Learning professionals have a wide variety of technology-based tools available for the creation and delivery of instruction, but tools alone are not sufficient for creating instruction that changes behavior, influences learners, and ultimately improves organizations. The instruction must be properly designed, crafted, and presented. To truly create effective instruction, learning professionals need to match the right instructional strategy to the content being delivered, whether online or in a classroom. You cannot teach how to solve a customer billing complaint using the same strategies used to teach an employee how to log on to the corporate intranet.
Instructional strategies are methodologies that help learners transfer content into actions and behaviors. Specifically, a strategy is a set of techniques and approaches for presenting content and information in a way that assists the learner in achieving the desired learning outcome. Applying the right strategies aids the learner in retention of content, assists in helping apply the content on the job, and facilitates in recall.
Types of content
In an organization, there are different types of content that need to be learned and applied to different situations. For example, there are the dozens of acronyms, facts, and industry-specific terms that must be memorized and used in daily conversations with co-workers and clients. This is known as declarative knowledge, which is information that simply needs to be memorized (for example, the fact that ATM means "automated teller machine").
Then there is conceptual knowledge, which is the categorization of knowledge by attributes. This involves understanding something such as the concept of an overdraft on a check.
There are also instructions, such as computer procedures that must be followed in a step-by-step manner, or noncomputer procedures that need to be followed as well, such as the procedure for closing out a cash drawer in a bank. This is known as procedural knowledge.
The highest level of knowledge is problem solving. Problem-solving knowledge involves understanding how to deal with unknown situations such as how to handle a request for an unusually large loan without secured collateral.
The job of learning professionals is to help co-workers learn the necessary information in all of the knowledge types as efficiently as possible. To do this, instructional strategies must be matched to the instructional content. This article examines each type of knowledge and presents some design strategies for helping learners to grasp that content.
Problem solving occurs when an employee is confronted with a previously unencountered situation and applies prior learning or knowledge to remedy to solve the problem. This is where employee knowledge creates the greatest value to the organization. Remember that problem solving in this context does not necessarily mean a difficult or troubling situation.
Problem solving can involve the creation of a business case for a new product, launch of a social media advertising campaign, generation of ideas during a brainstorming session, and development of a blueprint. Problem solving is any activity that involves original thinking to develop a solution, solve a difficult problem, or create a product.
Strategies to prepare a person to problem solve include
- Reviewing multiple case studies. This strategy involves helping learners identify patterns within the cases. It involves the examination of case variables that impact the outcome of the case compared to irrelevant variables. The goal is to help learners understand the underlying factors that influence the outcome of the case and to develop solutions. When learners can recognize certain patterns, they can more effectively solve problems.
- Teaching a questioning protocol. Experts solve problems by asking themselves different questions than novices. One way to speed the process for the novices is to teach what questions to ask. Provide a list of prompts or questions to help trigger thoughts and question sets. A sample list of questions might include: "How is this similar to problems I've encountered before? Have I identified the real problem? What variables do I need to consider? If resources were not an obstacle, what would I do? What do I know to be true and what is unknown?"
- Directing and releasing a "learning documentary." Think, a reality show for problem-solving. Create a video demonstrating how other employees have solved similar problems. Often, work involved with problem solving goes on in someone's head, and it is difficult to convey that knowledge in a learning environment. One answer is to create a documentary in which the learner watches a situation, observes how an expert reacts, and then listens to the expert debrief the situation at key points. It is a good way to get into the head of an expert to determine why she approaches a situation in a certain manner and to listen to her "think aloud" about problem solving.
- Challenging the learner. Immerse the learner in the situation in which he needs to apply the knowledge immediately. We traditionally teach creative problem solving and other skills by providing a list of all the elements that need to be learned. The trainer carefully explains each item and what it means, and then the learners are given a case study or role-play exercise. Instead, start with a problem. Tell the learner, something along the lines of, "You are the bank manager and someone has embezzled, what do you do?" As the learner tries to solve the problem, provide guidance and assistance. Be supportive of the learner, but only provide information when the learner encounters an obstacle to solving his problem. Create the need for the learner to seek or require the information you want him to learn. This creates motivation and aids retention.
- Creating a simulation. This can be an online or face-to-face simulation, or even a blend. Role play is a form of simulation that can occur within a classroom setting with one person simulating a customer, for example, and another simulating the salesperson. Simulations provide the learner with a chance to solve a problem in a safe and controlled environment that is realistically shaped to represent the actual environment in which he will have to apply the skill when on the job.
Problem solving is an important element in many organizations. Using these strategies will help ensure that employees within your organization know how to solve problems and will add value to the organization and for your customers.
Procedures are step-by-step instructions for performing a particular task. A procedure is a series of steps that must be followed in a particular order to reach a specific outcome. Organizations have thousands of procedures that must be learned and followed on a regular basis, from computer procedures to procedures for handling client questions, answering the phone, or even locking up the building for the evening.
When teaching a procedure, use these strategies:
- Check conceptual understanding. If learners are having trouble learning a procedure or, in particular, applying that procedure, it might be because they don't understand the underlying concepts. Procedures are a series of "strung-together" concepts, and failure to understand one of the underlying concepts could result in failure to properly apply the procedure. Check the understating of the underling concepts if the procedures are not being learned properly.
- Start with the big picture. Provide an overview of the entire procedure. Learners need an understanding of the context in which the procedure is applied, and they need to know how all the parts of the procedure work together. Often, a flowchart or diagram represents an effective method for providing an overview.
