Training the Trainer & Psychology – Going Back to Basics and Avoiding Common Pitfalls

With learning and curiosity right at the top of my values system, it’s no surprise that I love to attend training courses as much as I like to deliver them. Unfortunately teaching as a profession is often dismissed by the old George Bernard Shaw put-down “People who are able to do something well can do that thing for a living, while people who are not able to do anything that well make a living by teaching”. This is usually paraphrased as ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’.  It implies that teaching is not something that has to be done well. This leads many people to think that anyone can teach or train. In part this may be true, but not everyone who tries their hand at teaching and training does it well. The means that I get to sit through courses where trainers make fundamental mistakes. Often this is because they have not been trained (or taught) to train (or teach) of if they have, not particularly well.  Sometimes this means that the new trainer gets trained in the experienced trainer’s bad habits or misconceptions. The old philosophical question is never so pertinent when directed at teaching: ‘How do we know what we don’t know?’

In this post, I discuss the basics of structuring training sessions so that you appeal to the learning needs and styles of most people in your group. I use these principles in my own training and in my books. All of these principles are based on my training in psychology, teaching and coaching and are backed by evidence-based research of how people learn. The post also shares a few ‘howlers’ of things not to do.

When your students say ‘I might be thick but. . .’

Some trainers keep making the same fundamental mistakes and the people who suffer the most are the ones on the receiving end. There is a power differential in the trainer/trainee relationship. By the time the trainee (student) has worked out that the trainer (teacher) doesn’t know what they are doing. the student has already run the ‘Is it me? Am I thick/stupid?’ script in their head. So if a student begins a question ‘I may be thick could you explain that again?’ it is a signal for the trainer to take two actions:

  1. Challenge the ‘thickness’ hypothesis
  2. Explain the material in a different way

My standard response is ‘No, you are not thick. Different people learn in different ways and it’s just that I haven’t explained it in a way that connects with you’. Chances are that is there’s one student feeling ‘thick’, there are others who feel the same but didn’t have the courage to speak up for fear of appearing foolish.

Knowledge is supposed to be empowering not confidence-sapping. So, it’s your job as a trainer to accept the challenge of explaining things in different ways.  All of your trainees/students will benefit. For you, the trainer, it’s part of your professional development. You consolidate your knowledge by explaining it in a way that’s out of the ordinary (mundane) for you.

Trainer / Teacher: Know your audience

Often trainers are so enthusiastic about their topic that they forget that the aim is to communication information not offer a sermon. There are lots of people out there calling themselves ‘evangelists’ to indicate their enthusiasm for a topic. Of course this assumes that people want to be ‘evangelled’ to!

This label says more about the trainer’s self-image than the message. If you can gauge your audience’s present level of knowledge, it becomes easier to build on this. Without this you run the risk of patronizing them, boring them or losing them. It’s fundamental to any training session or lesson is that you work from the familiar to the unfamiliar. Also consider what’s in it for the audience. What take-away value does your talk offer? How can you apply it to their lives and experience?

If you don’t know, then include more interaction between your trainees/students where they get to discuss how the material applies to them. A crucial part of each session is to ask your audience what are their aims and objectives for the training sessions. Apart from working from the familiar to the unfamiliar, the other two guiding principles in any training session (lesson plan) are:

  • Start from the simple and work up to the complex and,
  • Start with the concrete and work up to the abstract.

Although it’s good to give examples of your own personal experience to bring the material to life, it’s just as important to get examples from the students/trainees. That’s the way the material will come alive.

What happens when you don’t put your students’ needs first

In my first year at university, the statistics lecturer decided to begin with the most complicated statistics test on the syllabus. The main reason was that it fitted in with his research interests. He wanted us to collect data for his PhD dissertation and combine that with the coursework requirements. We got to write-up his experiment as part of our coursework and he got to keep the raw data. Not surprisingly, collective apoplexy was the order of the day. The defense in the staff-student committee was that it was a legitimate strategy to expose students to most difficult statistics first so that by comparison everything that followed would seem easy. I was the student representative and argued that all that had been achieved was to reinforce the negative attitudes that students have to statistics. It shouldn’t have happened. It was a prime example of students getting in the way of university business. The whole of the first year statistics course ran this way. I had studied statistics before and still I struggled. For many students it was the first time the had encountered statistics. Not a great start.

