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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > September 2003
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Vol. 23 No. 8 — September 2003
Training Technology Trainers: Lessons from the River
By Stephanie Rawlins Gerding

Critical Trainer Skills









Your heart is racing, adrenaline is rushing through your body, and you're reeling with the "fight or flight" conflict. You wonder why you agreed to do this in the first place. Are you teaching new technology trainers or conquering Class V rapids on the Rio Grande? Could be either: Success in both of these endeavors requires many of the same elements. I have trained hundreds of librarians to be successful technology trainers. With the tips in this article, you too can develop a successful train-the-trainer program. I'll cover trainer anxieties, critical skills, understanding learner motivation, and planning.

Getting into the Water

With train-the-trainer workshops, it is most effective to have a small group (14 or less). Try to schedule at least 2 days; there is plenty to cover. I like to hold 2-day workshops with a week between the days so that the trainers will have had time to practice. Have trainers present short classes, even in small groups. This allows for them to practice, observe different styles, and share knowledge. Survey trainers to discover specific training interests. Videotape trainers to help them improve (this is a great learning tool, which I'll discuss more). Incorporate interesting themes, prizes, learning games, fun foods, and activities to help make the workshop enjoyable and facilitate learning.

Fear of Drowning: Dealing with Trainers' Anxieties

The most common concerns of new trainers—and new rafting instructors—are fear of failure (in both your training environment and their own), lack of confidence in front of groups, dealing with difficult or unexpected situations, and planning training. The first of these you can deal with upfront by addressing the trainers' fear of being evaluated in your workshop. You can help to alleviate this stress by acknowledging their previous experience and providing opportunities for them to voice concerns. At one workshop with a fishing theme, I had trainers write concerns, questions, and reasons for attending on brightly colored fish. They taped these onto a pond (a large blue tablecloth on the wall). I discovered valuable information: Some resented required attendance; others had public speaking fears. It also revealed which training topics they were interested in. Also, be sure to let trainers know that, in their own classes, audiences will want them to succeed. Learners don't want to sit through a class feeling uncomfortable, watching a nervous speaker—they want a dynamic trainer and to have a good time!

Practice is the key to trainers' becoming more confident. Encourage them to seek out opportunities to speak to groups. A great way to build their confidence is to videotape training. This helps them to identify areas for improvement far better than having someone else offer advice. Trainers usually dread this activity but then find that they forget about the videotaping while they're focused on training. Let them watch their videos independently to avoid embarrassment. Usually, their training is always better than they expected.

All new instructors fear unexpected situations arising in their classrooms. You can get common anxieties out in the open and help newbies to feel more comfortable by telling them humorous stories about your own past training mishaps. This will let them know that although some things may go wrong, with preparation, they will be able to deal with them. Using personal stories related to the training topic is a great way to avoid boring, still water.

Beginning trainers often have difficulty when they face planning. They fear that they will run out of time or always wrap up early. It is important to show new trainers how to set classroom goals and objectives, and how to break class time into manageable, 20- to 30-minute segments. Providing trainers with planning tips and techniques will help them to approach lesson planning with less anxiety and more self-assurance, and so I will cover planning in more depth later in this article.

Training Survival Skills

There are several critical skills that you should focus on when training trainers. When rafting, it is important to have a flexible raft that bends in the rapids. The same can be said of training: Something almost always goes wrong in the classroom, so flexibility is key. Give your class sample scenarios of training obstacles and let them identify solutions in small groups. This will prepare them for what may happen and also demonstrate why flexibility is crucial.

Other important skills include good presentation abilities, building rapport with learners, and using training aids. An important rule for successful training is to never rely on a written text. An outline, bulleted notes, or PowerPoint slides will serve much better. Have trainers practice developing these tools so they have the flexibility of eye contact and letting their own personalities enhance their words.

Encourage trainers to develop an open, friendly, and low-stress atmosphere. I've seen many new trainers display an entirely different personality while training. Perhaps they believe that by standing behind a podium, saying important words, they portray an image of credibility and knowledge. Instead, the audience tunes out and learning comes to a halt. You should make clear that being in front of a room does not require formality and complete expertise.

