Want corporate training that works? Focus on the learner, not the content.
The creation of training materials represents a significant investment for any business. The challenge is to create effective training materials that ensure retention of critical concepts and compliance with procedures.
A frequent mistake in creating training materials is to presume that the presentation of facts is sufficient. In reality, reasonable beings—which we all assume ourselves to be—are not indifferent to considerations other than fact. We are influenced by social norms and our own values at least as much as we are influenced by objective fact.
We perceive not only with our senses, but with our beliefs, prejudices, theoretical commitments, expectations, values, perceptions, and acculturations. - Bernard Rollin
Recently, I attended a teaching in-service on the Next Generation Science Standards through the EnCorps STEM Teachers Program. It was a master class in effective training. In a room of engineers and scientists, Los Angeles-based teacher Guadalupe De La O brilliantly demonstrated how to cultivate the habit of scientific inquiry and provide opportunities for students to confront the inadequacies of their current thinking.
In the demonstration, De La O presented the class with a problem: how to design a boat with minimal materials that could bear a load of known weight. Rather than starting the lesson with the typical emphasis on theory and concepts like buoyancy and balance, she encouraged each team to discuss what they believed were the essential attributes of a design, sketch the design, then build it and test it in a water tank—to use empirical experience to inform their design. Once the class had tested and redesigned their vessels based on testing results, De La O then led the class in a discussion that formalized the concepts learned.
In short, instead of telling the class what they needed to know, De La O permitted the class to discover what they needed to know. The self-determination inherent in her approach permitted students to relinquish their hold on empirically false ideas and become personally invested in the facts and theories.
My own experience in graduate school was very similar. My major professor did not tell me what experiments to run or how to design them, but instead asked me to identify what he called the “critical question”. Then, through a conversation, I would develop my experiment. He humored my focus on the ciliated cell and my adventures in ezrin (a story with a tragic beginning and a poetic end) despite the fact that his laboratory and funding were largely focused on the star of the airway epithelium, the non-ciliated secretory cell known as the “Clara” cell. It occurred to me later that he was providing the illusion of self-determination; the general design of my disseration work was outlined in a grant proposal that had been submitted before I entered graduate school. But instead of pointing to the grant proposal and saying, “here, do this”, he enabled me to derive an experimental design consistent with, but not identical to, the grant proposal.
Reflecting on my major professor and on Guadalupe De La O, I am struck by their mastery of the Socratic method and recognize the tremendous skill required to provide those opportunities for students to reach awareness.
Training materials in the corporate environment are often of the “talking head” variety (i.e. “here are the facts” and the answers to “check-your-learning” questions can be found verbatim within the text of the lesson). This format does little to facilitate understanding and retention. However, a well-designed “check-your-learning” exercise requiring the integration of multiple concepts to achieve a non-obvious answer offers tremendous value for developing comprehension.
This became clear to me during my time in corporate America where I created training materials for an occupational health standard operating procedure (SOP). My colleagues, all professionals in Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), felt themselves experts on the standard based on their self-read of SOP—self-read is a very common form of training. Yet ongoing issues with implementation of the SOP for occupational medical monitoring suggested there was a lack of understanding of the requirements of the SOP. I was asked to create a training activity for the SOP. The training, first delivered to division heads, was ultimately implemented at the facility level. To make the content relevant and challenge underlying assumptions, especially the mistaken assumptions individuals had about their comprehension of the requirements of the SOP, I created a 45-minute group activity that simulated a year in the life of the factory.
The qualitative risk assessment is the first step in the occupational health cycle; the chemical inventory is prioritized for industrial hygiene monitoring based on potential risk to workers. Each of the 50 participants was handed a card on which the name of a chemical was printed. The card contained the hazard band for the chemical and the information necessary to classify the potential exposure of employees during use of the chemical in manufacturing processes. Applying the SOP, participants completed a simple calculation to determine the potential exposure category. Participants then placed the card representing their chemical on the qualitative risk assessment grid posted at the front of the room. The risk assessment grid mapped qualitative risk as a function of hazard band and potential exposure; the square into which a chemical was placed indicated the qualitative risk to workers. Although the participants were a group of senior industrial hygienists and safety professionals who had previosuly trained on the material and, in some instances, were responsible for auditing to the standard, this step proved to be challenging.
Once each card in the chemical inventory for the factory was placed on the risk assessment grid, the group applied the SOP to identify which chemicals were required to be on the industrial hygiene sampling plan. The names of these chemicals were placed on a poster labeled “sampling plan”.
Individuals holding the cards for chemicals on the sampling plan were then designated as leaders of small teams of 3-4 participants. These individuals were pre-selected and assigned chemicals that would be on the sampling plan because they were identified as savvy to the concepts of the standard and were known to be competent facilitators. Each group was then provided air monitoring data for those chemicals on the sampling plan.
In these small teams, the air monitoring data (which were actual values from company facilities) were compared against the action level (defined as 1/2 of the occupational exposure limit). Each group was provided a TLV book to look up the occupational exposure limit and calculate the action level. If the air monitoring data indicated an excursion (i.e. presence of the chemical at air concentrations in excess of the action level), the employees who worked with that chemical would be subject to medical monitoring. Each team reported back to the larger group their findings of whether an excursion had occurred.
Each participant was then given several cards each of which listed the name of a theoretical employee (aliases of Marvel superheroes were used for employee names) and a description of what chemicals each employee handled. Participants used this information to identify those employees who may have been exposed to a chemical at air concentrations above the action level and would subsequently be subject to occupational medical monitoring.
This activity was well-received and, more importantly, effective at achieving the goal of improving comprehension and retention of critical concepts. The group participated in the prioritization of a chemical inventory to develop an industrial hygiene sampling plan and interpreted air monitoring data to identify at-risk employees. Following this training exercise, participants took ownership of the process and were able to implement and audit to the SOP more effectively.
Engaging and experiential training helps the learner identify false assumptions and become personally invested in empirically verified facts.