I recently reviewed a course designed by a subject matter expert (SME) and noticed something absolutely critical missing. The course was for casual coders; in other words, people who know how to code, but they don’t do it all day every day. Not surprisingly, the course started with a lesson on remedial coding to ensure that everyone knew the basics on how to actually use the software. The course continued with slide after slide of …well … coding instruction. Makes sense, right? After all, the course is about coding for coders.

While I am not a coder, I am pretty sure that one doesn’t sit down and start coding straight away. Rather, I have this sneaking suspicion that there is some planning and organizing that happens up front.

In this case, the casual coders were learning to code something called a workflow. I am sure that in the example they worked through in class, the concept of a workflow was crystal clear. I am also equally sure that once they faced the myriad of possible workflows that make up a legacy system that clarity vanished like sunshine on a rainy day when they returned to work. From what I saw, how to define a workflow and set parameters around where it begins and ends was never covered in class.

I am also guessing that one doesn’t code an entire workflow, but rather chunks that workflow into modules and links the modules together. I’d imagine it would make it easier to troubleshoot any errors that way. Again, how to do this chunking was never covered.

Also, not covered was how to set expectations with their manager about the level of complexity of the workflows they could code after attending this one three-day course. I am assuming that being assigned an especially hairy workflow to code would be beyond what they could accomplish at this point.

Here’s the thing. If these learners needed instruction on remedial coding, I am pretty sure that they might not be experienced enough to have this planning and organizing process down pat either. And, this is just a small part of what was not covered

All of these missing pieces (and many more) are part of what I like to call the “thinking process.” A thinking process is an invisible mental process that an SME goes through without even realizing it when doing any type of work requiring their expertise. And, it is absolutely critical in transferring the expertise of an SME to a novice, in this case casual coders.

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Let me give you an example that you might be able to relate to better. I have become a bit of an expert in going through yellow lights. It pains me to admit, but I suspect I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I can never seem to get out the door to go any place on time, let alone early. Often my timeliness is dependent on hitting a string of green lights between my departure point and my destination. Never happens, right? Thus, my expertise on making it through the yellow light.

I recently became aware of a whole algorithm in my head that helps me decide if the conditions are right to go through a yellow light. Here are the questions I ask myself:

  • How far am I from the light? 
  • How fast am I going? 
  • Do I know from experience that this is a long light? 
  • Is the intersection wide? 
  • Is the intersection busy or is no one around? 
  • Are there cars waiting to turn left? 
  • Are there bicyclists who might do something unpredictable? 
  • Are there pedestrians waiting to cross? Are they checking traffic or do they have their noses buried in their phones?

I weigh all of the answers to these questions in a split second to decide whether to hit the gas or hit the brake. Can you imagine what would happen if I taught my niece to drive without teaching her this thinking process?

Yet, this is exactly what happens in training all too often. And, SME-designed training is especially vulnerable—because SMEs are often unaware that this thinking process even exists since it is so ingrained and intuitive for them. When this thinking process is omitted, though, it’s like handing learners blank pieces to a complex jigsaw puzzle. Can you imagine how much longer it would take to assemble the puzzle without the aid of the little bit of image on each piece? And, some people might never do it, particularly if they are short on time or motivation.

Now that you know what’s missing, make sure to incorporate this thinking process in any future training you design. The best way to do this is to create a flowchart based on the SME thinking aloud.