It is important that trainers know it's acceptable to not have all answers to all questions. They can ask if anyone else in the group knows the answer, or offer to find the answer after class and report back later. By being themselves, trainers allow learners to identify with them and to be open to learning. Furthermore, a story can infuse the classroom with energy and help build rapport. When learning, we upload into our own personal experience databases and incorporate the knowledge into our life stories. Include an exercise in which the trainers have to explain a task using only stories and examples.

You may want to include information about training aids in your workshop. With technology training, handouts with step-by-step directions are very important. Otherwise, some learners struggle to write down everything and quickly fall behind. Knowing they have directions for later use makes them feel more comfortable. And if they are visual learners, they can read instructions later and get information through charts, screen prints, and other visuals. Have trainers practice writing simple tasks step by step and then have someone attempt to follow the instructions exactly. Show them aspects of good handouts, including how to do screen captures. Another popular topic is how to use PowerPoint effectively.

Go with the Flow: Understanding Motivation

What makes the river water run fast in some areas, while remaining still and calm in others? Why do some learners seem open and excited while others seem apathetic and bored? No one wants to sit through a boring, monotone lecture. If trainers aren't excited about the topic, then the class won't be either. Show trainers how to incorporate learning games, activities, or even a fun theme to raise learners' enthusiasm—and their own.

Create Interest

Whether you are teaching river safety to first-time rafters or teaching Excel to librarians planning their first budgets, chances are they will pay attention. But how about a lab of co-workers whose managers decided they should attend, and who aren't in the least bit interested? Well, trainers can't generate the need for survival, but they can make learning applicable to other needs. Teach trainers how to convey to their classes that learning will make their jobs easier, more efficient, and more effective. Trainers can demonstrate how new skills can be used in their personal lives, as well.

Encourage Independence

Patience is a virtue—especially in technology training. Learners get frustrated if they don't feel respected. Just like a guide might let new rafters navigate small waters to get experience, trainers can use exercises to let learners practice at their own pace. Show them how to use self-paced exercises so that fast or experienced learners can work on their own. New trainers often worry about what will happen if their students make mistakes. Remind them that at least they will be there to help, instead of letting learners go home (or into their classrooms) and make the mistakes on their own.

Incorporate Involvement

You must let trainers know that they should be guides; they are there to help learners achieve their own success. But you can't learn for others, just like you can't paddle for them. Studies have shown that when adults are able to participate in learning, they retain more information and are better able to use it in their own lives.

Communicate Effectively

Let trainers practice answering questions, taking time to really listen to the speaker. They should never interrupt someone asking a question. If they do, they risk sending the message that they don't really want participation. Also, trainers should be encouraged to ask learners questions. This helps the learners process the information; by putting answers into their own words, they are reinforcing the knowledge.

Encourage trainers to use examples from the real world. Otherwise, it may be difficult for the learners to translate what they are learning into their own needs. Have trainers brainstorm how their classes will apply what they learn. Remind them not to use technical jargon or abbreviations and to be specific when giving directions. When drawing attention to the screen, make sure they use directional language, such as stating that the Start button is in the lower left-hand corner.

Understand the Three Major Learning Styles

There are many ways to define the methods that we learn. Trainers should at least understand the broad categories: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Some learners will have two predominant learning preferences. I've always found that kinesthetic learners are the most numerous, followed by visual, and then auditory. It is disturbing that a majority of training is delivered using only auditory techniques.

It is easy to help trainers to remedy this problem. Kinesthetic learners comprehend through doing and often disregard instruction manuals to work on their own. They enjoy activities, group work, and self-paced exercises. Visual learners prefer demonstrations; they think in pictures and request diagrams, charts, and handouts. Auditory learners grasp ideas through listening and sounds and prefer dialogue or lecture. Trainers can capture their interest with analogies, stories, discussions, and debates.

The important thing to teach trainers is that in every class a variety of learning styles will be represented. The best way to capture and maintain interest is by integrating all of these techniques. Recommend icebreakers that encourage involvement, such as having class participants explain how they've previously used the software that's being taught. Have the trainers outline a sample software class that incorporates all the basic learning styles. For example, trainers could follow the icebreaker with a short lecture introducing the software and basic functions. A handout could reiterate this information. Next the trainer could ask the learners what they want to know about the software. Then a brief demonstration would be appropriate. They could follow that with either an independent exercise or group work. In this way not only would all learning styles be incorporated, but also the class would be active, involved, and fun.