- Teach "why." Provide the "why" as well as the "how" of the procedure. If you don't provide the "why," learners won't be able to deal with anomalies or changes because they will only have memorized the steps in the procedure, without understanding why the steps are being performed. It is important that learners understand the concepts behind the procedure as they learn. Understanding underlying concepts helps with troubleshooting, performing meaningful workarounds, and adapting to procedural changes.
- Use a three-step process for software procedures. Demonstrate the software so that learners can get an overview of how it functions. Next, have the learners follow along with the software as they are guided through the procedure by the instructor. Finally, allow the learners to perform the procedure on their own. This three-step process provides an overview, helps learners gain familiarity with the procedure, and allows them to apply the knowledge on their own.
- Provide an "impossible" version of the procedure. Often, when presenting lessons in a training session, we provide easy and simple procedures so that learners can easily understand the content. However, we rarely challenge learners with the types of variations, twists, and turns that they typically encounter when unusual circumstances occur on the job that disrupt the normal version of the procedure. For example, an order-entry clerk might not know what to do if a customer is over his credit limit but is challenging a charge that would place him under the limit. Can the customer place the order? What is the size of the order? So before the end of the learning session, provide an extremely difficult version of the procedure that you are teaching. This version of the procedure will help learners prepare for thinking through unusual or infrequent application of the information within the procedure. At the end of the learning session, he will have more confidence because he will have dealt with an "impossible" procedure and because he has been forced to move beyond memorization of keystrokes, to cognitively processing procedural information.
Procedural information provides the structure in which organizations function. Learning proper procedures is an integral part of the efficient functioning of an organization. The more quickly and effectively employees can learn procedures, the better run the organization.
A concept is a grouping of similar or related ideas, events, or objects that have a common attribute or a set of common attributes. Concepts such as quality, customer service, and organizational security are all important to the effective operations of an organization. Employees within organizations must understand the concepts related to the effective operations of the enterprise. Employees in financial organizations must understand the concept of compounded interest, while employees in a retail organization must understand the concept behind product display.
Strategies for teaching concepts include
- Providing metaphoric devices. This technique provides a link between the known elements within the metaphor and the unknown concept to be learned. This can include the use of analogies and comparisons of the familiar with the unfamiliar. The presentation of the content can be in verbal or visual format. For example, you could describe the inventory within an organization as a creek with unknown problems covered by water, and you could show a diagram of a creek with no rocks exposed. As the water in the creek is lowered, the problems are exposed, just as rocks would be exposed as you reduce the level in the creek. You could then show a picture of lower water in the creek, with rocks emerging.
- Offering examples and nonexamples. Gaining knowledge of a concept can be achieved by providing the learners with several examples of the concept, followed by nonexamples of the concept. If the concept is safety, the learner can observe a series of incidents in which a worker is acting in a safe manner. Next, examples of unsafe behavior can be shown, and learners can be asked to make comparisons. This allows learners to identify types of behavior that are safe, and those that are not.
- Immersing the learner within the concept. One methodology made possible with 3D virtual environments is the immersion of learners into a concept, which allows them to experience it. With the previous safety example, you could place the learner in an unsafe virtual environment, and allow him to identify all the elements that make the environment unsafe. The learner can then experience the consequences of the unsafe environment by observing what happens to his avatar when it enters the environment. This immersive process allows the learner to experience a concept firsthand.
- Creating a concept map. A common visualization technique for teaching concepts is the use of a concept map. This is a graphical representation of a concept that shows the relationship between different attributes of the concept and indicates how they relate to one another through connect lines.
Employees are confronted with conceptual knowledge on a daily basis. They must understand concepts related to compliance, safety, customer service, operations, and other conceptual information that informs them as they do their jobs. Concepts are a basic building block when helping employees learn information that makes them more productive and safe at work.
Declarative knowledge, also known as verbal knowledge or factual knowledge, is any piece of information that can only be learned through memorization. It is an association between two or more items that are linked through memorization. For example, the fact that ADDIE represents the words Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation is declarative knowledge. Facts, jargon, terminology, and acronyms are some of the most common pieces of factual knowledge found in organizations. Most organizations have numerous acronyms and jargon, so declarative knowledge is key, especially for new employees.
Methods of teaching declarative knowledge include
- Mnemonics. Mnemonics are tricks to help enrich the information to be memorized and therefore make the information easier to retrieve when needed. A mnemonic is an acronym in which the first letter of the word represents a term or step in a process. A good example is the mnemonic PASS, in which P stands for pull, A stands for aim, S stands for squeeze, and the last S stands for sweep. Research indicates that the more richly we encode information to be memorized, the more easily we retrieve it.
- Chunking. This is the breaking down of content into small pieces of information that can be easily memorized. Studies indicate that the average adult learns best when presented with information in a logical group of approximately five to seven items. Effective methods include chunking information into small lists or grouping it under a common heading.
- Storytelling. Embedding facts into the body of story is a meaningful technique for teaching facts. Studies indicate that humans have a natural tendency to remember facts more accurately if those facts are contained within a story rather than presented merely as a list of details to be memorized. When presenting new facts to be memorized, consider using a story or narrative to communicate the information.
Facts, jargon, and acronyms are important pieces of knowledge that must be learned to be successful in any career and within any organization. Helping employees acquire this knowledge helps them assimilate into an organization and allows them to build upon their factual knowledge as they learn higher levels of content, such as procedural or problem-solving knowledge.
The application of specific strategies can greatly accelerate the learning process. As a designer of instruction, carefully choose your strategies, identify the content you want to present, and keep in mind the perspective of the learner. Properly matching the content to be learned with the right instructional strategy provides the most effective method of transferring knowledge within an organization.