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Pick and mix: matching methods to learning phases

by Clive Shepherd
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When we're looking for a solution to a training problem, the temptation is to plump for a single method that we hope will meet the whole need. Somehow the method we choose never quite fits all our requirements, but we go with it anyway because it's easier that way and, after all, that's what we always do! In this article, Clive Shepherd advocates a 'pick and mix' approach, arguing that a combination of methods is usually required to effectively cover all the phases in the learning process, from preparing the learner through to application on the job.

Contents
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One size fits all
Learning by phases
Pick and mix
Which methods for which phases?
Using the pick and mix approach

One size fits all
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When selecting methods to meet a particular training need, our first consideration will be the likely effectiveness of the solution in providing the required knowledge, skills and attitudes. We may also be concerned about the likely cost of the solution and the feasibility of getting the training done in the time we have available, but the one criterion we cannot compromise on is effectiveness.

A number of factors come to mind when comparing methods for their effectiveness in particular situations:

With each of these criteria, the tendency is to look for the single solution that best fits the bill. Ideally we will be able to find a solution that performs well against all three criteria - and that's the one we go for. Let's take an example. We're looking for the best way to provide training for telephone operators in a call centre:

Looking at this situation, we're quite likely to pick a classroom-based approach, perhaps even a multimedia-based method, if it can adequately simulate the calls from customers. But we're likely to go for a single approach, one method to meet the whole requirement. That's where we may be missing a trick.
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Learning by phases
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Most learning experiences involve a number of phases. Although there are many schools of thought about the sequencing and relative importance of these stages, few would deny that all of the following are necessary to some extent:

And these phases can be represented diagrammatically as follows:

Learning phases

You'll see that the inner three phases constitute a cycle, which can commence with any of the three elements. So what goes on in each of these phases?

Preparation
Most learning interventions will include a preparatory phase of some sort. This may be designed to achieve one or more of the following:

Which of the above you include will depend to an extent on your particular views on how people best learn.

Presentation
Let's turn now to the presentation of learning material. From a traditional perspective, this would come before practice or review - the learner moves from a general statement to specific examples.

Advocates of discovery learning tend to favour the opposite approach, where the learner moves from specific examples (obtained through experience and active discovery) towards a generalised statement - the inductive approach. In fact they would advise the facilitator to hold back from presenting material, instead using questions to encourage learners to come to their own conclusions. If there is a presentation phase, then it is merely to apply formal labels and models to what learners have already formulated through discovery.

Simply put, you will either be working from examples to principles or from principles to examples.

Practice
Next let's consider the processes of drilling, practising, testing and experimenting. Traditionally, this phase will be held back until after a formal exposition of the material. However, others will use practical exercises as a sort of laboratory from which learning can be derived experientially.

Review
The next ingredient in the mix is review, reflection, the provision of feedback and evaluation. This could come right up front, as a way of drawing on learners' past experience before exposing them to new material. More typically, this will follow practical exercises of some sort, for a number of possible reasons:

Looping the loop
As we have seen, beyond the preparatory stage, it's possible to start a learning experience with any of these three phases:

And, of course, the cycle can continue from there in a loop. In the context of selecting training methods, it does not matter at all which order you choose. What is important is that the design for learning incorporates all of these three elements.

Application
The final stage is to bring about a transfer of learning to the work environment. Various methods can be used to support the learner through this process, including coaching and the provision of job aids, whether electronic or traditional.

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Pick and mix
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So how are these phases of learning relevant to the selection of training methods? The answer is simple but not common sense:

different training methods tend to suit different phases

Some methods may be used to address a single phase; others may address many. But, chances are, your training programmes will require a mix of components. The pick and mix approach means that, at every stage in the learning process, you are using the right tool for the job.

