What Works in Training: Make it Challenging
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What Works in Training: Make it Challenging!

Many times trainers shrink from making things too challenging for learners. They want learners to experience success and so may ask easier questions where the right answer is more obvious or perform easier activities that don’t stretch the participants too much. But that is actually a disservice to learners since research shows that when people struggle with content and master it, they remember it longer and are more likely to transfer it to the job. Making learning challenging is a best practice and a research-proven technique for helping training work.

Elizabeth and Robert Bjork first identified the impact of challenge in learning. They called the things that slowed down learning and made it more difficult desirable difficulties. These will feel less productive at the time, but in the long run, they make learning stronger and enduring.

Make training challenging

Some desirable difficulties in learning include spacing out practice over time, so that learners must pull from long-term memory rather than short-term memory, mixing up practice so that the learner does not know what they will be presented with (just like in real life), and interleaving, which is learning related skills or concepts in parallel (as opposed to blocking which presents one skill or concept at a time).

There are undesirable difficulties in learning, too. These are when the learner doesn’t have the background knowledge or skills to respond to a difficult challenge. That makes a case for laying down some background and providing resources before presenting a difficult challenge to learners, or at least understanding learners’ backgrounds and what experience they have had with a skill or topic already.

When learners repeatedly use effort to recall information and to practice skills, the learning becomes integrated into mental models. These models occur when a set of related ideas or a sequence of motor skills fuse into a meaningful whole that is then adapted and applied in later settings.

For instance, when dealing with an angry customer, agents use a number of skills such as staying engaged while not responding in kind, identifying when is the right time to respond with logic and when is the right time just to listen and empathize, expressing meaningful empathy, and understanding the business rules as to what they can and cannot do in different circumstances. They are probably also trying to find information in the CRM or other contact system and in Knowledge Management, while still engaging with the customer. That’s five skills that are generally taught in isolation, one at a time—empathy, being appropriately responsive, de-escalating, business rules, and system navigation. A challenging activity would have agents do all of these things at the same time, just as they would do in real life. And maybe that happens before teaching some of the skills. They would need to know something about system navigation before the challenge, but for the rest, learners can call on past experiences. A debrief afterwards to break apart the experience, extract helpful insights, and correct wrong information will help the learning stick.

Trying to come up with an answer or a solution rather than having it presented leads to better learning and longer retention of the correct answer or solution, even when the answer or solution is wrong, just so long as the correct answer or solution is provided. Contrary to common wisdom, being wrong does not enforce the wrong answer as long as the learner receives proper feedback. Being wrong and then corrected, actually enforces the right information and makes it easier to remember over time.

Other things that can help make agent training challenging include providing writing prompts that cause learners to summarize main points, having learners reflect on what was important and/or how they will use content, brainstorming on how one skill set relates to another, as well as providing repeated practice over time, using variety in training methods and practice so that the unexpected happens (just like it does on the floor), and interleaving related skills and knowledge.

Don’t be afraid to challenge your learners. You will be providing a possibly uncomfortable experience but one with long lasting benefits as they are better able to remember and apply skills and concepts on the job. After all, isn’t improved knowledge and skills on the job the reason why we train?

To learn more about what works in training, with tons of practice and ideas and activities that can be applied to any training, attend ICMI’s Trainer Development Workshop, November 17-18, in San Diego CA.



Topics: Learning & Development

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