How Experiences Affect Training

A Trainer walked into a room to train on new products for 4th quarter. He’d prepared for weeks to make sure he knew the material, his slides looked great, his presentation was polished, and his group activities were planned to spark interest. He even had a great icebreaker that tied directly into the day’s lesson. Not wanting to be the Joe known for tripping on-stage, he came into the room looking at the floor, careful to avoid the extension cords of hazardousness as he walked to the front. Arriving, he looked up and noticed…everyone was wearing shades.


They weren’t goofy shades or professional shades. No, they were all unique. Some were rose colored. Others were clear. A few had shades that only covered one eye. One older man in the back had shades that were completely blacked out – couldn’t see through them at all. In fact, the trainer noticed now more than one person had shades that wouldn’t allow vision. The only one in the room without shades was a young child playing on an iPad in the back corner.

This puzzled the Trainer, but he had a job to do. Firing up his PowerPoint, he proceeded through his lesson plan and completed the training on time. The learners were fairly engaged and seem to grasp the material well, but feedback on the event surveys showed a very mixed reaction to the material. Thinking back, he remembered multiple people that really didn’t get involved in the training at all. Was it a coincidence that those were the people with shades that were totally blacked out?

It was then the Trainer realized that everyone in the room viewed his training through different lenses. For some it was clear, others rose colored. Some saw it from a lopsided perspective, and others were completely closed off to it.

This is a scenario that plays out every day in corporate America. The lenses in the parable represent the life experience that adults bring to every situation they are in. (That’s why the child in the back of the room had no shades.) Each person viewed the training material uniquely, with some very ready to accept it, some seeing it from odd angles, and some not willing to take it in at all based on their past experience.

Malcolm Knowles was one of the first to point out that adult learners view everything from the experiences they bring with them. But these experiences aren’t just a resource for learning, they can also be a stumbling block, or even a wall. Until the day comes when trainers can Vulcan mind-meld with each attendee before presenting information, it is important that trainers, pastors, teachers, and managers take steps to minimize the negative impacts of past experiences.

Here are some suggestions on how that can be done:

  1. Be clear and upfront with definitions to ensure everyone has the same understanding of terms and concepts. Providing definitions, especially in multi-cultural settings, is critical for clear training. In a silly example of this, try telling an American to put $5 in the boot and see what they do. Then tell an Australian to do the same thing. You will likely see a very different action take place.
  2. Handle the obvious incorrect assumptions. These are often easy to deal with if some thought is put into handling them when the curriculum in planned. Imagine training volunteers for a non-profit about being father- and mother-figures to the teens the organization serves. How will this training be interpreted by volunteers who had great parents vs. volunteers who had abusive parents? Define what the right behavior is, and all present can better understand the proper actions to take.
  3. Teach from different angles and methods to overcome unknown biases. You can’t possibly account for every experience learners faced that might influence their interpretation of the material. By teaching it from different angles or methods, you provide the maximum opportunity to correctly take in the material. You might start by defining a term, then share a story that illustrates the term. After that, run a role-play with a partner to check for understanding of the term. Obviously, the complexity of your information will dictate what can be done, but the example shows the general idea of approaching things from different angles.
  4. Check for proper understanding. This is the most important step in any training or teaching setting. Knowing people aren’t properly understanding a message gives the trainer/pastor/teacher/manager the opportunity to reteach in a different way and correct the misunderstanding. Confirming they do understand allows further reinforcement of the concept.

Though I’ve primarily used examples from live training or speaking events, this principle applies just as much to written training, e-learning, and on-demand training. The material can be designed to address the first three steps with enough planning. While these methods can be more difficult to check for understanding, it’s still possible, and just as critical.

Think through what negative experiences people bring with them. Plan for them. Negate as many as you can, and teach in ways that help eliminate more. You’ll never clear them all, but you can minimize their impact with proper planning and execution.

This entry was posted in Assessment, Communication, Management, Training. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How Experiences Affect Training

  1. Pingback: Making Webinars Relevant in a Sound Byte World | Steven Potratz

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