Category: Workplace Learning

Book Review: Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning

Patti Shank’s Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning is a summary of tactics you can use to create memorable, relevant practice opportunities and provide constructive, beneficial feedback for learners. Everything in the book is backed by research and written to be immediately usable by instructional designers and trainers.

Cover: Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning

This is the second installment in Patti’s “Make It Learnable” series, which is shaping up to be one of those sets of fundamental reading in the field of instructional design. The first book is Write and Organize for Deeper Learning; you can read my review of the first book. As with that book, this book gives you a shortcut to what really works based on evidence, without having to wade through complex (and often contradictory) research yourself. Specifically, this is based on training research, not research on K-12 or higher education learners.

Have you ever wondered…?

  • How do we create practice activities that will help transfer skills to the workplace?
  • Ho can we create practice activities that are more memorable?
  • How can we create more effective feedback than just “correct” and “incorrect”?
  • Do novice and experienced learners benefit from the same strategies?
  • How do we make sure learners are practicing the right skills and behaviors?
  • How can we help learners deal with errors and mistakes?
  • If we’re training a complex task, should we divide the task into small parts or train a simple version of the whole task?
  • Is it better to give feedback right away or to delay it?
  • What kinds of realism are important to training practice? Is it necessary to use lots of multimedia to make training look exactly like the work environment?
  • Is it better to set goals for specific performance levels or goals for making progress in learning?

All of these questions are addressed in this book through 5 overall strategies divided into 26 tactics.

Go buy Practice and Feedback for Deeper Learning now. Read it, and then pick something relevant to apply to your own work. After all, the best way to improve your own learning design is to practice using these tactics yourself.

Software Training with Stories

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

One of the common objections I hear to using storytelling in training is that “stories don’t work for all kinds of training.” Those who are skeptical of storytelling often use software training as an example where stories don’t work. However, I think stories can have a place in some (maybe even most) software training.

Software Training with Stories

When to Avoid Stories and Focus on Features

Sometimes software training should be just about the features. In that case, you’re often doing more technical writing than instructional design. Just get in, show the features, and be done. Short tutorials and demos are great for that, and they don’t always need a story. If your goal is to create 5 minute tutorials to help people solve a problem at a moment of need, they’re already motivated and engaged. You don’t need stories in that case.

We often provide software training in advance of the need though. Instead of something learners seek out to solve their own problems, we’re training them about what they’ll do in the future. That training is often much longer; instead of 5 minutes, we might spend hours reviewing everything software can do. Have you ever gone through software training that was just a list of features with no context? How helpful was it? Did you wonder WHY you might use certain features or why a software update would help you?

Examples as Stories

With a few exceptions, nearly any training can benefit from examples. Those examples are often stories. When I taught Microsoft Office as a classroom trainer, I often told stories as examples. I had a collection of stories about colleagues or past students who had solved a specific problem like this one.

“One of my past students had a spreadsheet that needed to be updated every day. She added new data at the bottom, and then she sorted the spreadsheet. The way it was set up required significant manual cleanup. She spent at least an hour or two every day making manual adjustments to the spreadsheet. We found several ways to adjust the structure of the spreadsheet so nearly everything was automated. Instead of one or two hours, the new process only took her about 15 minutes a day. With a bit of initial work to set up the spreadsheet, we saved her at least 5 hours a week of wasted time. That’s why this information I’m about to explain about setting up your spreadsheet for sorting and filtering is so important.”

That’s a real story (it’s the only time in my training career where a student literally jumped up and down with excitement at the end of the course). When I was training Excel, I didn’t just tell students, “It’s important for you to set up your spreadsheets to make it easier for sorting and filtering.” I gave them the example so they understood why it was important and why it would matter to them. I made it concrete and relevant.

In elearning, this example could be presented similarly to how I used it in my classroom training. Instead of having a narrator tell it in the third person, I’d probably reword it to come from the point of view of the user. “I had a spreadsheet that needed to be updated every day…”

Stories to Increase Motivation

When we create software training, we want people to change their behavior. We want them to use the software and use it in specific ways. We want them to be motivated to use the software effectively.

