Developing Technical Training

by Ruth Colvin Clark

I have read Developing Technical Training from cover to cover several times. And I use it as a reference book -- dipping in and out of specific parts when I need to brush up on certain skills. Overall this book does a much better job at helping you structure learning materials for activities where the task will always be performed in exactly the same way. This makes the text less than ideal for teaching web topics, or any software that's liable to be very context-specific.

Types of Lessons:

  • content
    • facts
    • concepts
    • processes
    • procedures
    • principles
  • learning outcomes
    • what will the learners by doing when they have achieved course or lesson goals
    • learning objectives should mirror what must be done on the job
    • you may have both supporting and terminal objectives if there are prerequisite steps
  • instructional methods
  • delivery media

Structured Lessons include the following:

  • Introduction
    • Lesson context
    • Lesson importance
    • Content overview
    • Lesson objectives
    • Table of contents
  • Knowledge
    • Concept topics + practice
    • Fact displays
    • Process topics + practice
  • Lesson Task
    • Procedure task + practice
    • Principle task + practice
    • Facts as needed
  • Lesson Summary
    • Summary of content or objectives
    • Working aids

At the end of each unit, include the following:

  • Check your understanding with sample problems.
  • A segue / introduction to the next lesson.
  • References

Teaching Procedures

Teaching tasks which are based on routine steps. If the tasks are non-routine, you will be teaching the application of guidelines. There are two types of procedures: linear and decision. A decision procedure is like following a flow chart, there will be points where you need to make a decision and then continue following the procedures for the new state.

You want students to be able to perform the procedure -- not just memorize the steps.

  1. A clear statement of the steps, with illustrations. Best if included in a student manual.
  2. A follow-along demonstration.
  3. Hands-on practice with feedback.

When formatting the instruction steps, try to have an illustration of what the completed step should look like. Format as a table with the step number, the action to take, and the illustration or relevant screenshot.

To evaluate procedural learning, use a checklist with the steps from the procedure, or the learning objectives. "Where you able to X". Include a column for comments.

Sample learner exercise: List the steps to install a new theme.

Teaching Concepts

A concept is a mental representation or prototype of objects or ideas that include multiple specific examples. Typically, concepts are the nouns in a sentence. Concepts have critical features, which are associated with the concept; and irrelevant features, which are particular to examples of the concept. Concepts may be concrete ("house", "chair") or abstract ("deposit", "integrity").

At the application level, you want to aim for people being able to see an example of a concept and identify what the underlying concept is. In some cases, concept discrimination is the primary skill required by the job. Classifying objects is a sample task you can ask learners to perform to demonstrate they have understood the concept you are teaching. When teaching concepts you must always give a definition, examples, and counter-examples of that concept. When you demonstrate counter examples, make sure they do have some characteristics in common with the "correct" examples.

When writing about concepts, format your page so that it clearly shows the following in an easy-to-scan way:

  • Introduction
  • Definition
  • Example
  • Non-example / counter-example

To evaluate concept learning, test if the learner can successfully discriminate between examples and counter-examples of a concept. For example: is this [code|illustration|question] an example for our concept? Mark it with [Y|N], and explain your answer by naming the relevant characteristics which are required for our concept.

Sample learner exercise: list the features of a complete info file for themes.

Teaching Facts

Unlike concepts, facts are unique pieces of information which have no common group features. By definition, a fact is unique and therefore must be held individually in memory for it to be known. A fact typically is linked to a concept. For example, "The CEO's name is John." or "Variables must be prefaced with the symbol $." Learning objectives for facts can only be written at the remember level. Generally, you can include factual knowledge tests into overall lesson task objectives instead of testing specifically for them.

Use "just-in-time" learning to insert facts into lessons as they are needed. Avoid teaching facts in isolation at the beginning of the lesson. Where possible, illustrate facts with a line drawing or carefully cropped photo (to reduce the cognitive load and to emphasize the important part of the image). Add labels to the diagram so the learner doesn't need to split their attention to an additional, external reference.

For practice activities teach the learner how to become skilled at using the reference material, instead of asking them to memorize and regurgitate facts. Provide empty diagrams with labels and ask the learner to fill in the blanks.

Sample learner exercise: write out the available variables for the node template.

Teaching Process

To optimize their work, employees need to understand how their job fits into the larger picture. Procedures are directive and explain the steps required to complete a task; processes, on the other hand, are descriptive and explain how something works, and potentially why that something matters to the learner. In many cases the processes are a "nice to know" but not a "need to know" part of the lesson. As such, you may not need to test the learner's understanding and ability to apply the information.

When teaching process, learners may benefit from a table presentation of the information, or a flow chart. For example, the table might include columns for the stage sequence, the action, and the person/department/code responsible for the process at this particular stage. A flow diagram might be used to enhance the table, or be used instead of a table.

When illustrating process, research has shown that static visuals may be better because animals presentation information faster than the learner can absorb (and therefore they need to be replayed), static diagrams require the learner to mentally create the animation, which promotes deeper learning.

