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Instructional Design 101

Long before you ever step into a training room, it’s imperative to develop a training strategy. As with any project or goal, more forethought and planning that goes into training development = more effective and useful training content for the audience.

Before designing your content, complete the following checklist:

  1. Consider the goals and objectives that you hope your trainees will meet at the end of their training experience.

  2. Think about assessments you will use to measure trainee performance.

  3. Preparing supporting materials in advance to ensure that your training will be maximally effective and help you develop your content efficiently.

Basic steps of building effective training

Step 1: Needs Analysis

What problem are you trying to solve with your training? Is the problem rooted in a lack of knowledge or is it a motivational issue?

A common mistake organizations make is to force training upon employees who are perfectly capable of completing a task, but are simply unmotivated to do so for some reason. Specific performance gaps based on lack of skill are needs that can be best addressed by training and instruction. If the performance gap is caused by a lack of motivation, then a motivational solution will be more appropriate than extra training. This is the heart of the can’t do versus won’t do discussion.

Step 2: Goal Creation

Once you’ve determined that training is the best way to solve your problem, take the time to create specific goals for the training. Describe, in a measurable way, what you are trying to achieve with your training session.

Don’t fall into the trap of using vague, ambiguous terms here (I often refer to these kinds of objectives as “fluffy, feel-good goals.”) Saying that the goal of your training is to “make trainees more ethical” says absolutely nothing meaningful about what your trainees should be able to do once they’ve completed the training. A better goal would be something like, “ensuring trainees follow the company’s ethics regulations.”

Fluffy can be appealing - but doesn't give you anything concrete to lean on.

This goal specifically defines what “ethical” means by basing it upon the regulations of the company. In defining ethical behavior, the goal provides a standard against which training outcomes can be measured.

Step 3: Task Analysis

After you’ve written out your goals, it is time to break down them into small, defined tasks that a person might actually do in real life. For example, if a training goal is to “get trainees to send corporate emails appropriately,” we might write out the following tasks:

1. Open email program

2. Click “new email”

3. Input work colleague’s email address into the send bar

4. Type out email to work colleague

5. Proofread email for punctuation and grammatical errors

6. Click “send”

The point of a task analysis is to clearly identify the specific steps in a job or task so that none are glossed over or forgotten. The worst thing that can happen to a trainee is to be trained on steps A and D without also learning step B and C in between, because the trainer didn’t have a firm grasp on all the steps involved in achieving the training goal.

Performing a task analysis will provide insight into the appropriate objectives for your training.

Step 4: Developing Objectives

According to Robert Mager, author of “Preparing Instructional Objectives” (part of the classic Mager Six-Pack), there are three things a learning objective requires: a performance, conditions, and criteria. In other words, training objectives should describe:

  • What the trainees need to be able to do by the end of the training (performance)

  • When and under what conditions that performance should be done in the workplace (conditions)

  • How to determine that the performance was satisfactory (criteria)

For example, let’s assume that we have a training goal of “showing employees how to respond to colleague requests with appropriate communication channels.” An objective for this training might be, “When given a request by a colleague that requires an immediate response without any document sharing, respond with a phone call within one hour of the request.”

In this objective, we have specified what the performance is: respond with a phone call. It also specifies the conditions under which the task should be performed: when a request requires an immediate response without supporting documents. Finally, it specifies the conditions necessary to determine mastery: the phone call should be made within one hour of the request.

Step 5: Defining Your Audience

This seems like it should go without saying, but a trainer should know who he/she is training. You can go through all the steps of developing good training with solid objectives, but if those objectives don’t match the skill level and values of the trainees, your training is still unlikely to be successful.

Consider what your target audience already knows. It’s silly to train people to do something they already know how to do. Best case, it’s a waste of time; worst case, you can deeply insult people and cause irreparable damage to employee morale.

Redundant training: best case, it's a waste of time. Worst case, you can deeply insult people and cause irreparable damage to employee morale.

You should also present training in such a way that it provides value to both the organization and the trainees themselves. When trainees see the personal benefits of completing training successfully, it’s easy to get buy-in and cooperation from your target audience.

Get to the root of these two pieces of information (i.e., what the trainees already know and what they find valuable) by obtaining a variety of demographic information, such as education level, interests, age, possible biases, etc. This knowledge will help you determine whether trainees have the right prerequisite skills to complete the training, or whether you need to add more basic background information to get all trainees to the same baseline skill level.

Step 6: Training Assessments

All great trainings have high-quality, relevant assessments to determine whether a trainee has successfully mastered the training objectives.

The best possible way to test trainees for mastery is to have them perform the actual tasks outlined in the training objectives. If the trainees can successfully complete all of the training objectives without assistance from the trainer, then the training is a success. Requiring trainees to perform the actual tasks outlined in objectives is crucial for ensuring that skills learned in the training will translate to the real world. It provides a measure of their performance using the target skill.

If trainees are simply asked to complete a short quiz on facts learned from the training, then the assessment is measuring ability to memorize rather than ability to perform. An assessment created in this manner does not provide any guarantee of real world application after the training is completed.

Not all quizzes are bad. Sometimes assessment of actual performance is not possible due to time and/or resource constraints. In these cases, it’s important that the questions presented in the quiz reflect knowledge or decision-making skills that will be used in the real world. Conceptual or case study questions are more useful than fact-based questions for evaluating whether a trainee has fully grasped the training objectives.


Ongoing Improvements

By performing the steps outlined above, you are much more likely to provide useful, applicable training that both trainees and employers will find valuable.

Training development doesn’t stop here, however. Once you’ve conducted your training, you should allow trainees to provide constructive feedback on what worked (and what didn’t) within your training session. This feedback allows you to continue to improve training content over time and make it even better for your next group of trainees.

Never forget that creating a highly-effective training takes many iterations and is a never-ending, ongoing process!

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