This is especially important when software is updated and people need to change how they use it. It’s not always enough to just say, “here’s a new feature.” Sometimes we need to show people why that feature is going to make them better. Stories and scenarios put those features in context so users are more motivated to try them.

Hands-On Practice with Scenarios

As a software trainer, the books I taught from included examples that were often scenarios. Excel pivot tables are much easier to understand if you have a realistic project where you need answers from data. Those projects are scenarios, whether you’re teaching in a classroom or creating elearning.

The example above with the poorly formatted spreadsheet could easily be converted to a practice scenario. Instead of simply giving people a set of steps to follow, the scenario provides some context.

Why and When to Use Features

If your software training is meant to help people solve a problem while they’re in the middle of working, then microlearning focused on just the features can work. If your software training is intended to give people an overview of complex software, including why and when to use certain features, stories can be helpful.

For example, layer masks are a critical tool in Photoshop. It’s not always obvious to novices why they’re important though. This tutorial puts layer masks in context by creating a realistic scenario (merging together two wedding photos for a client). The author even starts by explaining how to merge the photos with an easy but incorrect and destructive technique. This shows the benefits of using the right technique and addresses a common mistake. There are plenty of tutorials out there explaining various features of Photoshop. Not so many explain how to select the correct tool for the job–that’s what’s valuable in this example.

In complex software, it’s often not enough to know how to use various features. Sometimes you have multiple options for an action, each with pros and cons. In Captivate, you can use a regular Advanced Action or a Shared Action. Depending on your needs, one or the other may be a better choice and make your development more efficient. Stories and scenarios help learners understand how to choose the right tools.

Model the Thought Process

Stories can also be helpful for modeling the thought process that accompanies using software. For example, I once created a software tutorial on how to troubleshoot a particularly problematic task in an LMS. We wanted the online instructors to do some basic error checking themselves before contacting technical support. While I could have simply provided a PDF document with the steps to troubleshoot (and I did provide that as a job aid), I also created an interactive simulation.

In the simulation, an instructor (represented with voice over plus character photos) narrated how she solved the problem. She walked through each step of her thought process. The actual story was pretty thin (an instructor has a problem in the LMS), but the character gave learners enough to relate to. This training gave learners more confidence that they could troubleshoot it because the process was modeled by a character similar to themselves.

How Do You Use Stories and Scenarios?

How do you use stories and scenarios in software training? Do you have a great example of your own? Share it in the comments.

If you’re developing software training and are feeling stuck, feel free to share that in the comments as well. We can brainstorm together ways to use stories to make your training more relevant and engaging.

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Writing Conversations for eLearning

In the previous post, How to Start Creating Conversation-Driven eLearning, I described how I use conversations between two characters to deliver eLearning content. In this post, I’ll explain how to write and structure the conversation. My next post will discuss options for multimedia with conversation-driven elearning.

Writing Conversations for eLearning

Learner Challenge

In the introduction of the story, show how the learner is facing a challenge. That problem is one that can be addressed through your training. Maybe your character has been dealing with an angry customer, students that are disengaged in class, or a project that is behind schedule. Your character needs new skills: how to respond to customer objections, how to motivate students, or how to get a slipping project back on track. This character is facing a moment of need. If your audience faces a similar challenge, they can immediately see that this training is relevant because they want to solve this problem too. Your character seeks help from a mentor.

In my conversation-driven coaching and mentoring course, the main character, Michael, is a newly promoted manager. He struggles to coach one of his employees on how to handle a difficult client.  You can see the moment of need, and hopefully learners can identify with the struggle. (Email readers, if no video appears below, try watching it on YouTube.)

If you want to see the rest of this course, you can purchase it from Cine Learning Productions, who graciously granted permission for me to use this video.

Don’t Make the Learner Dumb

One temptation with this style is making the learning character an empty vessel with no prior experience or knowledge. The mentor explains something, and the learner simply nods along, basking in the superior knowledge. If you do that, you might as well write it with a single traditional narrator. Instead, treat your learning character (and your learners) as adults with prior knowledge and experience. Let your character figure some things out and make intelligent guesses.

Mentor Questions

Just like a good teacher or trainer, the mentor character can ask questions of the learner character to draw out information. The answers can be wrong sometimes, just like in real life, but they should be reasonable guesses that your audience might make. Asking and answering questions also helps with the next point.

