In my last column, we talked about strategies managers can use to retain their best IT trainers. Today, I want to talk about another idea: prequalifying your students before they take a class. While most managers understand the benefits to the student of verifying that he or she is qualified to take a class, these same managers often fail to see what difference it can make to a trainer—particularly a good one.

In this column, I’ll explain why prequalifying your students should be central to your trainer-retention efforts. I’ll also discuss why pre-class screening often doesn’t happen.

Look past the student for a moment
As I said, looking at it from the prospective student’s point of view, it’s easy to see why it’s important to know if you have the right background before taking a class. After all, if you’ve never done any programming, it doesn’t make any sense to start in the middle of Microsoft’s MCSD certification schedule. Taking a class when you’re not qualified for it will waste your time and money.

So far, so good. The sticking point is that HR departments and training center clients usually think of this as a problem for students (or their managers), but not their trainers.

But let’s look at it from the trainer’s point of view. As I said in my last column, the best way to keep a good trainer is to make sure that he or she continues to have rewarding experiences in the classroom. While mediocre trainers might not care whether their students master the subject matter, good trainers want everyone in their classrooms to succeed. If continually presented with students of wildly divergent abilities and experiences, even the best trainer will eventually become frustrated and burned out.

A SQL class that required a sequel
To see how this could happen, consider a class taught recently by Jeff Davis, a technical writer and trainer for Appris, Inc. (Jeff also writes the “View From Ground Zero” column at TechRepublic.)

Jeff just finished teaching “Introduction to SQL” to a group of eight customer service analysts. Even though he interviewed two of the students before creating the class plan, so he would have an idea of everyone’s skills and experience level, he still ended up with a group that ranged in experience from power user down to absolute novice.

He discovered the extent of his problem when he gave a quiz at the end of the first day of class.

“I handed out an 11-question quiz at the end of the second session. It was an ‘open note, open computer’ quiz. I designed it to be a no-brainer. We had covered every single question during the class, and most of the answers could be found in the 18-page handout.”

While most of the class did fine on the quiz, not everyone did.

“Unfortunately, two of these folks barely touched pen to paper,” he said. “During the class, these same two people seemed alert, answered questions, and always nodded when I asked if everyone understood the topic we’d just covered.”
Trying to impart technical training to students who don’t have the requisite experience is something that every IT trainer has had to face. Tell us about the class you had to teach with the least qualified students, and how you tried to overcome that knowledge deficit. Send us an e-mail or post a comment below.
Jeff ended up deciding to have these two repeat the class. It will put them behind the others and cost the company some money, but it’s the only way they can learn the material.

To me, the important part of the story is how the trainer felt about it.

“When I realized they couldn’t answer the quiz questions, it was thoroughly demoralizing to me, because I felt like I’d let them down,” Jeff said.

A view from the training center
Jeff Davis is doing internal training for his company, and the pressure comes from the managers who need their people trained. At a training center, the pressure comes from a different source, but it is just as real.

By definition, a training center is in business to train people. The more people sitting in their classrooms, the more money they make. Therefore, there’s an inherent tension between the desire of a trainer to have students with the proper background for a particular class, and the need of the training center to have the classes as full as possible.

In a training center, it’s often the job of the account rep to make sure that students are qualified for the classes they take. As you can imagine, some reps are less than thorough in this regard, since every student who is delayed or prevented from taking a course means a smaller commission for the account rep.

While this tension between trainers and those who book students is inevitable, training centers still have to deal with it. Don Justice, a training manager at Panurgy, puts it this way: “It’s vital that the sales organization is aware of these potential issues, and is proactive and consultative in their sales approach.”

Justice recommends meetings between the trainers and the sales group. “Regular dialog between the trainer and the sales staff is very important to the success of the student experience.”

He also stresses the importance of letting trainers know in advance about classes where students are only marginally qualified.

“If the trainer has advance notice of the skill set of the students, he or she can help develop pre-assessment materials and processes to make sure skills are matched with expectations,” he said.

Of course, even advance notice can only carry a trainer so far. Bruce Maples is one of Justice’s trainers at Panurgy. Maples points out that a technical training center doesn’t have the same kind of time that a regular school does to deal with this issue.

“In a school setting, it is sometimes possible to create multiple lesson plans to accommodate multiple skill levels. In the technical training venue, this is usually not possible,” he said.

Maples frames the issue starkly: “To put it as bluntly as possible—the further apart the skill levels of the students, the more certainly you have doomed the class to failure.”

Keeping your best trainers enthused
As I said at the outset, this problem of poorly screened students really only affects your best trainers. The poor or mediocre trainer just doesn’t care. They will sit in front of the classroom, read from the manual, and go through the motions. They don’t care whether the students actually learn. As long as the classroom remains calm, they’re content to drone on, oblivious to the fact that the best students in the class are bored and the worst are lost.

It’s your best trainers who will get demoralized and either quit or burn out. So if you won’t consider prescreening students for their benefit, do it for the sake of your trainers.

Bob Artner is vice president for Content Development at TechRepublic.