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ATD Blog

Better Science for Better Learning: Guided Practice

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

When learners practice something correctly, do you think they should:

A. receive praise then move on to the next exercise, or
B. receive guidance even though they got it right?

Hmmm. If the correct answer turns out to be B, then that guidance had better be worthwhile. Hold this thought as you keep reading.

We’ll start with practice, which involves repeating something until mental or physical agility is established. Unfortunately, repetitive practice has two drawbacks: Employees find it boring, and it takes them away from their work. (To those who say it’s possible to build skills through informal learning during work, I reply, “True, but that’s harder to manage and also has hidden costs, so I’m not discussing it today.”) Because of practice’s drawbacks, some corporations are cutting it out and replacing it with text and video. But wait! This introduces a new problem. Text and video return less skill to the enterprise. Down goes employee performance and in mission-critical work, up goes risk. All of this is a fancy way of saying that when management stops paying for practice-based learning, they’re shooting their corporate goals in the foot.

Back to basics—it’s time to restate ATD’s motto of “Telling ain’t training.” We should return practice to instructional design while addressing its two biggest problems: boredom and time spent.

Segmenting Reduces Practice Time and Boredom

Segment a practice problem by breaking it into smaller pieces then present each segment partly solved. Focus the learner on more difficult parts of the problem without wasting time on the rest. If it’s an HR problem, tell the first part of the story and ask what to do next. If it’s an industrial process, present the first few steps and . . . you get the idea. Loop through practice enough times to build skills, focusing on different aspects during each loop to make the work less onerous.

My wife, who started taking piano lessons as an adult, talks about a teacher who demanded that she practice an entire page of music at once, struggling through it to “feel the flow.” At home, she circled measures that seemed difficult and practiced them separately. Then, when she returned to reading the whole page, she could feel the flow just fine, thank you. Not only did this make practice more interesting, it also helped her learn the music faster than expected.


Salience Reduces Practice Boredom While Enhancing Memory

Recall from the third blog post that learners remember salient material. What’s more, salience can be entertaining, which combats boredom. So, create practice questions that infuse the learner’s workplace with drama, surprise, and human interest. Don’t write a snoozer like, “What steps should you perform when a boiler overheats?” Instead write, “A siren just went off. Your co-workers are running for the exits. Needles on the three dials in front of you are in the red. What step do you take first?” Then revisit the scenario, focusing on other aspects of the problem such as, “The siren went off again. Two dials are in the red but the one on the right reads 288! Now what?” After your learners answer several variations on this salient question, they’re more likely to remember how to handle a similar real-world problem.

While these methods work in person and online, guidance requires separate approaches. We’ll begin with the face-to-face or synchronous classroom.

Flipped Learning Helps Facilitators Focus on Guidance

Recently, there has been movement away from holding guidance until after practice. In the so-called “flipped classroom,” learners absorb information at home through text or video then come to class to do the problems traditionally called “homework.” The idea is to have facilitators provide support, offering pointers and answering questions. Try designing blended learning in which your information transfer is self-paced and followed by face-to-face or synchronous guided practice. You’ll find great examples in the Flip Learning community.

In-Person Guidance Helps Learners Optimize Reasoning

Facilitators know that in-person guidance should constructively respond to wrong answers. But it can also provide learning after right answers. Ask your SME when learners may stumble into correct answers through wobbly thinking. Then include specific examples in your facilitator guide along with suggestions that help facilitators guide learners past each type of wobble (per my question at the beginning of this post).


While these methods work well for facilitated guidance, you need other methods to support self-paced guidance.

Online, Salient Feedback Can Add Value to Correct Answers

Self-paced guidance usually arrives through multiple-choice questions whose answers are right or wrong. But wrong answers that state only “Incorrect” aren’t real guidance; they’re a subtle form of bullying. Right answers that assert “You are correct!”—I love the condescending exclamation point—are a wasted learning opportunity.

Better is software that offers remediation for wrong answers, usually in one of three forms: a helpful hint, an opportunity to try again, or the correct answer.

Best is software that also offers remediation for right answers. The moment a learner does something well is a great time to teach even more. So, provide more! Offer a salient tidbit about the topic that isn’t found elsewhere. Describe how humans use it to do something interesting. Reward the learner with more learning.

What about qualifying examinations? As long as their questions are drawn from a large, randomized database to guard against people memorizing answers, exams are another opportunity for learning feedback. Examinations that end with a percentage or pass/fail don’t enrich learning or help the enterprise. They only filter out losers, which should happen during hiring and performance reviews without casting a shadow over learning.

We’re Not Finished With Practice

Join me in two weeks for a deeper dive into ways practice can enhance flexible thinking on the job. In the meantime, let me know whether you’ve encountered one of today’s suggestions in the wild. If so, how did it go?

About the Author

Douglas Lieberman offers short-term consulting and targeted problem solving for difficult challenges in skill building and behavior change. For more than a decade he was a member of IBM’s Center for Advanced Learning, where he led the award-winning, patent pending Adaptive Learner approach to innovative thinking, and he created the instructional standards for IBM Watson employees’ required online training in artificial intelligence. Now he works with IBM’s P-Tech initiative, bringing technical training to underserved populations around the world.

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