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Why we love learning but hate training

By Darren Steele, SVP of Marketing, Training, and Communications

Published on

Most classroom training is terrible.

There, I've said it. But you were thinking it too, right? We've all been there. A bland, dimly-lit room that smells like Expo markers and an over-used microwave. Rows of chairs. One presenter casting a shadow on endless PowerPoint slides about stuff you already understand.

This isn't really learning. It's just a ritual that makes us all feel like learning has happened.

And what about the required training we all take online? Several candid customers in law enforcement explained their approach to taking online training:

  1. Push “play”
  2. Go do something else for 30 minutes
  3. Come back and take the test - fail
  4. Take it again - pass
  5. And learn nothing

One customer said it best: “We’re doing training the same as when I joined 30 years ago.”

So let's change it.

A few years ago I worked at a creative agency and a client asked us to help make their training more interesting. Their goal was to make training so good that their employees would actually look forward to it. We tried and failed and tried again, and eventually developed some techniques that flipped the training experience on its head. Other companies took notice, and soon we were reinventing training for forward-thinking companies like Starbucks, Time Warner and Google.

What makes training so compelling you'd actually look forward to it? Here are a handful of things we learned that are now battle-tested in some of the world's most progressive companies:

  • Show, don’t tell. The strongest learning experiences simulate rather than explain. Rather than explain what an orange tastes like with a wordy PowerPoint slide, give the learner an orange. If you can't provide the real thing, find a close substitute - in this case orange soda would do nicely. This may seem absurdly obvious, but watch how many times experiences are explained in training presentations rather than simulated.
  • Use cascading information theory - it's how video games train players. Give the user the minimal amount of info they need to progress to the next clear step. This eliminates confusion, the feeling of being overwhelmed, the burden of unnecessary choice, and creates some mystery and anticipation. Any concept, however complex, can be delivered in a slow drip that educates users as they go.
  • Shorter sessions are almost always better. We're training the chronically distracted. An hour of PowerPoint is torture to modern audiences who check their smartphone screen 150x per day. Consider breaking concepts into bite-size nuggets and delivering them with a daily, habitual cadence. This gives the learner time to digest a concept and try it out before being hit with the next one.
  • Feedback done well makes any experience more powerful. A boring experience can be made engaging just by adding feedback that signifies progress. Adapt to modern attention spans with a variety of frequent feedback types (like mapping progress towards a clear goal, tracking performance against peers, revealing personalized insights or rewarding milestones along the way). Simple design, animation, and sound effects will amplify the power of this feedback.
  • Evaluate the value prop of every interaction. Every slide or interactive screen is a tax on your trainee's time. Reward them with 5-10X value for every interaction. Layered intrinsic rewards (like understanding, achievement, interpersonal connection or escape) can bring any learner into an experience and make them want to come back. Add more value at the beginning of an experience to build trust. Intrinsic rewards are scalable, free, and they can drive more lasting motivation than extrinsic rewards - like a chance to win a gift card.
  • Harness the power of narrative. Not only does a strong narrative engage a learner, but neurological research shows that stories activate more learning centers of the brain for deeper retention. Tell a story, use cliffhangers effectively to bridge between sessions, and drive deeper retention at the same time.

The goal for great training is typically retention and behavior change. Spending a day buried in PowerPoint isn't going to make either of those happen. The half-life of retaining the few concepts you capture in long training session means you may forget almost everything you learn within 48 hours. It's time for something different.

Stay tuned for announcements from Axon later this year. We're working on something new and hope you like it.