began sharing thoughts.  Forty-five seconds later Josh brought their attention back to him.  “Well, it sounds like some people in here know something about sexual harassment.  What did you talk about?”

One pair shared that they thought sexual harassment had to do with hitting on co-workers, even after being told to stop.  The other pair mentioned that they had heard the term “hostile work environment” but they weren’t quite sure what that meant.  A five minute conversation around the overall topic of sexual harassment ensued.

Once the conversation and questions began to wane, Josh announced that they were going to watch a video.  The video had four different scenarios.  Josh gave each new hire a piece of paper to take notes.  In one column, new hires were asked to jot down one ah-ha moment, question or take-away from each scenario.  In a second column, new hires were asked to jot down any themes that arose from the initial group discussion on sexual harassment that they observed in any of the scenarios (i.e. do any of these scenarios illustrate the idea of creating a “hostile working environment” that we discussed in our initial conversation?).

Following the video Josh led a conversation about each scenario using the notes that the new hires jotted down.  In order to wrap up the 45-minute session, Josh quizzed each new hire on a hypothetical situation and what each new hire would do if confronted with such a situation.

As Josh released the new hires for their lunch break, one commented that this was the “fastest 45 minutes of the day so far.  I mean, time really flew by in this session.  And I have to say, I was expecting someone to just talk at us about the topic for 30 or 40 minutes and then pass us off to the next presenter.  That’s how the rest of the morning has gone so far.  And it hasn’t been easy staying awake or paying attention to those sessions.”

A second new hire added, “Yeah, I always expect new hire orientation sessions to be quick ‘check off the box that I learned this or that topic.’ It seems like it would just be easier to tell us the information and move on.  But I really appreciated this session.  I can definitely say I will remember it.  While the topic itself is dry and quite frankly kind of icky, this session was very interesting.  Thanks for getting us talking.  And thinking.”

As a presenter, is it more fun to talk at the learners or engage in dialogue with the learners?  As a learner, is it more valuable to have a chance to discuss ideas and thoughts with other learners and the presenter, or do you want to just get the information and move on?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

The Parable of the Part-time Trainer (Part 2)

About a year and a half ago, Lin met several other local human resources professionals at a conference. They all hit it off and decided to meet monthly at a coffee shop in order to engage in peer coaching.  Lin had been puzzling over the lackluster results of her annual performance review initiative for days and was looking forward to this month’s get together.

 When it was Lin’s turn to be on the receiving end of the peer coaching, she recounted her experience, from planning the training, the way in which the training was delivered, the feedback and positive evaluations she received and ultimately the lack of implementation.  Then she waited for the questions and insights from her colleagues.

Peer Coach 1:

What was the purpose of the Human Knot activity? It sounds like you had limited time to present, and you invested a disproportionate amount of time on that activity.  Was there any connection between the activity and the annual review system you were introducing?


The session was right after lunch, so I needed to make sure we were active.  It was an icebreaker.  And honestly, the participants really seemed to enjoy it.  What do you mean about a connection between the activity and the content of my session? 

Peer Coach 1:

I think an opening activity can be both an icebreaker and a way to get people thinking about your content.  Could you have taken some time to ask a few de-brief questions about the activity?  Questions that could perhaps compare the annual review process to sometimes feeling like the current system was a tangle of forms and processes and systems. 

Peer Coach 2:

That’s a great point about connecting the opening activity to the content.  Otherwise it’s fun, but it’s a big time sucker.  And some participants may feel there’s no need to come on time if they feel there’s a fun but pointless activity at the start of your sessions.


Definitely food for thought the next time I plan a session.  And as I think about it, that opening activity ran long, which set everything behind.  In hindsight, I should have cut the activity even though not everyone had untangled themselves yet.

Peer Coach 3:

It sounds like your actual presentation was pretty conventional.  PowerPoint.  Lecture.  Showing off the system and the forms people would need to use.  As a presenter, how could you be sure your managers were “getting it”?


The room was quiet, it seemed that they were paying attention.  And the evaluation forms at the end had a number of comments about how useful this system seemed to be.

Peer Coach 3:

Was there any evidence or behavior you could point to that would give you definitive proof that your managers knew how to use this system before they left the room?


You mean did anyone fill out the forms?  No.  I didn’t have time to explain the forms and have people practice them. 

