Create an atmosphere for learning

It's hard to keep students' attention for long. Matthew Mercurio shares some of his creative tricks of the trade for developing an atmosphere that keeps students interested.

I don’t know about you, but I’m usually bored to tears within the first 15 minutes of a training session. Think about how the busy manager or the Web development person who has a new system release going live tomorrow feels. Keeping your end users’ attention is not only hard, it’s nearly impossible at times. My methods may seem a bit unorthodox, but I like to invent new ways to keep my students jumping.

Any teacher will tell you a non-distracting environment is the best way to get your students to focus. But unless the student is extra enthusiastic about the subject at hand, it’s really hard to keep the training content fun and exciting to talk about. In reality, the actual classroom and all its surroundings are just as important as the content. Here are some good guidelines to keep in mind as an IT trainer.

Attention grabbers
Maybe working in the world of radio and television has had an effect on me when it comes to drawing attention. At the start of class, usually while the students are finding a seat and getting prepared for class, I like to do what I call a “wake-up exercise.” I have music videos, MP3s, and comedy albums on a couple of CD-ROMs. During the wake-up exercise, I play either a music video or some music. Sometimes I’ll even play a couple of minutes of one of George Carlin’s greatest comedy sketches. It’s a great way to break the ice because it almost always invokes some kind of computer-related conversation. Questions like, “Hey, how did you get all those songs on a CD-ROM?” or “I didn’t know you could download music videos from the Internet” usually arise.

I also try to make the room as comfortable as I can. Lighting, seating, and the overall flow of the room are very important. I’m trying to get my managers to let me purchase a couple of wall murals. I would like to have the students greeted by a peaceful scene of the ocean on one wall and perhaps a picture-perfect scene of a golf course on the other side. Of course, no pagers, cell phones, P.A. systems, or interruptions of any kind are allowed.
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Using rewards as an incentive
Working at a broadcasting company has its advantages. There is always an abundance of hats, T-shirts, tickets, prizes, knickknacks, and other glorified junk to use as incentives.

Rewarding students when they’re correct is always a good way to keep their attention. During my class, if a student gets an answer right, he or she wins a dinner for two. Giving out movie passes to the first four people who arrive almost always takes care of the tardiness problem. At the beginning of each class, I tell my students that we’ll have a small test at the end of class. I have made arrangements with my company to give away a vacation day to anyone who answers all the questions correctly.

Sometimes I almost feel like I’m using Pavlov’s theory to train my students, but what the heck. As my mother use to say, “Matthew, pay attention in school. You’ll need what they’re teaching you someday.”

My hope is to get my students’ attention, keep it, and reward them. If this seems like a mad scientist’s experiment, so be it. At least I know that with every well-trained student, there’s one less person I have to worry about using our company network.

Matthew Mercurio is the IT manager for Clear Channel Broadcasting in Louisville, KY.

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