Whenever you begin the discussion of meaningful training for adults, someone inevitably—and boldly—proclaims, “We must accommodate adult learning theory!” Of course, everyone else murmurs their complete agreement. We simply must!
But that’s “in theory.”
When it comes time to demonstrating that trust—which means designing training that is congruent with an adult thinker, centered around proven strategies that work for adults—well, that’s when the retreating begins, so much backpedaling your learners end up back in high school.
How do can you tell if your training isn’t geared toward adults?
I’ll explain. First, roll call.
Matt Adams? Check.
Ellen Burns here? Yeah? Check.
Ferris Bueller? Anyone see Ferris today?
If adults were literally handed multiple-choice quizzes in the real world—questions with A, B, C, and D as options, then standard knowledge checks might be relevant. In fact, if customers and coworkers only addressed their questions in test-taking format, like true/false, life might be easier! That’s not how the world works. Pop-quizzes are for ensuring freshmen English students read the assigned Edgar Allen Poe short story.
In corporate training, most knowledge checks are insisted upon by stakeholders who instinctively know the training isn’t going to work. They know it’s not going to work because they know the training isn’t addressing real-world behavior, the most important thing that matters to adults. Ironically, they know this and do nothing to change the project parameters.
Like it or not, the adult world thrives on performance. To keep our jobs, we perform. Wanna eat? You don’t talk about cooking. You cook (or eat out, heat up leftovers, etc). Want clean clothes? Do laundry. Parent is no longer a noun, it’s a verb. We mow the lawn, we fix the jiggly toilet handle, we get up early to workout. The adult world is about doing. By living in the world, we have learned what information helps us accomplish tasks and what does not.
Isn’t it possible for a knowledge check to provide value?
But a knowledge check that measures skill application would be extremely powerful. However, look at the words “knowledge check” and ask yourself if the very concept is designed to evaluate performance. Uh, no.
Reframe it this way: can e-learning perform a meaningful assessment performance? Yes!
Would it indicate whether someone was ready to perform this skill in the real world? Yes!
Isn’t that we want from training? Yes.
Go meta for a moment.
If the entire training is performance-based—the instructional interactivity was about skill-building—the thing we call “a knowledge check” would be obsolete. Learners would use the necessary knowledge to complete the skill.
In almost all training situations, the knowledge check score is nothing more than “a warm fuzzy” that makes stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs) feel better. Yes, there are definitely exceptions. However, our industry has research validating that post-test scores are not reliable predictors for successful application. We know this! And yet, knowledge checks seem to make someone happy.Over-Explaining Why A Thing Is Important
It’s true that sometimes adults need to be told why a thing is important. That’s fair.
But when you’re repeatedly explaining THIS IS IMPORTANT on every page or at the beginning of every activity, that means you’ve designed training where the thing isn’t actually valued. “No, no,” someone argues, “the Vice-President of Operations began the course explaining why it’s valuable. That’s how you know.”
Think back to high school geometry.
In every class, some bored sophomore inevitably asks the frazzled teacher, “When will we use this?” The teacher has a smart answer: this is about critical thinking skills, math is the foundation of our world, anyone interested in engineering… Sure. Good answer. But the high schooler is smart to doubt the big explanation. And let’s give credit where it’s due: the student is correct—few will ever use it. (This isn’t about condemning geometry, this is about individuals gradually learning to distinguish between what is- and is-not a usable skill.)
Geometry-doubting high schoolers who went to college probably enrolled in something like Anthropology 101, where their suspicion, “it’s not valuable beyond the post-test” was confirmed. More life experiences (college, working world, television news, political promises, etc.) confirm a critical life truth: saying a thing is important doesn’t actually make it important. Anyone who over-explains is trying to sell something: an idea, an approach, a belief. (Dare I include in this list without offending… corporate values? Ever taken e-learning for a company to explain its values are important?) If the thing were actually important, you wouldn’t have to over-explain. It would be evident.
Think of a corporate initiative designed to increase customer service. If it mattered, significantly mattered, the corporation would use either the carrot or stick to reward/punish those who did/didn’t do it. Instead, many corporate initiatives are based on hope: we hope our learners come to care about this initiative as much as our executive team provides lip-service value to it.
