Mind Your A’s and E’s

Four strategies that will ensure training sticks

by Ira B. Goldman

It’s well known that students learn in different ways. While many students prefer to read at their own speed, others favor listening to teachers or trainers to enhance their learning processes. Still others lean toward graphical media—such as graphs, charts and pictures—while some enjoy studying text descriptions of concepts, with select examples of these concepts.

All this leads to the conclusion that a multimedia method would be the ideal solution for training a diverse body of adult learners. Regardless of what media combinations you decide to use for your training, four concepts are essential for engaging students and making the learning stick:

  1. Anecdotes.
  2. Examples.
  3. Analogies.
  4. Exercises.

Baby Boomers can remember when learning was about the three R’s: reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. You can call this approach the A’s and E’s.

Learning from experience

The first effective principle, anecdotes, is where the teacher draws from his or her experiences to illustrate concepts that would otherwise be difficult to understand. In this case, it is critical for the story or experience to be related to the ideas being taught.

The teacher or trainer must be able to connect the subject matter knowledge to the classroom topic. A relevant anecdote can be humorous, ironic or just paint a vivid picture in the student’s mind. Sometimes, an anecdote can lead to a surprise ending, such as in a good mystery story.

Remember the tale of the six blind men and the elephant? Each of the six men described the shape of the elephant differently based on the spot where each man was touching the elephant’s body, including the trunk, tusk and tail. Like this anecdote, a group of learners will internalize a new concept based on where each of them comes from—including their education, field of expertise or work function.

That leads to the next concept—examples. If each student relates to the topic being taught based on his or her background, it is paramount to have several examples from the various fields represented by the people in the classroom.

If there are students in your class from different organizational functions, take the time before the start of the session to talk with other people that represent these functions and to gather some germane examples and illustrations that relate the course topic to these specific functions.

For example, a marketing student doesn’t want to hear engineering examples. Someone with a manufacturing background might be turned off by a bunch of sales examples. But, in general, examples from live, real-world situations will generally get your point across and make the concept relevant.

Let’s consider the other A—analogies, in which you show similarities between two (or more) phenomena that are otherwise very different. This is a great method to bring a complex point home.

Planning a designed engineering experiment using statistical methods is similar to baking a cake: You need to determine the measured outcome, such as the taste of the cake. Then, determine the factors that have an impact on the outcome, such as the oven used to bake the cake, baking temperature and baking time. By drawing an analogy between a scientific investigation and baking a cake, students can begin to understand more fully the aspects of designed experiments.

Vigorous exercise

The last of the four principles, exercises, is the most important and includes individual and team exercises, the latter of which promotes cooperative teamwork. As the Chinese proverb says: Tell me, and I’ll forget; show me, and I might remember; involve me, and I will understand. In other words, involvement promotes understanding, and understanding is learning.

So, there you have it: four concepts to get your learners more engaged in training sessions. It might be more of a challenge to implement these if your program is online, especially in the case of exercises, but it can be done. Provide your online students with questions and a time limit for them to provide answers. Incorporate images, and develop exercises based on these graphics. The bottom line: Be creative.

Using the A’s and E’s, successful learning has been achieved and confirmed via students’ feedback, exam results and project achievements. And although these concepts are presented as tools for adult training courses, they can be just as useful with students as young as kindergarteners. In fact, I would not be surprised if teachers at that level have been using these concepts for years.

Ira B. Goldman is a Master Black Belt at General Electric in Plainville, CT. He earned a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of Maryland in College Park. An ASQ senior member, Goldman is a certified Master Black Belt trainer.

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