Use these methods to determine learner characteristics before you train, and watch participant engagement grow.
If you have been a learning professional for any length of time, you probably have experienced the following scenario:
You spend several weeks developing a solid learning session only to observe participants suppressing yawns and sporting glossed-over eyes. You scratch your head, review all of the activities in your curriculum, and wonder, "What could I have done differently?"
This scenario is not tied solely to the classroom environment—it can happen during synchronous or asynchronous online delivery, when yawns take the form of poor evaluation reviews or low post-training scores. Many possible variables could be causing this lack of learner engagement, but before you deconstruct every aspect of the training, rework the materials, or move into the next design stage, take a moment to consider the impact of learner characteristics.
The problem could be a simple one: As a designer or trainer, you did not spend adequate time up front developing a strategy to determine what employees really want from their learning opportunities. When learners do not relate to your design or delivery methods, you quickly lose their attention.
Fortunately, the solution can be just as simple. Ask your learners what they want and listen to what they tell you. In a tight economy, most training organizations cannot afford to waste dollars on ineffective training and development. If you don't give this initial step the attention it deserves, you might be doomed to repeat the training process and produce results that are less than engaging for your next target audience.
Disprove learner stereotypes
Several years ago, I constructed a qualitative study to better understand the preferred training delivery methods of customer service employees in my company. The study's objective was to gain a clear understanding around the ongoing debate about generational learning. I had read about the specific tendencies of each generation, but I could not find much hard data to support these characteristics, which most organizations declared as the norm.
The questions I wanted to examine related to training delivery methods: Do Boomers really like classroom experiences better? Do Gen Xers want to learn by interacting with a cyber trainer? What about this new group of Millennials—do they want their learning built into social media channels? As I explored the characteristics of the learners in this study and focused on what I assumed were their learning needs, I found that I knew less about their learning wants.
No clear evidence pointed to just one training approach. In other words, Boomer employees preferred online learning as much as Gen Xers and Millennials. The same was true for formal delivery—the younger generations preferred the classroom as much as the Boomers. I concluded that there was no magic training formula for instant success in terms of one's age, gender, or geographic location. Learning preferences went much deeper.
I recently revisited this study and, instead of looking for generational tendencies, I asked, "What makes learning engaging for you?" If learners are engaged, their level of knowledge transfer is generally reflected in post-training evaluations and performance metrics. It occurred to me that this question is often ignored, and might yield significant improvements in learner engagement and performance.
Discover learner characteristics
What works for one group of employees may not be the answer for another. Take time to consider the dynamics of the group that you are training and the specific tools and processes that employees use on a daily basis. The group I work with is comprised of primarily customer service professionals who are independent and technology driven. They are accustomed to seeking answers through reference materials to perform their job with just-in-time, scenario-informed solutions.
Developing a list of target learner attributes is a first step to determining the most effective ways to structure the training curriculum. Here are several simple methods that you can use to uncover such learner characteristics.
Conduct a survey. A survey is an effective tool for gathering qualitative information about your group's learner characteristics. It should be administered while you are still in the planning stage, as part of the standard design process. While many learning professionals use post-training evaluations to determine participant satisfaction and environmental distractions, to understand how your target audience learns best it is critical to dig deeper into the actual and perceived value of the exercises and presentation methods before the training.
Determining the training delivery methods you will use is equally important. Ask the learners if they prefer independent or group-orientated sessions. Find out if they would enjoy discovery exercises more than lecture. Once you have this data, you can match strategies with what the learners find engaging. Be specific in your questioning, and look for common threads that you can weave into your delivery methods.
Facilitate focus groups. Leading a focus group can be a powerful and humbling experience for any learning professional. Remember that feedback is a gift, so don't take it as a personal attack, and don't spend time defending your methods. Instead, listen. Use the session to build your skills so you can provide employees with a better experience next time, or recognize what is working well already.
Ask specific questions about the effectiveness of each training component, and let the focus group guide the conversation to new areas. Possible questions include: What was the best classroom or online training, and why was it memorable? Do you collaborate with others during your work day, and is this a good method for learning? If you could change one thing about the training, what would it be? Do you prefer classroom or online training, and why?
Analyze historical performance data. Performance and quantitative data can help to determine what has worked in the past as you consider future design methods. Look for continuous improvement through constant feedback and performance reviews, as well as on-the-job performance metrics. Some assessment scores may be high immediately following the training, but what about six months later—are employees still performing as well? This is another indicator of true engagement.
Develop key performance indicators prior to the training, and watch them carefully to identify opportunities and gaps in your approach. If teach-backs or scenario-based modules worked well in the past, refresh them with new content for today.
Build learner engagement
After you have gathered data to determine learner characteristics and levels of engagement, use the following methods to start building engagement for your next program even before the training begins.
Use collaborative work tools. The more your learners are involved with the design and delivery process, the more likely they are to be promoters of the training because they will have a vested interest. Use a collaborative learning platform, such as SharePoint or Moodle, to keep your training methods in line with changing learner characteristics. Such sites are great resources for learners to share their experience and knowledge, and for trainers to discover the strategies that do and don't work for the audience.
Additionally, a blog or reverse blog allows participants to guide the feedback process during the learning cycle. Designate a special section in your platform to collect preferences so you can cater your next training delivery to fit learners' needs and increase engagement.
Pilot your training. In fast-paced work environments, piloting is often omitted because of time or cost constraints, but it can be a powerful tool for providing higher levels of engagement. If you want to know the strengths and weaknesses of your curriculum before you go live, pilot the training. Gather subject matter experts and supervisors to add value. Not only will these professionals help you to find the trouble spots, but they also will be great change agents because they were involved in the design stage.
Make adjustments. Finally, it is critical to make adjustments often. Your work group, and the tools it uses, will change. To remain relevant and maintain learner confidence, you must recognize these trends and adjust accordingly. Take risks with new ideas to meet the ever-changing needs of your group.
Back to the basics
Once you begin to dig for what your learners want in comparison with what they need, you will see engagement increase. In the end, the work that you do up front will help to yield stronger performers and higher potential for return-on-investment.