The internal trainer's perspective: How to design a reinforcement class

There's never enough time in a standard training class to cover all the software features that your users need. In-house trainer Michelle Hutchinson explains how to design shorter classes to enhance your training program and your users' skills.

By Michelle Hutchinson

I have been teaching software and computer classes for many years. I have done adult education, worked in training centers, and conducted on-site training, and I’ve finally discovered a gold mine of training potential: Internal training.

About two years ago, I convinced a company that it would be more cost-effective as well as better for their employees if they offered internal training. (My apologies to all you training centers.) I convinced them that the trainer should be an employee who can support the class information after the class, have smaller classes for more personal training, and teach shorter classes so students aren’t overwhelmed with information. I told them that the need for internal training is never-ending, simply because of employee turnover and the vast amount of information that can be taught. They loved the idea and I was hired as the internal software trainer. 

Day in, day out
The reason internal training is so effective is because the trainer works with and supports students on a daily basis. I know the computer experience level of my colleagues, and I know what they need to learn to do their jobs. I write all my own training material so I decide what to include in each class.

Because each department has different needs, my classes are broken down accordingly. I have engineers who need more advanced training in the Excel features, such as pivot tables and statistical functions. For them, I can cater a training class on just these features. The administrative assistants in the same office don’t need this sort of training, so I can focus a class on features they can use.

Choosing a topic
The first thing I do when starting a new class is to decide what I need to teach. As I’m wandering around the building helping with computers and software issues, I get a chance to see how people are using their software programs. I sometimes see frightful things, like people in Excel typing a number 1, then a 2, then a 3, instead of using the fill handle to do this for them.

I see others typing addresses on labels one at a time from a Word document instead of using the mail merge function. I see that there’s a need for training on these features.

I also get ideas from the amount of support calls I get on a certain topic. If I seem to get a lot of calls on how to protect a document (because we are on a network), then I will include this in my training too. 

Scheduling a class
The second thing to decide is how long each class should be. Since I do not believe in eight-hour classes (I feel that by the seventh hour you have forgotten what you learned in the second hour), I have broken my classes into two- and four-hour sessions. Previous classes have shown that if I choose one topic, I can cover it in one two-hour class. Obviously it doesn’t take two hours to teach one topic, but we still use the whole two hours.

Using the Excel example again, one of my two-hour classes is on pivot tables. In the first part of the class I explain what a pivot table is and why you would use one. Then I supply the data that we will summarize (a simple spreadsheet containing data that everyone can relate to). Then we all work together step by step until our pivot table is complete.

I answer questions and make sure everyone has an understanding of what we just did. Then each student works on a spreadsheet that they were asked to bring in. While everyone is working on his or her own data, I walk back and forth through the class, helping as someone needs me. 

In this exercise they are using their own data and when students learn with their own data, they will understand the feature a little better and can see how and when they would use it later. 

Setting the agenda
Putting together the four-hour classes that cover many features was trial and error in the beginning. First I put together some features I thought people could use and then put together a class of people that I used as test subjects.  We went through the class in about 3œ hours, which is how I settled on four-hour classes, although the classes rarely last the full four hours. 

In one of these four-hour Excel classes, I include basic tips and tricks that, if a user is self-taught in a program, they may not have stumbled onto yet. Some of the features I teach in this class are:
  • Adjusting column widths automatically (double-clicking on the column heading)
  • The Format Painter button (most people have seen this button but didn’t know what it did)
  • The AutoSum button
  • My personal favorite, the amazing fill handle (this is the part of the class where I receive all the oohs and aaahs)

I have had students tell me that they know enough about Excel and don’t really need this class, then they take my class and walk away saying “I didn’t know that.”  

Filling the seats
When I’m finished putting together the class, I send an e-mail to the entire company explaining what features or feature will be taught. They are told to respond by e-mail if they wish to attend. I realize how welcomed the training really is when I receive about five responses every two minutes.

I put the responses together according to experience level in that program. I don’t break my classes into beginner, intermediate, or advanced. Most people don’t want to admit that they’re beginners and may not take a class with that label. If at all possible, I try to put together classes with people of the same level, although this isn’t always feasible.

After I sign up the first six people (which is how many my training room can seat at one time), I put everyone else on a waiting list for the next class. 

I know a waiting list sounds funny when we’re talking about software training, but I actually have 22 people on a waiting list right now to get into my next pivot table training, and when I offered my first Excel class I received 78 responses in the first day. 

I know it’s time to move onto the next subject when the response is smaller for a particular class. But in about six months there may be a need to teach that class again. My training is ongoing, with different classes available all the time. With the shorter classes I can squeeze in two to four sessions a day.

Because I work with my students every day, I occasionally receive calls and e-mails from a user/student to let me know that they just used something they learned in my class and it made their job a little easier. This kind of positive reinforcement is the best reward a trainer can receive. Well, a raise would nice too.

Michelle Hutchinson has been a software and computer trainer for seven years. What started out as ahobby led to a job with an automotive company as the internal software trainer. She has been in this position for two years.

What’s the best way to break down lots of information into digestible chunks? How do you fill your users in on all the details of a software program? Share your secrets with us and we’ll use them in a future article.

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