Friday, April 18, 2014

Strategies for effective learning delivery - A few Pointers

Strategies for Effective Learning Delivery

Ever since I was a young boy in a classroom, the idea of teaching has always intrigued me. At school, there were many teachers who made my attention wander or induced boredom. And then there were those that had my undivided attention. They transfixed me, inspired me and tickled my curiosity. I have often wondered what makes the difference. What sets inspiring educators apart from their peers?

I still have fond memories of my History teacher in 7th grade. He used to walk in to the class without a single paper or book in his hand. He would often start a discussion on a random topic and leave the whole class spellbound with his vivid account of great Kings, Queens and events around the world. He actually made history come alive – free from the confines of a drab textbook. I always got exceptionally good grades in history as compared to other subjects. My parents would often wonder why. Well, I wondered too.

It took me years to figure out why. He made us relive history. In some way, I could experience history through his words. That made it easy for me to retain what I had learned and sail through the subject with effortless ease. There is a great difference between enforcing education and involved learning. Teaching is the art of getting the student involved in the subject without coercion.

When I got to college in India, my parents thought it was best to enroll me at NIIT (an upcoming computer educational institute). They had the vision to understand that a future professional needed to be computer literate. Computers, software? Honestly, I had no clue what I was in for.

The first day is still vivid in my memory.  As the instructor, a middle aged lady immaculately dressed in a sari walked in with a bunch of overhead projector slides in her hand, I was a little anxious. The teacher put the slides down on the table. What she said in the next ten minutes, transformed my life.

What she essentially told us was that learning and developing software was the easiest task in the world. All one had to do was think rationally and logically. For the next three months, she took us through the intricate yet simple process of creating flowcharts and the ability to dissect and branch a problem into possible workflows. By the end of the program, the new learning had not just made me understand and love the details of code and software but had also given me an additional gift of mental discipline and the ability to think through a problem and find a logical solution.

What was the magic here? The instructor knew how to present the subject to an audience and get them to think for themselves and get involved in the learning process. She would never force anyone to accept a solution that they weren’t convinced about. She would explore various workflows and was open to discussion and modification. The freedom to learn the process rather than the book was the key. Every student in that class passed with flying colors in that module. We had come from diverse backgrounds but her involved method of teaching transformed our thinking. It would not be unfair to say that those three months of creating flowcharts were the foundation of my software career.  I hope we continue to have educators like her in the industry.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to teach varied audiences which include young college graduates, developers, implementation teams, solution architects, project managers, senior sales teams and CEOs.  These strategies that I am outlining are my personal experiences as an instructor:

Strategy 1: Get to know your audience and their training needs
The success of a classroom session largely depends on the instructor’s understanding of them. Therefore, all instructors must spend at least the first half an hour getting to know the audience – their background, training needs and expectations from the session. A lively and interactive ice-breaking session sets the tone for the rest of the program – so make sure you don’t confine the introduction to a form full of names and titles. Participants come to training for a specific reason and those objectives must be addressed in the context of the course. You can teach the same topic each time with a different focus. 
Advice for upcoming instructors: The first one hour of a class can make or break your training program – connect with your customer – and shift focus accordingly.

Strategy 2: Refresh Pre-requisites
Every training program has some qualifiers and prerequisites which participants must already be familiar with before they move to an advanced level. It is always a good practice to check with your audience if they need a quick refresher on those prerequisites. I always do that in my classes. The products that I teach need a J2EE or.NET background and going back to the basics puts participants at ease. It raises their comfort level when they realize that the instructor is on the same page as them so that they can facilitate the learning process together.
Advice for upcoming instructors: Don’t jump the gun with your audience – start from where they are and guide them along the learning path.

Strategy 3: Keep it Real
This brings me back to my history teacher. Always draw on examples from real life – have a story to tell for each topic. This helps participants associate what they have learned with a practical example of how it works in the real world and provides a reference point to learning when they develop solutions for customers. IT training courses cannot be theoretical nor can we use metaphors for all topics. To keep a fine balance, instructors must continuously research their subject. Every onsite experience should be taken as a learning opportunity. Spend as much time as possible with customers and understand problems and solutions in the real world. Training should not only be a nine- to-five job. Spend a few minutes everyday to reflect on audience responses and learn from the experience. Every question posed by the audience is an opportunity to learn more.
Advice for upcoming instructors: Don’t confine yourself to a text book. Learn from your audience, take mental notes and share stories to evolve your training style.

Strategy 4: Make it Your Passion
As we always say at NIIT, training is our business and our passion. Instructors must be passionate about the subject they teach. The love and enthusiasm for the subject should be evident when they teach. Audiences must perceive that energy in the instructor. Software is a vast field with many available options. When participants come into a class they are all on slippery ground. They are unsure about the product or platform. It’s our job to give them the confidence to go back to their work places equipped with the skills to increase their competency and productivity.
Advice for upcoming instructors: Teaching is not a job. It is a responsibility.

And finally, the above are just some core strategies for learning delivery in IT training that I have shared. There are endless possibilities and approaches in an instructor’s journey. Evolve your own approach but always ensure that it works for your audience.

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