Author Mel Silberman once attended an advanced Excel training session as a total novice. He listened closely to the instructions, and when the group recessed for lunch, his spreadsheet was perfectly up-to-date with the pace of the class.

The instructors were amazed at his skill, until Silberman pointed out that while he followed the instructions to the letter, he still had no understanding of how Excel worked or how to apply it outside of the class. The problem was a common one, Silberman said. Too often, trainers assume students have learned the material, without making sure students understand and can apply the methods.

“If you neatly package the information or elegantly demonstrate the skills, you—not the participants—are doing the work. No one is suggesting that well-designed instruction is unnecessary. But the key to effective training is how the learning activities are designed so that the participants acquire knowledge and skill, rather than merely receive it,” he said.

Silberman, a professor at Temple University and president of Active Training, which has trained trainers for companies such as Texas Instruments, ARCO Chemical, and Merrill Lynch, describes a participatory approach to training in the book Active Training (Jossey-Bass, 1998). The 320-page book takes trainers from the design phase, through the steps in delivering active training, to the post-training evaluation process.

Getting learners involved in the lesson
The book’s main idea is that when people see information in action, discuss it with others, ask questions about it, do something with it, and even teach it to someone else, they understand the material better, retain it longer, and are motivated to apply it when they’re back on the job.

Silberman believes the active approach to training works for virtually all topic areas and that it provides a remedy to common mistakes made by trainers, including:

  • Not engaging the learner right away.
  • Not shifting the mode of instruction often enough.
  • Talking too much.
  • Assuming that what they have told and shown is learned.

Silberman cautioned that, by its nature, technical training tends to pair students with computers, which isolates them and cuts down on classroom interaction.

To ensure students’ understanding of a topic, he said students should be introduced to the technology first through discussion; then they should be paired up so they can explore the topic together; and finally the groups should work on exercises and compare answers in a larger group.

Creating engaging instruction
Silberman offers 10 ways to get students actively involved in training and to make sure all class members participate equally in the discussion.

  • Open discussion
    Ask a question and open it up to the entire group immediately. Use open discussion when you are certain that several people want to participate. If you have an eager group and are worried that the discussion might be too lengthy, start the discussion with, “I’d like to ask four or five participants to share their ideas on this topic.” On the other hand, if you are worried that only a few people will volunteer, ask, “How many of you can tell us why this solution works?” instead of “Who can tell us why this solution works?”
  • Response cards
    Pass out index cards and request anonymous answers to your questions. This method saves time and makes it easier for shy people to contribute.
  • Polling
    Verbally poll all participants or distribute a questionnaire to be filled out and tallied on the spot. Use polls to obtain data quickly and in a concrete form. Pose questions that seek a clear-cut answer.
  • Subgroup discussion
    Put participants in subgroups of three or more to share and record information. Use this method when you have sufficient time to discuss questions and issues. This is a key way to obtain everyone’s participation. Pose a question for discussion or give them a task or assignment to complete. Often, it is helpful to designate group roles—such as facilitator, timekeeper, recorder, or presenter—and obtain volunteers or assign members to fill them.
  • Partners
    Put participants in pairs and instruct them to work on tasks or discuss key questions. Use partners when you want to involve everybody but do not have enough time for small-group discussion. Pairs offer support and are ideal for working on complex activities, which would not lend themselves to larger group settings.
  • Go around the room
    Go around the group and obtain short responses to key questions. Sentence fragments (“This program will allow me to…”) are useful in conducting go-arounds. Invite participants to pass when they wish. Avoid repetition by asking each participant for a new idea or comment.
  • Games
    Use popular games or quiz shows to elicit participants’ ideas or knowledge. Use games to stimulate energy and involvement. Virtually any game can be adapted for training purposes: bingo, Jeopardy, poker, Family Feud, Pictionary, Wheel of Fortune, Scrabble, and crossword puzzles. Be sure that the game requires everyone’s participation, and make the instructions crystal clear.
  • Selecting the next speaker
    Ask participants to raise their hands when they want to share their views, and request that the present speaker call on the next speaker (rather than the trainer). Do not allow participants to call on people who don’t want to participate. Use this method when you are sure there is a lot of interest in the discussion and you wish to promote interaction. When you wish to resume as moderator, tell that to the group.
  • Panel
    Invite a small number of participants to present their views in front of the entire group. Use panels when time allows a serious response to your questions. Rotate panelists to increase participation.
  • Fish bowl
    Ask part of the group to form a discussion circle and have the remaining participants form a listening circle around them. Use this “fish bowl” method to focus large group discussions. Although time- consuming, this is the best method for combining the virtues of large and small group discussion.

Keep the class focus tight
Because student interaction takes time, Silberman cautions trainers to avoid “the tendency to cover the waterfront by throwing in everything possible about a given subject.”

“Classrooms where learning is active have a lean curriculum and limited goals. The trainers who guide these classrooms understand that students will forget far more than what they remember. When the content level is kept moderate, the trainer has time to provide activities that introduce, present, apply, and reflect upon what is being learned,” he said.

When the class is over
Once they are back on the job, students can retain what they learned by:

  • Teaching it to their peers.
  • Discussing the new information with a friend from class or a former trainee.
  • Responding to follow-up e-mails from instructors that ask students if the tasks they learned are going smoothly, which tasks they are struggling with, and what they are having a hard time remembering.

“Much of the value of active training comes from thinking about the activities when they are over and discussing their meaning with others,” Silberman said.
There are always the loudmouths and always the wallflowers, but how do you get all your students to participate equally? How do you balance the interaction of various students and draw out the quiet ones? Send us your participation tips so we can share them with other TechRepublic readers.