By Donna Boyette

It’s no fun to watch students lose interest. You know what it’s like; you’ve been there. Your students’ eyes glaze over. You hear your voice drone on and on as you explain concept after concept, task after task.

You march around the room to make sure everyone is at the same place, and you take a break every hour, but it just doesn’t seem to be enough to keep them awake and interested. What can you do?

You might not like this suggestion initially, but it could revolutionize your classes and greatly increase your students’ ability to absorb and retain what you are teaching. If you hate the word “creative,” as many technical trainers do, please suspend judgment and keep reading. I will show you how you can help your students learn using new, creative exercises, without actually having to touch anything colorful or fun yourself.

Necessity is the mother of invention
After teaching customer service skills for three years, I had forgotten more than I ever learned about telecommunications, circuits, data transmission, and troubleshooting. I found my right-brained self thrust into the role of technical trainer. I was assigned to teach a systems class for new employees, which also covers the basics of circuit layout, and a troubleshooting class that explains how to isolate problems with T1 lines. What I thought would be a daunting challenge turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

It makes sense to hire a technical genius to develop and teach technical training. However, what you often get is an instructor who is fascinated with the subject and talks way over students’ heads.

Because using creative exercises is the way I learn best, I have designed and implemented fun, interactive training activities that will make the learning stick, for me and for my students. We have been getting rave reviews from students. Here are a few examples of how to turn technical lessons into creative exercises.

Make it a game
For systems training, you can’t get away from repetitive exercises like the following: Open an order in the system, enter remarks, send it to another department, put it on hold, take it off hold, update the order status, send it back to the originating department, close it out.

Can’t you just see your students slumped in their seats, using one finger to tap in commands on their keyboards? To make them sit up and want to participate, turn the lesson into a competition.

Divide them into teams of two or three. Explain that as they practice opening, routing, and closing an order, they will also be tasked with a challenge. Each team must come up with a question, from class material you have already covered, to try to stump the other teams.

Give each team 10 to 15 minutes to come up with a question and to choose a team name (entered in the customer-name field). Then instruct them to open the order and add their question to the Remarks section. They must send the order to the receiving department, then find and open the opposing team’s order and try to answer the question. Each team will then send the order back to the originating department to be closed out.

You have now taught them the basics of processing an order while keeping their interest, and you have added a mini-review of your class material as they developed and answered challenging questions. Now the necessary repetition of practice is not quite as dull as they open, route, and close a few more orders.

Even videos can be interactive
My most recent class got a little noisy as they read and answered the other teams’ questions. The sense of challenge continued as they took notes during an hour-long video on telecommunications.

Instead of simply having them watch and snooze through the video, we broke it up into two 30-minute segments and added an assignment to develop questions for their classmates. During the break, students asked each other questions from their notes of the material covered in the video. I was surprised that even though I required each student to ask only one question, they kept going and each asked two or three questions. Virtually every question was successfully answered from the notes they had taken.

Link all activities to learning
It helps to tie even the wake-up exercises to the material being taught, so our wake-up exercise one morning was a variation of “Who am I?”

Instead of putting yellow sticky-notes with “George Washington” and “Bugs Bunny” on students’ backs and making them guess who they are, I labeled each student as a portion of a circuit. The first time I did this, they had a hard time formulating questions, so this time I put five questions on the board.

One at a time, each student stood in front of the room and showed us the label on his or her back before asking questions:

  1. Am I part of a T1 or a DS0 circuit?
  2. Am I at the customer’s site, or somewhere else?
  3. Am I equipment?
  4. Can you test to me?
  5. What do I do?

This has a 2-in-1 benefit: You get them up and out of their chairs, and you have accomplished your review of the previous days’ material.

If you think your students would balk at yellow sticky-notes, simply have each person come up with two review questions to ask the class. This gets them back into the course material and it gives you more time to drink your morning coffee as you facilitate instead of teach for a few minutes.

Donna Boyette is a technical trainer for WorldCom.

Do you find it easy to come up with fun, educational things for your students to do in class? Or do you prefer to stick to a “just-the-facts, ma’am,” approach? Tell us how much you let your creative side come out in class and what the benefits are.