Top of the class: How to keep students on track and in line

You've mastered the material, now you have to know how to run the classroom. If you're a trainer or a training manager, Wendy Finger can help you learn how to motivate students and manage a classroom to ensure productive and engaged students.

Simply stated, classroom management is the leadership needed to successfully steer a learning group toward a positive result or change. There are five elements of successful classroom management:
  • Communication skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Group dynamics
  • Telling and selling
  • Directing vs. guiding

We’ll examine each of these elements in detail, focusing on developing motivational skills into classroom management abilities.
Being a successful trainer requires some natural ability to motivate a group. The screening process spelled out in the first part of this series offers some tips for determining if trainer candidates possess basic motivational skills. In part three, Wendy Finger will explain why she has new trainers create training materials, and finally she will cover how to build a training program around a course outline.
Trainers must understand how to create dialogues within their groups. Effective communication is a two-way street. A common mistake of new trainers is to blame the students when the class moves off course. While it is fair to advertise prerequisites to a class and expect that all learners meet those prerequisites, it is not fair to assume that all learners will learn new material at the same rate. Strong trainers have the ability to listen to questions and observe classroom behavior, and then modify a presentation based on the learner’s needs.

Inexperienced trainers also fall into the trap of defending their actions to a class. Coaching new trainers on certain techniques can help reduce the temptation to respond to challenges by becoming defensive. Those techniques are:
  • Affirming beliefs. All beliefs are valid. There is truth in the statement, “You are entitled to your opinion.” Helping new trainers understand that goes a long way in building two-way communication channels.
  • Turning negatives into positives. While all beliefs are valid, inflammatory beliefs can have an immediate adverse impact on a class. It is critical that trainers learn how to negate the impact of negative statements. This can be accomplished many ways (humor, simply affirming the right to an opinion, restating the comment in positives terms, etc.). Role playing and discussing possible class scenarios can help new trainers figure out specific strategies. This is a critical skill that will be tested in almost every class.

Leadership can take many roles. Trainers need coaching, mentoring, and counseling skills when working with group members. This variety of interaction results in good group dynamics. The word pairs in the columns below describe traits of two different leadership styles.

A good trainer should have a mix of these elements in her or his teaching style. This exercise helps trainers understand their leadership traits and tendencies. By understanding the traits they gravitate toward, trainers can see potential gaps in their leadership style and work for a balance between the two leadership styles.

Group dynamics
It is critical that trainers understand the concept of group dynamics. I strongly encourage every corporate training library to include information on this topic. It is useful not only in leading a training group, but in working within any group. The four basic elements of group dynamics are:

1. Forming
  • Occurs in the first stages of “togetherness”
  • Everyone is on best behavior
  • Focus is on artificial agreement for the group
  • Honeymoon period

2. Norming
  • Occurs as members get to know personal boundaries and idiosyncrasies
  • Focus is on learning the group

3. Storming
  • Occurs as members test boundaries
  • Friction often results
  • Focus is on process within the group

4. Performing
  • Occurs with acceptance of new boundaries and guidelines
  • Focus is on the goals and objectives of the group

While all the stages of group dynamics may not come to the surface in every class setting, it is important to understand and recognize the attributes of each phase. It is also important to know that without storming, a group can’t achieve performing status. This is a hard lesson for many trainers—even experienced trainers—to learn.

Telling and selling
Telling and selling are two sides of the same coin. A salesperson can’t sell a product to a customer without information. The same salesperson won’t sell anything by only giving the customer product information. The information must accompany a sales pitch explaining the benefits of the product. For trainers, the product is knowledge and/or skills.

To help trainers develop this skill, ask trainers to develop some sales proposals, telemarketing scripts, or commercials for one of their training programs. The development is usually just a refinement of instinctive skills present in most trainers.

Guiding vs. directing
Unlike telling and selling, guiding and directing are polar opposites. The difference is shown in the columns below:

New trainers tend to find it a challenge to move from directing to guiding. There is a fear of losing control that drives many folks to direct the class. The trick to classroom management is learning to balance the flexibility required to meet learners’ needs with the ability to refocus the class. Some quick refocus techniques to share with new trainers are:
  • Postponing off-topic questions for later in the class
  • Stating “We are getting off track”
  • Using breaks strategically
  • Scheduling question and answer periods

Some related Web-links on organizational development and group dynamics are:

Classroom management can be one of the most difficult but necessary parts of being a successful trainer. While tips and tricks such as the ones offered in this article can help a novice trainer gain insights into the art of classroom management, they will not create skilled instructors.

Coaching and feedback help. Course evaluations help. Allowing your staff to critique your training style helps. In the end, experience will be the best teacher of all.
How do you keep your classes on track? How do you help your staff develop classroom management skills? Share your experiences with us.

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