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How to help people prepare to learn


Training is much more than just the event. It's also about what happens beforehand, as well as after. Alan Matthews elaborates.

If you read a newspaper, where do you start? Do you read it from the front or from the back? Or do you start somewhere in the middle?
The answer will say a lot about you and your interests. (Of course, the answer may be, "I never read a newspaper", which will also say a lot about you and your interests).
I tend to read from the back first, starting with the football news. Then I may glance at the front to see the headlines, then I might read an article of interest and usually look at the letters and go to the crossword.
If I'm really busy, I'll just look at the football and save the crossword for when I go to bed. The point is, there is specific information I'm looking for when I read the paper and I prioritise the information. If I'm pressed for time, this becomes particularly important.
Have you ever searched online, or looked in a book for the answer to a question? If you used a book, you probably looked through the contents or the index to help you find the bit you wanted. If it was online, you typed in a search term or some keywords. The principle is the same. What you did was to ignore the masses of information which you could have looked at and focus on the one thing which mattered to you or which you needed to find out. You needed an answer to a question and you blanked out anything which didn't help you find that answer. Now think about when you're running a training course and you have people who are preparing to come to it. How can you use what I've just described to help them get more out of it and to prepare them for learning?
I think you need to do two things:
  • Help people to see what is important about what they're going to learn so they see the need to pay attention to it.
  • Pose questions for them so that they come to the training primed to look for answers
Often, people turn up to training not really knowing much about what's going to happen. So they're asking themselves:
  • What is this about?
  • Why is this important to me?
  • Why do I need to know this?
  • How will this help me?
If they're not clear about these things, they have to sift through all the information they're presented with in order to see whether there is anything of interest to them. That's like you sitting in a waiting room and browsing through a magazine. You flip through the pages hoping that something will take your eye. If it doesn't, you'll get bored and put it down. Don't make your learners do this with your training material. Tell them clearly in advance why it is important to them and what it will help them to do. That way, they will already know that they need to focus on it and they won't just let it wash over them.
Secondly, pose questions. If we have a question in our heads, our brains are primed to respond if an answer appears. We know the sort of information we’re looking for and we'll spot it and remember it when we find it.
So get your learners thinking about some questions related to the training material. You can pose questions yourself and also get them to think of their own. For example, once you've told people what you're going to be covering, you could ask: 
  • What are the main challenges you face in this area?
  • What would make the biggest difference in the way you...?
  • How could this information have an impact on your work?
  • What are the main questions you have about this?
  • What one thing do you really want to get from this training?
You can also give people partial answers to question, which they can only complete when they come to the training. For instance,
"There are three key facts about...which you need to know: one..."
"These will be revealed..."
These may even be part of a workbook which people complete as they go through the training. It's like setting a puzzle for people to think about. Their brains will be looking out for the answers and so paying more attention to the material you're covering.
So think about how you are going to prepare your participants to learn. What can you do before your next training event to help them get the most out of it?

Alan Matthews is director of TransformYourTraining

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