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Engaging Learners through Practice

by AIMM MAITD

Why Practice Is Important

Professional trainers work hard to engage learners and foster skill development. They do this using a variety of strategies and techniques. If you are a novice trainer or simply want to be more effective in your training, there are four key areas you need to focus on to get your program participants motivated and engaged in useful learning. These four areas are:

  1. Practice

In this article, I want to focus on the third of these training techniques; using practice sessions during the course of the training program. My discussion below applies equally no matter what form your training program takes. It applies to face-to-face classroom sessions and all forms of distance learning, such as online webinars and workshops.

It is now well-known that practicing a skill develops and strengthens neural pathways in the learner's brain. This strengthening aids memory and turns a previous slow conscious response into an expert automated response or a habit.

Importantly, practice sessions can also engage learners. These sessions can get participants more involved in the subject matter, sparking their interest as they experience new aspects of the skill. With the success that they achieve throughout the practice session, their self-confidence builds. More confidence leads to a greater desire to achieve even higher proficiency. For many, the act of practicing becomes a self-reinforcing loop.

Building in opportunities for practice also increases engagement by revealing to participants firsthand how the new skills can improve their work on the job. Furthermore, we are at heart social beings. We strive for a sense of belonging and thrive on personal and group interaction. Practice sessions allow much more scope for participants to interact at a human level with the trainer and the other course attendees.

Trainers must think strategically about when and where they will place practice sessions within their training programs. Think for a moment about the consequences of neglecting to include adequate opportunities for learners to practice. With endless theory sessions or stories from the trainer, or the turning of one electronic page after another during an e-learning program, not only will participants refuse to learn, they will lose all interest in learning.

Four Tips for Using Practice Sessions

The importance of skill practice is a given. But how do you go about building in effective skill practice sessions in a training program? Here are my top four techniques for using practice sessions to generate learner interest and a desire to excel.

  1. Intersperse theory with practice sessions. The variety of physical movement and mental activity helps to maintain participant interest. This is also an excellent method of chunking and pacing the subject matter. If you want to move participants from a simple base to more complex knowledge or skills, practice at the end of each chunk of theory builds participant confidence to want to move to the next level.

  2. Use a practice method that suits the skill being taught. Role-plays are excellent for building interpersonal skills, such as negotiation, conflict resolution, interviewing, performance feedback, and so on. Case studies allow for in-depth analysis and response to specific real-life scenarios requiring problem solving ability, consulting skills, and so on. Drills are appropriate for technical and artistic skills, such as soldering, assembly, playing a musical instrument, and so on. Varying the type of practice session will also help to maintain participant interest and develop a wider repertoire of skills.

  3. Consider using action learning and problem-based learning where suitable. These two approaches encompass most, if not all, of a training design. Action learning uses a facilitator to work with a small group of learners. Each learner is helped by the facilitator and the others in the group to define their own challenges. In between sessions, each learner is responsible for applying their learnings and reporting back to the group.

    With problem-based learning, trainers submit a real-life problem to groups of participants. Participants then seek out resources and work with their peers to solve the problem and present their solution to the other groups. The point about these two approaches is that the "theory" sessions are not the centerpiece of the training design. Here, practice takes center stage.

  4. Where there is no clear right or wrong way of doing the task, get participants to explore multiple perspectives. Examples here are professional tasks in the areas of industrial relations, management, strategic planning, consulting, and so on. Get participants to explore multiple perspectives through organizing a debate on a controversial topic, leading a discussion on a recent decision or action, or setting up a blog or discussion forum. The intent here is to encourage discussion and debate amongst the participants, with a proper debrief after the event.

Conclusion

In this day and age of rapid training and stretched resources, skill practice sessions are often the first casualty of today's training programs. I have endeavored to show that this is a big mistake. Training programs that are nine miles wide and one inch thick seem efficient to inexperienced program sponsors and managers. However, in reality, they are a huge waste of scarce resources.

When money and time are tight, it is more prudent and efficient to skip some theory whilst bolstering up opportunities for learners to practice. With my top four techniques, I showed trainers how they can embed practice sessions effectively through chunking and spacing material, choosing the right kind of practice sessions, using a problem-centered approach and exploring multiple perspectives. My one parting word of advice is: Don't let learner practice end at the conclusion of the course. Work to ensure that your program participants keep practicing on the job.

Further Reading

The above is an edited extract from Leslie Allan's book, From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance.

Copyright © Leslie Allan

About the Author
Leslie Allan

Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.

He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at office@businessperform.com

Leslie Recommends
From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance

Find out more about how to create training that is practical and engaging for learners. Check out Leslie Allan's practical resource kit packed with ideas, tools and templates for implementing effective learning. Visit the From Training to Enhanced Workplace Performance information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using Leslie's comprehensive training guide and toolkit today.

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