For example, a single training programme may use all of these approaches:

Phase Method
Preparation Short workshop
Presentation Online materials
Practice On-job training
Review Online tutorial support
Application Electronic performance support

This is just one example. Many different combinations are possible depending on the nature of the learning to be achieved. spacer
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Which methods for which phases?
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There are many different training methods. Here we take some of the most common approaches and see how they can contribute to the five phases in a learning intervention:

Workbook As a self-study approach, a workbook is not going to be as effective as face-to-face in the preparation phase. Where it stands out is as a means of presenting information and, to the extent that it incorporates practical exercises with feedback, in the practice and review phases. Print materials may also have a small role in providing support during application.
On-job training / coaching As a face-to-face technique, on-job training will be reasonably effective in the preparation phase. Because individual attention can be given, it will be most effective for presentation, practice and review. Individual coaching may also be used to support application.
Projects A project is only of use in two phases - practice and application, as a way of providing structured, real-world experience.
Workshops
Workshops can be used in all phases. They will be particularly effective in the preparation phase, as a way for learners and tutors to get to know each other. In the presentation phase there are limitations, because the pacing will not suit all participants. The classroom environment provides many opportunities for practice and review, including role plays and case studies. Workshops can also play a minor role in supporting application.
Online self-study materials As with all self-study approaches, online methods are not going to be as effective as face-to-face in the preparation phase. For presentation this method is ideal, as it allows for self-pacing and supports a wide variety of media. With sophisticated interactivity, the method is ideal for certain types of practice and review. Where used as refreshers, online modules may also have a small part to play in supporting application.
Online tutorial support This method could be used in the preparation phase, although it will not be as effective as a face-to-face approach. An online tutor may also have a role to play in presenting information, but this is unlikely to be the most effective method. Online tutoring scores best as a means for review and providing feed back, although it can also be useful as a backup during application.
Electronic performance support A performance support system has a role to play in two phases - presentation and application. As a self-paced approach, with the availability of various media, it makes an excellent way of presenting information. With its quick and easy access, it also provides an ideal support for application.
Online group collaboration This method provides a good way for learners to think and learn together where it is not possible for them to be physically co-located. It may be useful in the presentation phase, but provides few realistic opportunities for practice. Where it stands out is as a means for group learning and reflection, although it can also provide useful support during application.

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Using the pick and mix approach
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We've seen how different training methods are more or less suitable to specific phases in the learning process and that, as a result, a 'pick and mix' approach will often produce better results than sticking to a single solution for all aspects of a learning intervention. We have added a new factor to consider in the selection of training methods, we have not thrown away the others. It is still important to:

Because there are so many factors to take into consideration, the mix of ingredients will vary widely in different situations. Let's first reconsider our call centre example. A complete training programme for call centre operators, involving telephone skills and product knowledge training, might include a wide variety of techniques:
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Phase Method
Preparation Classroom
Presentation Interactive self-study materials
Practice Classroom role-play exercises
Computer-based product knowledge test
Review Classroom role-play feedback and discussion
Automated feedback to computer-based product knowledge test
Application Electronic performance support materials
ongoing on-job coaching

An MBA course, with a geographically-dispersed audience, could involve a very different mix of techniques:
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Phase Method
Preparation Video conferencing
Presentation Non-interactive online self-study materials
Practice Projects
Review Online tutorial support
Application Online tutorial support

Whereas, a training programme in the operation of a complex piece of equipment, may involve yet another mix of techniques:
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Phase Method
Preparation Small-group meeting
Presentation Computer-based tutorial
Practice Computer simulation
Review One-to-one coaching
Application Ongoing coaching
Use of computer-based tutorials as refreshers

What these examples have in common is that they do not try to force fit a single method to meet all the requirements of a training intervention. Using the pick and mix approach defuses many of the prejudices of trainers:

"you can't use a computer to teach that"
"you can only learn that on-the-job"

The answer in many cases is:

"yes you can use that method for a part of your overall approach"
"for best results, you'll need a mix of methods"

Try it for yourself. Take a look at a training programme that you now deliver using a single method. See if a range of methods, matched to learning phases, wouldn't increase the effectiveness. With the pick and mix approach you can combine the best of the old with the best of the new, bringing increased flexibility and variety to your training programmes.

This article was inspired by the ideas of Jane Moch, Business and Learning Technologies Analyst at the Post Office Training Centre, Wolverton Mill.

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