Updating Training Materials That Seem Good Enough

Recently, a client asked me to review an existing training program and see what we might be able to do to improve it.

When I had an opportunity to attend the program and participate as if I were a participant, my initial impression was: Hmmmmm, I’m not sure they need us to do anything. The participants seemed engaged. The facilitator was captivating. At the end of the program, I got a perfect score on my post-test, and this training was on material I was completely unfamiliar with at the start of the first day of the program!

As I reflected more on this training program, I realized there were some fundamental areas we might want to turn our attention to. In this week’s podcast, I share more about what I did (and what you might find transferable) when you’re asked to revise a popular, existing training program that, at first glance, seems good enough.

Introduction 

Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a weekly podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I’m your host. I’m also the Co-founder of a training company called Endurance Learning, and today I’m going to be talking with you a little bit about how to improve existing training materials that may, at first glance, look perfectly fine.

Before I get into any of that, I do want to let you know who pays the bills. This podcast is brought to you by Soapbox, which received Training Magazine’s Choice Award for Authoring Tools for the second year in a row! Soapbox is an online tool that you can go to and you can use for five or ten minutes, and you can take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing live, instructor-led training.

So if you’re in a pinch, if you don’t have time to put together a training program, or if you just can’t think of the activities that would really flow for you in a training program or if you just want some new activities, you go into Soapbox. You tell the computer how long your presentation is, how many people are going to attend, whether it’s in-person or virtual, what your learning objectives are, and you’ll get a lesson plan and slides right away. Go ahead and sign up for your own free trial at www.soapboxify.com. All right.

Being Asked to Improve Training Materials

Let’s talk about this request – the request to improve training materials. Recently, a customer came up to me and asked for some help revising and improving an existing training program. And normally, I’ll take a look at their materials and I’ll sit in the back of the classroom and I’ll observe the class and I’ll try to figure out what could be improved. But last week I decided to do something a little different. Last week I attended the class as a participant. Yeah, I did have my instructional designer hat on as well. Confession, I do that when I’m in a training session and I haven’t been asked to help improve it. It’s just what I do. But this time, it was a very different experience.

As I went through the session as a student, I interacted with the other participants. I heard what they had to say and how they felt, and their reaction to the curriculum in real-time. At the end of the two-day session, this is what I thought. I thought, “Huh, that’s actually a pretty good program.” The participants seemed to like it. It never felt like it was dragging. And, perhaps most tellingly, I got a perfect score on the post-test. And, not to brag or anything, but this was content I don’t actually use in my day-to-day life, so I actually– the information kind of stuck with me.

Determining if the Materials Satisfy the Training Objectives 

What do we do when the existing program seems to work well enough?

So, what do we do when the existing program seems to work well enough? Well before we do nothing and tell the client that they actually don’t need our help, which could actually be the case sometimes. But before we do that, it’s important to go back to the course objectives. For example, in this course, one of the objectives was that participants would be able to go back home and share their enthusiasm for the products that they were actually able to test out in a very fun and cool way during this training program.

. I think everyone in the class was engaged and yet, I'm now reflecting and wondering how effective the session actually was.

When I thought about what actually happened in the program, we did indeed get to test the products in a fun and cool way. And even though I did really well on my post-test—I’m not going to let you forget that I did really well on that post-test. I was awesome. I got a perfect score. None of us actually demonstrated how we might go back and share our enthusiasm for the things that we tested. The presenter did indeed share content in a very engaging manner, albeit it was mostly lecture, and here is where we need to distinguish between engaging and effective. I think everyone in the class was engaged and yet, I’m now reflecting and wondering how effective the session actually was, especially when you take a look at the learning objectives.

Returning to the Basics: Objectives and the Four-Step Design Model

So anytime we’re asked to examine and possibly revise existing training materials, we can’t fall under the engaging spell of a skilled facilitator. It is truly important to return to the basics. What are those basics? Well, as I already mentioned, it all begins with the learning objectives, specifically comparing what we said the learning objectives should be with what the program actually has the learners doing. 

And then I think a second basic is to revisit the training design formula that I talk about often: anchor, content, application, future use. And anchor is an activity that is designed to help the learners connect concepts with their previous experiences or some other type of activity that eases us into new concepts without overwhelming us at first. And I think that, in this training program, the facilitator did a really good job ad-libbing some of these things or coming up with metaphors that helped us kind of grasp the content. So he ad-libbed—I would actually put some of those metaphors, some of those ad-libs into the actual instruction so that it’s a consistent experience for everybody else who attends this program as well.

The content is how we’ll actually present the information, and in this case, a lot of the content was lecture, which was fine. It just needed to be bookended with some of these other design steps. The application activities—and this is where the program I’m talking about was lacking—are activities where people are actually given the opportunity to use their newfound knowledge and try it out. Put it to the test. And my example, this is where people would’ve had the opportunity to show the presenter how they’d share their enthusiasm with coworkers and customers when they returned home.

And then future use is basically “the plan.” Now that we’ve talked about and even shown how we can bring some of this information back home, what’s the specific plan to do so? And are there any job aids or other materials that would help make this helpful. (Editor’s Note: Learn more details about the Four-Step Training Design Model)

Summary: Reviewing and Revising Existing Training Materials

Compare the learning outcomes with what's actually happening, and review the design to make sure that participants have an opportunity to show you what they've learned.

In sum, existing programs may be well-received, perhaps even for long periods of time, with enthusiastic feedback and reviews from class after class. Maybe even really high post-test scores too. But does that mean the existing program has been effective? Perhaps the answer is yes, but you won’t know for sure until you go back to the basics. Compare the learning outcomes with what’s actually happening, and review the design to make sure that participants have an opportunity to show you what they’ve learned: the anchor, the content, the application, future use.

Okay. That’s it for me for this week. Thank you for listening. If you’re looking for some inspiration on how a variety of elements can combine to form a stellar training program, maybe you’d like to pick up a copy of my book, What’s Your Formula? It’s a book about 51 different elements of learning. It’s based on a periodic table of learning elements, and it can be found at www.amazon.com. You can also check out those elements for free at www.51elementsoflearning.com. If you want to make sure that you’re notified of a new podcast whenever it’s hot off the press, go ahead and subscribe at Apple, Spotify, wherever you listen to podcasts. And until next time, happy training everyone.


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