I know of one trainer who was forever fiddling with his phone and would regularly stop to read his text (SMS) messages. Another trainer I experienced used to set the trainees up with a practical exercise then nip out to feed her pets (she lived locally) and would return with magazines and snacks which she proceeded to munch her way through in class. Both trainers appeared to be going through the motions and communicating to the group that they were not important and the material was not important. It’s the clear that the trainees (students) weren’t supposed to notice or weren’t supposed to question the trainer’s authority. Although these are extreme examples, the point is that the trainers’ and teachers’ behaviour form part of the ground rules for the session. These actions would have undoubtedly spoken louder than the course content.

Reading the room – Verbal and Non-verbal cues

I’ve lost count of the training courses (and lecturers) I’ve attended where the trainer or teacher neglected to ‘read the room’. So much nonsense is written about body language (non-verbal communication) but in this instance you only have to read the gross (obvious) signs.There are few subtleties in the messages people give when you’re boring them or annoying them.

If people are fidgeting and yawning, it’s a sure indication that whatever you’re doing in the session, you’ve been doing it for too long. My own favourite example is of a trainer who thought it would be a good idea to tell the audience what he did in an organization but take 50 minutes to do it. It should have taken 60 seconds, as that really was a much as the audience needed to know. The additional time it took was more to do with  ‘ego’. To achieve this seemingly simple aim, the trainer offered one slide projection of an organizational flow chart and then proceeded to talk us through it. After ten minutes, it was clear that many people were just staring straight ahead, and robotically nodding with eyes glazed over. After about 20 minutes everyone in the room (except the trainer) had clearly had enough with many people stiffing yawns. At 30 minutes a man with ‘additional learning needs’ (our saviour) yawned very loudly, stretched his arms and then blurted out even louder ‘God, isn’t this boring!’ Now all were gripped by fits of the giggles (except the trainer) which they tried to suppress. All around the room, heads bowed, shoulders twitching, and faces contorted trying to hold back the laughter. Still this had no effect on the trainer whatsoever who continued for a further 20 more minutes telling us what he did! Throughout the session the trainer forgot to ask ‘Do the audience really need to know all this?’ He overlooked the principle of ‘what’s in it for them’ in favour of his encyclopedic knowledge of the organizational structure and his role in it.  No one else in the room could give a damn (and that’s being polite).

Ground rules

As a trainer you are responsible for who the session unfolds. Usually it is common practice to tell people where the toilets are and basic health and safety to tell them where the fire exits are. It’s also import to let people know about basic ground rules such as confidentiality, valuing other’s opinions and so on.

I attended a theatre-based improvization day beginners workshop. There are a number of basic rules for improv such as ‘always accepted an offer’, ‘follow the follower’, and ‘always make your partner look good’. Among the cardinal sins are blocking offers by saying ‘no’ to everything, working in jokes to get a quick laugh and trying to steal a scene at the other person’s expense. A key thing in improv is that we learn by mistakes which are discussed in an open forum. So with a beginners’ class it’s crucial clearly to set out these basic rules. That way when people break the rules, it doesn’t come as such a surprise when they get feedback in front of the group. The group facilitator (trainer) can remind everyone of the ground rules and then highlight the transgression. That way everyone learns and it’s not too painful fr the person who made the error.

However, I have witnessed courses where people have been for breaking the rules even though the rules had not been clearly articulated at the start of the session. Further more the public ‘dressing-down’ of ‘bad, selfish person’ went on far too long so that the whole of the group began to feel uncomfortable. By this time squirming had overtaken the learning. Even an interjection of  ‘Come on, it’s not as if he’s murdered anyone or anything’ did not halt the tirade. It’s all to easy for trainers in this case an ‘evangelist’)  to be so passionate in their quest to get everything right that they lose sight of the audience. If your aim is to create a playful, engaging atmosphere, that won’t be achieved through fear of making mistakes.

