Practice, Practice the Practical Exercise

One of the joys of being Chief Instructor at a military school house is the time I shared with instructor trainees during their final presentations becoming qualified Army Instructors. During one memorable presentation, the student instructor engaged classmates with two practical exercises. The first allowed students to work in small groups discussing how to apply lessons learned upon returning to their units. In the second, students developed a presentation for their commanders for adoption of principals of this lesson in their units. Both effectively ingrained important points of the lesson by allowing the students integrate what they prior knowledge with newly acquired information to develop their own ideas and reinforced what the instructor taught. This presentation raised several questions including why instructors choose to lecture instead of facilitate, use presentation software instead of practical exercises and how can instructors develop effective exercises to reinforce learning points.

Inexperienced instructors often choose lecture based training because they have the knowledge the students need, lack the skills to develop training that is learner based. They feel more comfortable talking than showing. Developing lecture based training is easy and the least time consuming. Lectures ensure presentation of important information, adhere to time constraints and repeatedly provide the same information during every presentation. Unfortunately, most adults do not learn well with the lecture style and many will leave forgetting most of what was said, defeating the purpose of the training.

Slide decks have become the standard to accompany the lecture method. Pictures, text and video supposedly stimulate the learner’s verbal and auditory centers improving retention from lectures alone, but one phrase says it all, “Death by PowerPoint.” An unfortunate reality, PowerPoint and other presentation software alone fails to engage learners as a result, some organizations forbid use. When used well, they amplify important instruction points, but most of the time slide are used as a crutch. Plenty of books, blogs, articles, TED Talks, comedy skits and ,yes, PowerPoints have been created to improve presentations and truly Impress (an open source alternative to PowerPoint).

ImageDeveloping practical exercises requires genuine understanding of the concepts and principals supporting training, information and task steps. Understanding allows the instructor to identify the basic knowledge required to achieve success. Basic actions required to complete the task create the practical exercise the same way that learning goals are the basis for test questions. Often people are selected to provide organizational training because the have a history of providing great training or are the most educated on the topic within the organization. Lacking expert wisdom, the instructor parrots what he was taught, but their lack of understanding of the concepts and principals prevent development of practical exercises. Students are denied the opportunity to experiment and discover how to use the ideas to improve their performance.

Good practical exercises achieve several objectives for adult learners. They allow the a review of new information learned during class increasing retention. They require learners to integrate new knowledge with what they all ready know. They permit students to teach and learn from each other. They require back briefs allowing peers to learn from their challenges and successes. Each step is a repetition of the information provided in class. Each iteration, embeds knowledge and skills learned increasing the likelihood of desired change.

Lecturing and showing slides permit training to check boxes. Lectures poorly translate knowledge into desired behaviors. Practical exercises allow trainees to practice what they have been taught. They provide opportunities to repeat key points. Repetition increases recall and creates deeper understanding of the material. Creating practical exercises requires the instructor to understand the concepts and principals of the task being trained. Development requires greater time and effort by the instructor but payoffs include increased student understanding, performance and changed behavior on the job. Next time you conduct training, create and conduct at least one practical exercise.

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I have prepared and posted a slide deck on SlideShare supporting this blog. 

I look forward to feedback.  Please take a moment to let me know how this blog has helped with your training and leadership activities.  I am also interested in know what other topics you are interested in reading.

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