Scouting the Rapids: Teaching Trainers to Plan

In rafting, scouting the rapids means looking ahead and planning how to maneuver through the waters. New trainers often need tips on planning classes. Don't forget to include a section on training evaluation and how to use this input to constantly make improvements.

The Environment

Trainers always need to know the room and situation they will be training in. Teach trainers to adjust room arrangements to make the room more suitable. Show them diagrams like those in Barbazette's The Trainer's Support Handbook. Classroom-style setups often are not ideal. Point out how to angle tables in a chevron or "V" pattern, which aids visibility. Demonstrate that for small groups, U-style setups or round tables encourage group work. Also, don't forget to remind trainers they should meet technical support staff before training. If they can explain their needs in person, they can alleviate unnecessary problems. (Usually the trainer gives technology requests to a third party, and something can be lost in the translation.)

Goals and Objectives

Trainers should find out as much as possible about learners' skill levels, interests, and how they will implement the training. Next, the trainers will need to know how to set basic goals and objectives. Deciding what to accomplish is crucial to planning. For each hour of a class, they shouldn't have more than two or three objectives. Any more will be very rushed. As an example, have trainers plan an hour-long class for an introduction to the Internet, and ask them to identify three core objectives to focus the content. If they want learners to actually type in a URL and do a Google search, they will probably find they have to leave out a history of the Internet dating back to ARPANET. Have an exercise where the trainers pick a topic and break down the goals and objectives for workshops. You may need to go over how goals and objectives should be formulated.

Time Management

Once they've set goals and objectives, trainers can determine how much time to focus on each. If they will spend an hour on each objective, then they'll need to break down how much time will include lecture, group work, and other activities. They should estimate how long each section will last, then rehearse the sections and update the times.

They'll need to include time for introducing software and even the basics ofWindows. When teaching technology classes, it is very important to start at this level. Encourage them to incorporate a section on familiarity with basic desktop and application similarities, such as toolbars, menu bars, task bars, and opening and closing programs.

Rafting all day without bathroom and lunch breaks would be unthinkable, right? Remind trainers to build in breaks. Most people can only concentrate for about 20 minutes at a time, and sitting for over an hour will guarantee wandering minds. Suggest providing breaks every hour to hour and a half. Remind trainers to include information on bathroom locations, and to encourage class members to get up and stretch, get a drink, or whatever they need to ensure their personal comfort. If possible, trainers should provide at least coffee and water (and chocolate, another necessity).

It's Not the Destination, It's the Journey That Counts

Every trip down the river is unique, just as no two classes are ever alike. A wise trainer once said that if you can do your training without anyone in the room, you should not even bother to do it. If done correctly, each workshop will benefit from the individual experience of all the learners. That's what makes training an exciting and fun experience every time!


Further Reading

Barbazette, Jean. The Trainer's Support Handbook: A Practical Guide To Managing The Administrative Details Of Training. McGraw-Hill, 2001. (Includes downloadable handouts.)

Clothier, Paul. The Complete Computer Trainer. McGraw-Hill, 1996. (Although not recent, this book still remains my top pick for new technology trainers.)

Jolles, Robert. How to Run Seminars and Workshops. John Wiley & Sons, 2000.
(Involving adult learners, using training technologies, planning, and more.)

Meier, Dave. The Accelerated Learning Handbook. McGraw-Hill, 2000. (Learn to tap into the minds and personalities of all learning styles and enhance retention.)

Pike, Robert. 50 Creative Training Openers and Energizers. Jossey-Bass, 2000. (I'd recommend all of Pike's many books; this one focuses on interactivities for positive learning environments.)

Silberman, Mel. 101 Ways To Make Meetings Active:Surefire Ideas To Engage Your Group. Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer, 1999.



Stephanie Rawlins Gerding, the continuing education director at New Mexico State Library, coordinates a statewide training program. She has previously held library positions that involved training at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Federal Express, Sirsi, and the University of Tennessee. She has conducted and coordinated technology training and train-the-trainer programs for public, academic, school, and special librarians. She holds an M.L.S. from the University ofTennessee. Her e-mail address is
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