Sunday, November 16, 2014

Get Technical With Your Writing

One would think because I received my undergrad degree in English that I would be a good writer. But I’m not.  At least, I’m not a good technical writer. I tend to give too much information instead of getting right to the point.  So, when it comes to writing for training, I have to work doubly hard to be minimalist.
Technical writing can be used in several phases of training construction.  In the early developmental phases when you create outlines or instruction handouts, the idea to KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is ideal.  For those of us that are verbose, there is a time and place within training development to use that skill but, for now, let’s talk about why technical writing is so important.

Photo Credit
I’ve never met anyone who actually likes writing objectives. Of everything that gets written in the process of training, objectives are most likely the most technical you will get. It is easy to be vague and use non-descriptive language when writing, but identifying what the learner will be doing in a training is not the time to be vague. The best objectives will use descriptive verbs and avoid these seven: understand, know, learn, enjoy, appreciate, help, and master. Use technical writing in the objective to succinctly point out (1) what the learner will be doing, (2) when the learner will be doing it, and (3) how the learner will be doing it.

If you are conducting training, then you are most likely making an outline of topics you want to cover. Outlines can be sparse or they can be detailed.  For the purpose of training, an outline should fall somewhere in the middle.  It should detail steps the learners will need to know in order to perform a specific function - aka the training topic. Having a good foundation in technical writing will allow you to comb through the outline and delete any extraneous information. If technical writing is not your strong suit, then perhaps using a flowchart to distinguish actions that need to be taken to achieve the desired results will be easier.  

I don’t know about you, but when I see a recipe that has paragraphs worth of instructions, I don’t even bother with it. Similarly, any instructional handouts you give to learners should be very technical in nature.  Using bullet points or numerical cues for learners to follow will be less cumbersome if they need to refer back to the document later.  Putting the entire contents of the training session in the handout will result in paragraph text that could be a recipe for disaster. If the training was well planned out, the technical document will serve it’s purpose as a way to stimulate recall.

Instructor’s Manual
As a naturally long winded individual, myself, all this terse writing just has me itching to write - at length - an overly detailed manual of sorts.  Every training should detail what is being done and said by the instructor.  The purpose of this is to (1) know what you are planning to do and say during the training and (2) have a record of what was done for future training.  While the Instructor’s Manual will give you a little leeway, the more direct and to-the-point you can be, the better. The Instructor’s Manual should include all the objectives, any instructions and handouts you will be giving out, and a blow-by-blow account of each step you will take during the training.

If technical writing isn’t your strong suit, write from the heart and then from the head. In short, write as you normally would and then take a knife to it and cut out all the excess - your learners will thank you!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The End Result

Assessment at the end of training is key in order to gauge how much learners have absorbed.  Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Evaluation give a rough guide on how to assess learners with each level asking a pertinent question: did they like it, did they learn anything, are they using it, and did it make a difference? Although we know that these assessments are necessary, the way to go about it can leave much room for debate.  The term assessment is often equated with testing, but testing is only one means to an end.  In fact, assessment can be formal or informal, quantitative or qualitative.  Depending upon the type of training you are implementing, you may want to vary the type of assessments you use.  In some circumstances, where the payoff is big and staff are invested, a formal approach to testing may be necessary. However, in training for refreshers or other parts of the job where learners should already have foundational knowledge, assessment will be more informal. Not sure what I mean? Let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios.
Alberto G. via Flickr

Scenario 1: Major Change
When your job introduces something new such as a policy or a piece of technology, assessment can be beneficial to both the learner and the trainer for obvious reasons: the learner will be able to practice what was learned and the trainer will be able to evaluate how much the learner retained.  No one likes to take a test and testing immediately after a training session proves very little as far as long term retention goes.  We’ve all heard the term “teaching to the test” and it has a negative connotation for a reason - it doesn’t work.  The immediate outcome may be high test scores but the on-the-job application days and months after a training session will be low.  To avoid testing in general, a practical on-the-job assignment may do the trick to instill proper application.
When the library added the possibility for customers to download eBooks, it was imperative that staff were trained properly.  Everyone knew that this was going to be a big deal in library land and staff were more than ready for the challenge.  In a scenario like this, staff tend to be invested in learning the new product because they know it will directly affect them.  As excited as staff were, attending a training is not the end of the learning journey.  It’s very rare for someone to attend training and be able to immediately apply the new skill without practicing first.  Therefore, asking staff to complete an assignment, such as downloading an eBook outside of the class will, help solidify the knowledge.  In this case, the assignment is the test - it’s a practical and formal evaluation of the learner’s ability to take knowledge gathered during training and apply it on the job.

Scenario 2: A Refresher
Refresher’s are not high priorities for staff. After all, they are already supposed to know the information, right? When processes are changed and information is tweaked but the underlying foundation is still relevant, staff are less likely to be motivated by training and even more likely to despise an assessment.  And who can blame them? Giving a test on what they should already know is like being in 10th grade math and having a pop quiz.
After eBooks had been in the library’s collection for some time, gradual changes were made to how eBooks were downloaded.  In spite of the change, however, the basic theories remained the same.  In a case like this, refresher training could simply be a demonstration of the changes that have been implemented along with an informal assessment. A formal assessment such as the one described in Scenario 1 where staff are asked to repeat the process of downloading an ebook and reporting to their supervisor can come across as condescending.  Instead, an informal assessment through observation or conversation should be made.  After training is completed, you may suggest that learners try out the new changes so they are familiar with them and utilize the supervisory staff to observe any snags along the way.

Both assessments, informal and formal, serve their purpose and can be used based on the type of training presented.  The assessment you choose should reflect not only the material but the type of learners you have as well.  Some times, it may be appropriate to do a formal evaluation for a refresher if the learners indicate that more practice is needed. Assessments, just like training content, should be developed with the learner in mind and with a calculated reason behind it.  A well thought out assessment, a culmination of everything learned, may end up being the a-ha moment for a learner.