If you want learners to embrace your content and believe in its value, don’t explain why it’s important. Show. Show the content solving real-world problems they would actually face. If you can’t do that, your explaining comes across as justifying geometry.Required Reading
Right now, somewhere in a high school, a teacher is saying, “Pull out your textbooks. We’re going to use the next thirty minutes to read.” In high school, it’s the way a teacher can validate whether the text was read. (Side note: even if that teacher walks up and down the rows, that still can’t validate the students absorbed anything. It just means their eyes were pointed in the direction of the page. But that’s another topic.)
How much required reading does your e-learning demand? Are learners held hostage to voice-over narration that won’t let them advance? Do you think it’s helping absorption?
It always surprises me when I hear SMEs pushing hard to include more. More reading! More details! Did those SMEs not attend their own geometry class or Anthropology 101? Did they not learn that “cramming more information” onto a page never has the impact they hope it will?
I’m not trying to harsh on SMEs. They believe their content is important and they feel it’s their job to disseminate all of it while they opportunity is there. I get it. That kind of thinking reveals another fundamental broken mechanic. Very often, stakeholders’ strategy is this: you get ONE HOUR of e-learning time to “cover everything” about a topic. Those constraints are not designed by the SME but from stakeholders higher up the food chain that don’t understand what they want. The idea that “one hour” is enough time is flawed. The idea that everyone needs the same amount of time is flawed. The idea that behavior change happens when you force people to read is flawed. So much is wrong about this strategy.
Is reading (or some form of ingesting information) necessary during e-learning? Yes. Obviously. The challenge is when you force learners through page after page reading. You don’t have to be an instructional designer to recognize this truth.The Development Process = “Night-Before-Homework-Is-Due” Approach
Ever write an essay the night before it was due? Did you get caught? Probably not. Probably got away with it, getting a solid B. Heck, maybe even an A, if you offered decent insights and possessed above-average writing abilities.
But do you really think your high-school or gen-ed college teachers were fooled for one minute by a last-ditch effort? Do you think they couldn’t recognize something thrown together?
They knew. They may have given you an A, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know.
Maybe your learners know nothing about the e-learning development process or content, but as adults, we have now been exposed to hundreds (if not thousands) of online experiences: apps, training, websites, games, etc. We know what works. We know what doesn’t. We have awareness around features that are incredibly helpful, and those that are not.
Adults recognize bad training.
The development process says more about the stakeholders who funded the project than the development team. The team may have done their best under the circumstances. But if stakeholders aren’t valuing performance change, it shows in the project parameters.
What can you do about it when scope, budget, and timeline are beyond you?
Remember the brave geometry student who said, “Will we ever use this?” Do you think she (or he) had any chance of changing the school’s curriculum? That day’s lesson? Of course not. So why bring it up? Because calling out a truth is the first step to changing a situation.
The good news is, you don’t have to fight a school board. You can find tactful ways of acknowledging to stakeholders that the possibility of meaningful success diminishes when you’re throwing together training at the last-minute. Not sure how to bring this up? Send them this blog post link in an email that says, “Read number four.”Bullies Make Decisions
Just because someone isn’t tossing your cafeteria lunch or intimidating you at your locker doesn’t mean bullies are gone from your day-to-day existence. Adult bullies are more sophisticated than their high school counterparts:
- “Your training has to conform to our branding guidelines because they do. Doesn’t matter if our customers aren’t seeing this or if it inhibits your instructional approach. Follow the branding.”
- “The VP of Operations wants to record his own opening remarks so learners have to go through them when the training begins. He wants people to know this is his.”
- “Make it as good as you can, of course, but it’s more important you finish this in one month.”
- “We need to force learners through a post-test where they have to score above 80%. Why? Because.”
If the goal of training is addressing and changing behavior, how would you describe someone (or a department) who actively and deliberately thwarts that goal?
Again, I do not wish to suggest certain individuals are the enemy within your organization. If you were to call them out at being “training bullies,” certainly they’d be shocked and upset. The VP of Operations isn’t a bad guy. But why not add his message to the end of the training, when skill acquisition has been achieved? His words might be more meaningful there anyway, instead of blocking the entrance to the learning experience with his ego.
And honestly, some of the blame for bullying falls at the feet of instructional designers who don’t have the ability or skills to say, “This decision negatively impacts the learning.”
Oops. Out of time. The bell rang and geometry starts in ten minutes. Don’t forget your protractor.