Bill came to the five-day course in advanced business intelligence and analytics with the aim of completing his project while pretending to attend what he thought would be a typical boring, yet mandatory technical course. He had gotten tired of these courses, where 90 percent of the content was not relevant to his job and most of it could be read in a book anyway (and he has read all the books). True to form, that is what he got. He still picked up a few things, but the course was mostly a waste of time, with more than half the content completely irrelevant to his work.
Many people that have attended similar technical courses have had the same experience. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In this post, I will share tips for designing and teaching technical courses that may significantly improve participant retention and make them eager for more.
Tip 1: Know Your Audience
Before you jump in to deliver that well-crafted, 100-page instructor guide, try and get to know your audience and what aspects of this technical tool they need on the job. Take Excel for example. Does everyone really need to master VLOOKUP, INDEX, and MATCH? Salespeople may only use Excel to record their leads and track opportunities. All they need on the job are efficient ways to validate their data entry, and maybe a quick Pivot lesson to report and visualize their progress. Send out a simple survey to all participants to collate their actual on-the-job needs to aid in your design efforts.
Tip 2: Differentiate Between Knowledge and Skill Objectives
There are aspects of a technical course that are essential for your audience to know. Sticking with the Excel theme, I have found that giving a simple and interesting history lesson about the software gives participants a very good basis to understand the thought behind how the tool works. This significantly improves the learning curve in adopting new tools. Knowledge objectives should not be taught in a face-to-face setting (this is also known as death by PowerPoint!). Use a video, podcast, or document. You may even use all these to account for learner preferences. My favorite trick is to use a social media platform such as Google Plus to cover this material and get to know the participants before the live session. For skills objectives, I tend to use quizzes before the live session just to gauge the level of competency I should expect. Make your quizzes fun, have a leaderboard, and don’t ask all the questions all at once; one a day may work just fine.
Tip 3: Gamify the Practice Sessions With Adapted Case Studies
In designing your topics or practice sessions, always adapt the questions in the form of a case study. This may require a level of creativity on your part, which will take time, but will pay dividends in the end.
Once I had to teach a Power BI course (Power BI is a business intelligence tool). The practice session had standard visuals. I could have put up the standard visuals and worked the class step-by-step through how to build it, get them to practice, and move on. Boring! Instead, I gave learners the very basic steps needed to create the visuals, then I broke the class into groups of threes, got them all to huddle around one laptop, and told them they had 10 minutes to create the best mini dashboard they could come up with. Each learner had one “lifeline,” or one chance to ask me for help.
The collaboration and the bare-bones nature of the information they started with encouraged learners to explore the tool themselves, and discover how to use it in a way that they’d remember later. During the activity, I played music in the background (30 beats per minute). A few minutes to the deadline, I switch to a track at 40 beats per minute, and then stop the music to signify the end. Now for the gamification bit of the activity: I asked all groups to rotate to the other groups’ tables, view their visualizations, and use a sticky note to give the visual a score from one to 10. At the end, each group called out their scores and the winning group was announced. Each group then had one minute to talk about their approach to the activity. This activity only takes about 20 minutes and really costs nothing to implement. Use this and other creative ideas to improve the stickiness of the technical concepts you are teaching.
Tip 4: Take Advantage of Technology
Technical courses are best taught in small, byte-sized pieces (pun intended). Short videos teaching one concept at a time is arguably the best way to learn a topic. The just-in-time nature of this approach is also excellent for hard-to-master skills, and could be just what is needed on the job to efficiently complete a project. Think of curating most of your content into short three- to five-minute videos, stuff that can even be consumed on a mobile phone from a readily accessible platform. Technology for doing this is quite cheap and videos like this can be incorporated into your corporate intranet. Just make sure they are accessible and everyone know where to get them. Feature a couple of these videos in internal emails or the website. Technical training doesn’t have to be in the classroom; the time it is needed the most is usually on the job.
Tip 5: Collect and Analyze Feedback Throughout the Process
Every step of the way before, during, and after the training, it is essential that you get feedback from participants and stakeholders to confirm the effectiveness of your course design. For my live sessions, I use a clicker technology from Turningpoint, which allows me to administer pop quizzes every couple of hours to assess assimilation during the live session. I use a survey tool to assess needs and prior knowledge before the course starts, and I use survey tools and quizzes after the course to assess retention and gather feedback from management and participants on the effectiveness of the course. These data are then used to improve the course.
This last point is important. You need to constantly gather feedback and improve on the course, because technical courses have one characteristic that other course types don’t: the tool, software, or design that you are teaching quickly becomes obsolete and so you will need to go through this post all over again!