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What Works in Training: Guiding Attention

One of the things that has been proven by research to work with training is guiding learners’ attention to what is most important. This may seem really obvious on the surface, but how we guide attention makes all the difference.

Learning TrainingOne of the traditional ways that trainers have indicated something is important is by creating learning objectives and presenting these at the beginning of the training session. Personally, my mind tends to go to sleep when I see these nice formally stated learning objectives and part of me worries that this is going to be a really dry training. I have found that many others (secretly) feel the same way.

Dr. Will Thallheimer has a video, Learning Objectives – A Research-Inspired Odyssey, that covers the value of learning objectives in training. Essentially, keywords in specifically worded focusing objectives can draw learners’ attention, but we don’t need objectives to do that as there are lots of other ways we can draw learner’s attention to what is important. Whew! That means I don’t have to put my learners to sleep by presenting them with formally-worded learning objectives at the beginning of each training session. I can use other techniques to guide learners’ attention to what is important.

As I’ve redeveloped and updated ICMI training courses, I have been doing away with the learning objectives on a slide in the presentation. They may still be found in the participant workbook because sometimes participants need these for reporting back to someone at the office. But we do not spend time going over the learning objectives in the class. Instead, I have focused on how the course is organized—what topics are covered and when. In some cases, I have also put key words on the title page for each section of the training to further draw participants’ attention to what is most important in that section.

Another technique ICMI uses is asking prequestions that help us understand how much participants already know while drawing attention to what will be most important in the training. Of course, the prequestions have to be carefully crafted so that they really do reflect what is most important. I never understand when, in new agent training, a question asks for the specific date and/or place when the company was founded. I have yet to hear that question from any caller. Good prequestions have to be relevant to the job or desired behavior that is being covered in the training.

ICMI trainers also frequently tell stories about real problems encountered in the contact center and how certain information or techniques either would have helped or did help solve the problem. Telling relevant stories is a powerful way to draw people’s attention to what is important in training. If they can relate to the problem and see how the content can help them solve the problem, it becomes more important (and thus, more memorable) to them.

It is true that a trainer can TELL participants that certain information is important. But participants have to SEE that is true by seeing how they can use the material themselves. Sometimes I create this seeing by creating relevant application activities with urgent deadlines. For example, you have 15 minutes to prepare a sales pitch for a particular type of customer. Either the rest of the class or a visitor or the trainer then play that customer realistically as the group presents their sales pitch. If the group doesn’t focus on what is important to the potential customer and instead just presents a lot of factual information about the product/service, the customer is not likely to make the purchase. This helps the group focus on learning what is important to the customer and showing how the product/service helps solve the customer’s problems rather than focusing on the product/service itself. Through the activity, participants learn what is important. Using a deadline to create a sense of urgency also helps the group focus on what is most important.

Repeating information in different ways is also a way to signal that something is important. Many years ago when I taught study skills, I would tell students to put a star next to information in their notes every time the teacher repeated it, even with different words. Then when they reviewed their notes while studying for a test, the information with the most stars was probably the most important and would draw their attention. Repetition is a great tool for drawing people’s attention to what is important. Point learners back to what has already been covered when covering new points or answering questions to show how new information builds on foundational information. By its very nature, foundational information is most important, and repetition (in different ways) helps reinforce that importance.

I love having the learners reflect on content and identify for themselves what is most important. When I do train, I do one-minute review activities every 10 to 15 minutes during a presentation, asking participants to mark their notes with the information that is most important to them, tell someone sitting next to them what they most want to remember about the material, create a quiz question on the most important thing just covered, or many similar reflection activities. Since participants will have different needs, particularly in the public training that ICMI conducts, different pieces of the training will be most important to different people. This type of reflection helps participants identify and reinforce important information for themselves.

There are plenty of other ways to guide participants’ attention to what is most important in a training. In ICMI’s new Trainer Development Workshop, we spend time talking about some of these things. Next month, I’ll talk more about what works in training, focusing on different ways to use repetition.