Education

Recognizing the three types of technical learners

When you're charged with training end users in a new application, you can't assume everyone will have the same interest in learning. Use these tips to identify the people who need special attention.

In an ideal world, every time your company rolls out a new application or a major upgrade on an existing application, full-time trainers would handle the duties of educating end users. In the real world, however, help desk analysts not only provide support for these applications but are often asked to train users on them as well.

Training end users in a classroom setting is a lot like supporting users by telephone. On the phone, you're working in a one-on-one situation, and you must tailor your explanations and instructions to fit the personality of the person on the other end of the line. In the classroom, you must adapt to a dozen or more personalities at once. This week, I'd like to share a technique for identifying three types of learners you encounter during technical training.

The big three: The Student, The Tourist, and The Prisoner
I first heard about this method of identifying students from Mike Spence, who is the director of marketing for Kimbell Associates, a company that provides training and consulting services to businesses. "When I pitch our services, customers are all the time telling me that some of their people just don't like going to training," Spence said. "I tell those customers that our instructors are trained to identify and deal with the three basic type of learners: The Student, The Tourist, and The Prisoner. We try to make the training valuable and enjoyable for everyone."

IT people who teach tend to focus on the relative skill level and experience of the people in their classes, typically identifying the beginners and dealing with them differently than the people identified as "advanced." By also incorporating Spence's approach to identifying personality types, technical trainers can further individualize their lessons so that end users reap the full benefits of the class. The next time you're scheduled to teach, see if you recognize the following people in your class:
  • The Student: This person wants to learn. The Student shows up on time, sits in the front row with his or her book open, and hangs on every word you, the instructor, have to say. The Student reads ahead, asks good questions, and completes the exercises you assign. If all the people in the class were like The Student, technical training would be easy.
  • The Tourist: This person usually wants to learn but isn't nearly as motivated as The Student. The Tourist shows up just before the class starts, spends a lot of time getting coffee or doughnuts and chatting with other students, and sits in the back. Instead of seeing training as a chance to improve his or her knowledge, The Tourist typically views training as an opportunity to enjoy a break from the normal office routine. The Tourist may or may not complete the work you assign. Sometimes, a good instructor can find a way to engage The Tourist and turn him or her into The Student. At other times, the best you can do is keep The Tourist busy so he or she doesn't disrupt the rest of the class.
  • The Prisoner: This person looks at you and says, "Go ahead—try to teach me something." The Prisoner doesn't want to learn, doesn't want to be in training, and counts the seconds until you say, "Class dismissed." When you notice The Prisoner in one of your classes, your goal is to convert that person to The Student whenever possible. However, you shouldn't spend so much time and energy trying to convert The Prisoner that you wind up ignoring The Student and The Tourist.

Where should you focus your attention?
Learning to identify the different types of students in your classes can save time and make you a better instructor. If you recognize The Prisoner early on, you can determine whether you will invest energy in trying to "reach" that person or just let him or her be and focus your attention on The Student and The Tourist instead.

In the end, you may not be able to reach every student. However, by recognizing what each student expects to get from the class, you can make sure you are giving students what they deserve—if not more.

What personalities do you encounter in technical training?
To comment on this column or to share your favorite training techniques, please start a discussion thread or drop us a note.


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