Aims and Objectives: Let everyone in on the lesson plan

People learn better and can process information more effectively if they have a context.This has been demonstrated in memory experiments in psychology. Give two groups a page of text to memorize. The only difference is that one group gets a heading to contextualize and the other just gets the text. The one with the heading remember more of the text. The heading offered something to ‘hang the information from’.

A training session, lecture or lesson should have a road map open to all. You only have to think about going on a journey to an unfamiliar place. The journey back always seems shorter. That’s because you now know the landmarks, milestones and signposts. Occasionally you might want to take learners on a mystery tour but if you do this, don’t be too surprised if people fidget and shout out from the backseat ‘Are we there yet, Dad?’  So unless it’s an experiential workshop where it’s key to let the process develop usually people like to know what they are letting themselves in for.

Variety is the spice of a training session

Psychologically we all have quite short attention spans. No it’s not just you. On average, after about 20 minutes of doing the same activity our ability to process information at full tilt begins to diminish. The exception is if the task in question is a personal passion. So you can see that there maybe a conflict if you assume that everyone shares your passion for a subject. For you, 50 minutes of non-stop lecturing might be a wonderful experience. To your audience it may well be 30 minutes too much. To avoid this, remember the rule of 20. Chunk your training session down into 20 minute blocks. If you really must lecture for the whole session, then after 20 minutes, give the audience five minutes to discuss the main points with their ‘neighbour’. Then invite the audience to shout out the points they came up with. Give feedback, add any important points you think they missed then carry on bor. . . sorry I mean lecturing them. Okay, so this will eat into your lecturing time but that few minutes will help to consolidate the knowledge. It’s no point in cramming in as much information you can if you don’t respect basic principles of psychology.

Basic Psychology: Know something about how people learn

Throughout this piece I have alluded to the importance of the psychology of learning. This doesn’t have to involved years studying psychology. You can achieve a great deal with the basic principles we have covered here. In addition, recognise that there are different learning styles and nor all people respond to the same way of receiving information. One way of typing learners is through sensory preference. All this means is that people prefer to use a particular channel linked to their senses. The main ones are: visual, audio and kinesthetic. The audio people may prefer a training session with someone talking for the duration, although even they need a break. The visual types prefer diagrams or video demonstrations and the kinesthetic lot like to experience and ‘feel’ things for themselves. The easiest way to cater to all needs is to create variety in your sessions.

Some learners are more reflective and some like to ‘get stuck in’ and try things out (active versus reflective learning). Again just build in opportunities for both. Some learners like to see the big picture (global learners) where are some prefer a step-by-step approach (sequential learners). If you begin with a summary of what trainees/students will expect and then follow-up with the steps, you cover both bases. Some are more theoretically inclined and some are more practical.

(I have written other posts aimed at students and how they can maximise their learning with basic psychological principles, see: 17 Top Study Skills Tips From a Psychologist and Lecturer)

It’s important to recognise that it’s not possible to satisfy every person in the room, every minute of the time. However, by creating variety in your lesson plans and training sessions you are more likely to address the needs of the group.

So here’s a recap:

  • Build variety into your training sessions and lesson plans to tap into different learning styles
  • Follow the 20 minute rule. After this time that there is a serious drop in the amount of information people will absorb. The remedy is to switch activities or have a short break.
  • Start from the familiar (so you engage people) and work up to the unfamiliar, so you take them on the journey
  • Start with the simple stuff and work up to the complex. Simple stuff includes offering definitions for key concepts. If basic definitions are fuzzy you can be sure how everyone is making sense of the material
  • Start with concrete stuff people can relate to and work up to the abstract.
  • Read the room and be flexible. If people are yawning or fidgeting, it’s an indication that you need to do something different.
  • What take-away value does your training session / lesson plan have?

Anyone teaching or training will make mistakes, that’s part of the process. The secret is to reflect on your efforts and take stock of what you do right and where you can connect better with your audience. Part of this process is vicarious learning. So it’s important to be continue your personal amd professional development by being a student.

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Dr Gary Wood is a Chartered Psychologist, author, life coach and broadcaster. Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodHe has taught in several UK universities and regularly contributes psychological insights and coaching tips in the media. He runs his own coaching and training practice and research consultancy in Birmingham and Edinburgh, UK.As well as academic papers he is the author of three self-help books, including Unlock Your Confidence.



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