Don’t Talk Too Long

Don’t let your mentor lecture for multiple paragraphs at a time. Neither person should have a monologue. Listen to conversations where someone is explaining something. The person learning interjects regularly with questions or affirmations of understanding. Add dialogue to show your learner is actively listening to the mentor. Have the learner reflect back what they heard from the mentor and connect it to something they already know or share an example.

Skepticism is Good

Does your audience automatically buy into everything you’re training on the first try? Maybe, but often they are skeptical or resist. Let your learner character be a little skeptical too. The character can voice some of the objections your learners might have, allowing the mentor to address those objections. Over the course of the training, your learner character will become less skeptical. You may be able to get skeptical audience members to feel less resistant as they see the change in the character.

Here’s an example from a conversation between two doctors discussing the treatment of addiction.

Tom: How many of our patients do you think have problems with alcohol or drugs? It can’t be that large of a number.

Deborah: I’ve seen estimates that the lifetime prevalence of alcohol use disorders is about 30 percent of the total population.

Tom: Thirty percent?!? That can’t be right.

Deborah: It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? I couldn’t believe it either. That includes both abuse and dependence though.

Tom: I never would have guessed it was so high.

[A little later in the conversation, after a few more statistics on the impact of addition]

Tom: Wow, I didn’t realize what a significant issue this is. I must treat patients all the time who are dealing with addiction without even knowing it.

Deborah: That’s probably true.

Tom: But is this really something we should be dealing with as primary care physicians? Aren’t counselors and specialists really better equipped to handle these issues?

Deborah: We should refer patients to specialists when they need extra help. We need to address it here first though. We’re still the people our patients see the most. It’s even more important that we do so now with the Affordable Care Act.

Tom: Why does that matter?

What Else Do You Need?

I’ve heard from several readers already that this technique is one they can apply to their projects. If you’re thinking about trying this strategy, what else do you need to get started? Ask your questions or tell me what else you want to know in the comments.

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How to Start Creating Conversation-Driven eLearning

Several studies have found learners can remember information in a narrative format better than bullet points (for example, Glonek & King, as cited in Kapp, 2014). One strategy for creating a narrative is delivering content with two narrators having a conversation rather than the traditional approach of a single narrator lecturing. Instead of one voice acting as an instructor, this approach lets learners listen in on two characters who are talking about it.

Conversation-Driven eLearning

Advantages

  • Less tiring to listen to: Let’s face it: Voice over, even good voice over, can be tiring to listen to for long periods of time. It’s more engaging to listen to the back and forth of two voices. Think about morning radio shows. Most shows have two or three people talking rather than one. If it is one person talking, they usually have interviews or guests to break up the monotony of a single voice.
  • Easier to write conversationally: You probably already know that a conversational tone is better for elearning. It can be challenging to write a single narrator delivering content in a conversational style though. On the other hand, if you write dialog, you’ll naturally stay away from bullet point lists.

Who are your characters?

One Mentor, One Learner

In a two-narrator course, one character is the mentor, and one is the learner. You need some difference in the knowledge and experience level between the characters in order to drive the conversation. You’re still doing some instruction, after all, just in a different format.

This strategy is used in television and film to deliver content. NCIS, for example, always has one character on the team who is new to the agency. That allows the script writers to deliver expository information in dialog between an experienced agent and a new one. The same approach is used when a more technical forensics expert or coroner explains something to a less technical agent. Watch any crime procedural and you’ll see this technique in use.

Reflect Typical Learners

The job or role of the learners should be similar to your learners. Who is your audience? What experience and background do they have? What are their concerns? What obstacles to they face? Who is a typical learner? Your less experienced character should reflect your typical learner. At the beginning of the course, your character lacks the same knowledge and skills as your audience. This helps learners identify with the character. During the course, your character follows a similar path as the one you want your audience to take. The learners are on a parallel path, shadowing your character as he or she learns.

Mentor as Manager or Leader

Who are the mentors for your audience? In their jobs, who do they learn from? Is it a manager or a more experienced person in the same role? Figure out who would explain this information if it happened as part of on-the-job training. That’s the role for your mentor character.