Peer Coach 3:

When you lecture, you have no idea if people are paying attention to you or if they’re making a grocery list in their minds.  Your time may have been better used by providing a brief orientation to the system, then allowing your managers time to practice using the forms and asking them what questions they have or what challenges they envisioned implementing the system.  This also would have solved your after-lunch-low-energy concern – it’s tough to fall asleep when you’re being asked to engage in the learning.  Keep in mind that while poor training evaluation scores may mean that people didn’t learn anything, when you get high scores like 4s and 5s on an evaluation, there is no guarantee that learning actually took place.

Peer Coach 2:

You know, this is all good advice about the training itself.  But actual changes in behavior need follow-up as well.  It sounds like you had a couple of high achievers who took it upon themselves to implement the system as you had hoped.  But most people need some follow-up support from their managers.  And if this is a mandatory change for everyone to conform to, your managers need to be held accountable by their own managers for implementation.

Peer Coach 1:

I think an important thing to keep in mind is that good training design – including less lecture and more involvement – is important.  And equally important is follow-up to ensure that the learning isn’t an isolated event but rather one part of a larger, ongoing process.


Wow, this was kind of a brutal assessment of my performance.  In the end, I guess it’s a fair assessment seeing as how few managers adopted the system.  Thanks for your thoughts.

What do you think of the peer coaches’ counsel?  Were they right on?  Did they miss something?  Is there anything you would have shared differently had you been at the coffee & coaching session?  Let me know your thoughts in the comment section!

The Parable of the Part-time Trainer (Part 1)

The Parable of the Part-time Trainer  – Part 1

From time to time, all of us have probably been asked to be a “part-time trainer”, we’ve been asked to present something to a group – in front of classmates, in front of co-workers, in front of new trainees, in front of a jury.  The following parable illustrates how presentations can go – both how presentations can go in the moment and the impact of these types of presentations later down the road.  Next week, I’ll spend some time analyzing the good, the bad and the ugly about the events in this all-too-common story of a part-time trainer.

Note: This parable provides hyperlinks to sample materials that you may find of interest in order to get a more complete understanding of the story

Lin is the Director of Human Resources for a non-profit organization whose mission is “to ensure every child has access to education in order to make their lives, their communities and the world a better place.” The organization employs 298 staff working in 24 centers of learning, located in four different states and the District of Columbia.

During this year’s annual management retreat, Lin was asked to facilitate a 2-hour presentation to unveil and train any staff with direct reports (28 managers) on using a new, standard annual performance review system for employees. As Lin put together her lesson plan for this presentation, she struggled to fit everything she needed to present into the 2 hours she was allocated.  At the same time Lin was attempting to make the session engaging for the managers (the session was immediately after lunch).

Lin began the session by dividing the managers into groups of 7 and explaining the instructions of her ice breaking activity: The Human Knot. This activity took a little longer than Lin had planned for, but the managers seemed to find it fun right after lunch. As soon as the small groups got themselves untangled from their human knots, Lin began the actual content of the lesson. She had prepared a PowerPoint slide deck to illustrate the points she wanted to make and provided handouts of each document that was to be used in the employee review system. Lin took about 60 minutes to talk about each section of each form. She allowed for 20 minutes of questions and answers at the end of her session.

The group seemed quiet, but they did ask some questions at the end. Lin wasn’t sure how she did, but she was pleased to see scores of 4s and 5s (on a 5-point scale) on the training evaluation forms. She was also heartened by the comments such as “great job” and “this looks like a very useful performance management tool”. The only negative comments (“room was too cold”) were out of her control anyways.

Marques was a site manager, supervising 12 employees, at one of the four Washington, DC-based education sites of Lin’s organization. He found this new format to be a lot of work, but after six months he concluded that it was well-worth the time and effort. The performance development tools had helped give structure and guidance to the way in which he offered feedback and created annual performance reviews. When Marques met up with the other Washington DC-based site managers for a happy hour, he was surprised, and a bit frustrated, to learn none of them were using the new system. One colleague said he had tried to use it when he had first returned from the management retreat, but it was a lot of work and he had too many fires to put out.   

Three weeks after the happy hour, Lin was touring the various DC-based educational sites. During her meeting with Marques, he commented on how he was enjoying using the new annual review tools and system, but he knew that there were other managers who chose not to use it. 

Following this conversation, Lin began to check on how many managers had actually begun to use the system. She found that seven months after the management retreat, only four of the 28 managers were using it.

The training got such good reviews and early on it seemed like there had been a lot of buzz and excitement about the tools provided. Lin was completely deflated. What happened?!

To be continued…

Have some thoughts on what went wrong?  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the Comment area below.  Part 2, next week, will analyze this situation in more detail.