You should spend time practicing process learning only if work performance will be significantly improved by the learner understanding the process. ("Need to know" vs. "nice to know") If it is required, have learners apply the process for the in-class activity. Do not have them repeat the stages, but rather have them apply the information about the stages to a problem. For example, "you have received the error X, what is the most likely stage to have been completed by the code base right before this error was generated?"

Sample learner exercise: describe how the theme layer works.

Teaching Principles

Although many tasks we complete routinely are done the same way each time (procedures), other tasks are a little bit different every time because of the context in which the task takes place. When the tasks are a little different, they become principle-based or strategic tasks. The knowledge worker tends to spend a lot of their time completing principle-based tasks. In procedural learning, the focus is on "how to", in principle-based learning, the focus is on "what", "why", and "how". The goal with teaching principles is to help the learner build mental models that can be adapted to changing situations.

Far-transfer principles are the most difficult to teach; however, they are the most needed skills in IT work. A principle is a cause and effect relationship which results in a predictable outcome. These principles can be taught. There is rarely one right approach to far-transfer tasks and tehrefore no single expert can demonstrate the guideline. Many SMEs cannot readily articulate the way they tackle far-transfer tasks or the rasons for their actions. they will often say their work is "intuitive".

To develop the guidelines you can work with SMEs, or analyze the actions or work products that reflect best practices. When studying SMEs for guidelines, you need to compare their work agasint the traits or commonalities which are not shared with new or less-proficient workers.

  1. Derive guidelines from watching best practitioners. Often easier when the task is overt and performed quickly.
  2. Derive guidelines from stories if you cannot watch best performers on the job for privacy / security reasons.
  3. Give SMEs a hypothetical scenario, and ask them to walk you through how they would approach solving the problem.

In the classroom, ask questions to help learners identify the guidelines or principles that are being applied at various stages. It can also be helpful to ask learners to compare similarities in two examples.

There are two ways to approach the instruction of principles. The first is to state the state the principle and the guidelines ("instructive"); the second is to have the students derive the principle and guidelines from the examples you provide ("inductive"). The inductive method is more learner-centred, but generally requires a lengthier training period.

There will never be a single "correct" approach to most far-transfer tasks. This makes it difficult to determine if a learner's response falls within the boundaries of the guidelines and to identify the strengths and shortfalls of each response.

Organizing Your Training Content

The biggest mistakes for organizing training are as follows:

  1. organizing training around the structure of the product, or knowledge domain, rather than the context of the job. (i.e. product documentation != training on how to use the product)
  2. is merging "nice to know" and "need to know" content.
  3. essential concepts, or processes associated with the lesson are omitted.
  4. too much content is crammed into a single lesson.
  5. a failure to include regular, meaningful practice exercises

Avoid these mistakes by starting with a detailed Job and Task Analysis. Organize most of your lessons around job tasks (procedures and principles).

Job functions == areas of responsiblity == key results areas. A job function fundings a major responsiblity resulting in a specific output that is realtively disntinct from other outputs. For each job function, break it into the tasks required to complete that function. A job task is a defined set of specific steps or guidelines that result in a measurable outcome. When several tasks associated with a particular function are completed, that function is accomplished. Begin job-task definitions with a verb. In general, shoot for tasks that include 5-15 steps or guidelines.

For each task, determine if it is procedural, or principle-based, and procede with the lesson planning as described previously. Once the tasks have been broken into steps (procedural) or guidelines (principles), identify the knowledge associated / required with the steps or guidelines. [In DITA-speak: pull out the reference material.]

Principles to consider when developing your course outline.

  • Zoom: the novice learner needs to build a general mental framework on which to attach or hang the lesson ideas so structure your outline in a way that helps to keep the learner oriented on "the big picture". Once you've given the big picture, zoom into the specifics. Return to the big picture periodically to orient the learner and emphasize interrelationships. Start with a process lesson, then dive into the specific tasks / procedures. Another way to is to begin with an overview of all the major tasks to be trained, to show their relationship, and then dive into the specifics of each task one at a time.
  • Spiral Principle / Common-Skills-First: Present reoccurring "foundation" content early in the course. Then revisit the foundation skills but at at increasingly difficult degree of difficulty. With this approach, you are not following a linear sequence with the material.
  • Problem-based learning: use just-in-time knowledge as you progress through each of the stages of a problem with your learners.

Sample course structure for a linear outline (instructor-led):

  • Unit 1: Introduction to the job. List the skills people are going to learn. List the basic policies people need to know.
  • Unit 2: Basic skills, prerequisite concepts, skills needed for other units.
  • Unit 3: Simplest job function.
  • Unit 4: More complex job function.

Outlines for Problem-Based Learning (student-led):

  • Trigger events
  • Task inputs
  • Task deliverables
  • Feedback
  • Instructional support

PBL is most appropriate for advanced learners who can handle greater flexibility and self-directed work to solve case problems. PBL environments benefit from collaboration, and they are better adapted to training of far-transfer tasks for which there can be multiple different solutions.