Gender and Diversity

Unless your audience is overwhelmingly male or female, generally one character should be male and one female. That makes it easier to distinguish the voices, plus it provides equal gender representation. If you create multiple courses or modules with this technique, aim for 50% of the modules showing a female mentor or manager.

Be aware of racial, ethnic, and other characteristics of diversity as well. Representing people of color in leadership roles can help challenge stereotypes.

Example

For an example of a conversation-driven course with two characters, check out my post on a Story-Based Coaching and Mentoring Course.

Coming Next

In the next post, I’ll provide more details on how to build the conversation and multimedia.

References

Kapp, K. (2014, December 24). Abstract of a Study Related to Storytelling. [Blog post.] Retrieved from http://karlkapp.com/abstracts-of-study-related-to-storytelling/

A Range of Options for Scenarios and Storytelling

When someone mentions scenario-based learning, do you automatically think of complex branching scenarios? While that’s one way to implement scenarios (and a very effective one!), I don’t think it’s the only option. A range of options are available, from passive to active. Even if you can’t convince your organization to invest in full-blown branching, you can find less intensive alternatives to incorporate scenarios and storytelling. Some of these options can work for both elearning and instructor-led training. In fact, you may already be using some of these methods.

Scenario-Based Learning Options from passive to active

Provided Examples

When I take instructor-led courses, often the most valuable part of the training is the stories the trainer tells. The stories are often about how a real person applied this training in their jobs or about how a failure to apply principles caused problems. Stories with examples make the abstract concrete. It’s one thing to talk about customizing footers in Word; it’s another to tell the story of a past student who manually typed in page numbers for a 400+ page document because she didn’t know how to make it work. (That is a real example from my software training days. In her defense, it wasn’t straightforward numbering. Do you know how to add chapter numbers and how to exclude the first page from the count?)

Examples are the most passive method of using scenarios and storytelling, but they still work. They can be used both in classroom training and elearning. Examples can make concepts relevant, show why a topic is important, or show how others have solved problems.

Mini-Scenarios

Mini-scenarios, or one-question scenario assessments, are slightly more active than just listening to an example. Set up a short scenario and ask learners a multiple choice question. I frequently use this technique with clients who are just dipping their toes in scenario-based learning but aren’t ready to jump into full-blown branching or simulations. You can use this technique for practice or assessment, even in a linear elearning course. In ILT, use a scenario to pose a question to the class. Ask which choice they would make with a show of hands.

Here’s an example:

Andrew is a sales manager who has been struggling to motivate his team. He sent his team to a workshop where they learned about sharing stories about previous happy customers to improve sales. A few salespeople really like using this technique, but he wants everyone to start using it more. In the long term, he wants to change their attitudes about the technique.

What should Andrew do to encourage his team?

  1. Threaten punishment for anyone not using storytelling
  2. Offer a small reward for using storytelling
  3. Offer a large reward for using storytelling

Two Narrators with Decisions

Rather than using a single narrator for elearning voice over, you can use two narrators having a conversation to deliver content. Set up a story where one character has a problem to solve, and a more experienced character mentors and trains the first character how to improve. This is still mostly passive delivery, but it’s more engaging than traditional elearning. Adding a few questions where learners help the narrator solve a problem makes it more active and lets learners practice in a realistic context.

Pamela and Michael discussing coaching

Case Study with Practice

If a case study is just read, it’s a passive example. If you use the case study as a prompt for practice, it’s more active. Case studies are used in both ILT and elearning. They can be used to start discussions (either in person or online) or for group work.

Branching Scenarios

Branching scenarios are one of the most active methods of using scenarios for learning, short of simulations and serious games. Branching lets learners make choices and see the consequences of their actions. It gives them a safe space to fail and learn from mistakes.

Role Play or Simulation

Role play exercises and simulations are some of the most active ways to use storytelling. Simulations and role plays are more immersive and open-ended. Learners must make multiple decisions, and feedback comes in the forms of consequences and may be delayed. Role play exercises require skilled facilitation to keep everything running smoothly and to debrief afterwards. Simulations require more intensive development and resources. Both of these tools can be very effective at practicing skills to improve job performance.

What Else?

What did I forget from my list? How are you using storytelling in your courses? Which of these methods do you find works best for your audience?

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