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Active Learning
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Active Learning Helps SMEs Become Effective Trainers

Thursday, March 23, 2017
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Every knowledge-based company relies on the technical expertise of subject matter experts (SMEs). In many organizations, however, a large fraction of SMEs are—or soon will be—eligible for retirement. It’s essential to capture what these experts know before they leave, but there are real challenges to doing this.

For starters, there’s a big difference between being a subject matter expert and being able to teach effectively. This can be particularly true for SMEs in highly technical areas such as engineering. In addition, technical SMEs aren’t always open to accepting ideas from trainers who can’t relate to them on a technical level. The challenge, then, becomes how to help SMEs become more effective at training at the same time that these individuals are skeptical about working with trainers. 

One Solution 

One reason SMEs are skeptical about working with trainers is that they can’t see how to apply instructional design principles in the very technical courses that they must teach. It doesn’t help that trainers often speak a different language, using jargon that doesn’t resonate with technical experts. Adding to the problem is that technical SMEs are frequently skeptical of “soft sciences” like education, making them resistant to accepting advice and guidance from trainers.

To bridge this gap, smart organizations are turning to consultants who have technical experience and instructional design expertise. These consultants can help SMEs see how to make instructional design principles work when teaching very technical courses. In addition, consultants can help map the instructional design process onto a technical process that SMEs are already familiar with and comfortable using.

This emphasis on “comfort” is important, because change is much more of an emotional process than a cognitive one. If we want SMEs to change how they teach, we need to do more than show them data on the effectiveness of different instruction methods. If we want instruction to change, we must recognize that change is about letting go of something comfortable and reaching after something new that’s a little scary. SMEs need the opportunity to talk about the concerns that they have with changing how they teach, and they need a training partner that they can relate to on a technical level. 

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 Enter Active Learning  

There is mounting research evidence that active learning is more effective than traditional lecturing for many instructional outcomes. The challenge for the L&D function is helping SMEs overcome their reluctance to employ these methods.

Many technical SMEs see active learning techniques as “cute” time wasters that don’t improve learning transfer of the technical material they are trying to convey. (Depending on how active learning is implemented, the SMEs can be right!) Subject matter experts also frequently have significant concerns about the time involved in adopting active learning strategies, both in terms of preparation time and in terms of having the adequate time to cover the content required in their courses. 

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Active Learning for Busy Skeptics – and True Believers, my session at ATD 2017, is designed to address all of these issues. The presentation will focus on the three most frequent mistakes that instructors make with active learning, showing how they can avoid some common pitfalls. What’s more, the session will focus on how SMEs and L&D leaders can address concerns about time by showing how to adopt effective active learning techniques that require very little preparation and class time. Finally, the session will illustrate how to use these techniques in highly technical courses, employing strategies that work well at conveying technical content and that resonate well with a technical audience. 

 Want to learn more? Join me at ATD 2017 Conference & Exposition for the session Active Learning for Busy Skeptics – and True Believers.


About the Author

Dr. Michael Prince is a professor of chemical engineering at Bucknell University, where he has taught since 1989. His research and consulting focus on engineering education, understanding the conditions that promote learning and how to bring those conditions about in a classroom or corporate training environment. Professor Prince has published over 100 articles and conference papers on education related issues and have delivered over 150 workshops to academic and corporate audiences. He is co-director of two national faculty development programs: the "National Effective Teaching Institute" (managed by the American Society for Engineering Education) and "How to Engineer Engineering Education," a workshop that has been offered to a national audience of engineering faculty since 2001. Dr. Prince travels extensively to give educational workshops. He was recently elected to the rank of Fellow in the American Society for Engineering Education.

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