Category Archives: Classroom Tips

Asking All the Right Questions

Questions In a business setting, it’s all about the numbers.  From process times to budgets, cost analyses and quality metrics, business professionals make their careers around numbers and figures.  We thrive in an environment where everything is measured, for that is how we can prove our worth, and how a company can measure success.  The world of business training is no different.  We need to be able to prove that the time we put in is worth the company investment, and worth taking the trainees’ time to learn what we are teaching.  We measure these result by taking assessments.  We talked about more subjective assessments in our last post, but measurements ultimately come from hard numbers – more objective assessments.

In order for our assessments to be as accurate as possible, we need to make sure we’re asking the right questions, and those questions should be easy to understand.  You might have heard recently about the changes to the SAT exams by the College Board, in which they are eliminating language and questions that contain difficult or obscure words.  This is a similar effort that we need to make sure we incorporate.  In addition, what styles of questions could we include to improve assessment accuracy?

The most common styles of questions are multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, or short answer.  Let’s look at the basic pros and cons of each style, plus some things to remember:

Multiple choice
Pros: Easy to answer and easy to write, can be worded to increase or decrease difficulty
Cons: Can be giveaways for trainee, allows for “guessing”
Pointers: If you’re not a trick-question trainer, be sure that your answers are clear and to the point.  Don’t make any single answer the obvious choice – we want our trainees to think about the correct answer.  Avoid “select all that apply”, especially for complex concepts.

Pros: Perhaps the simplest to write, gives trainee good test of accuracy in exact definitions or concept details
Cons: 50/50 choice for trainee, if not written well can lead to disputes over correct answer
Pointers: Be VERY specific with your question, and be sure to point out any negative words; use italics or bold to highlight key words.  These can lead to second guessing on the part of the trainee, so specific language and jargon should be used only if it’s part of the lesson.

Pros: Great for testing terms and definitions, process steps, or formulas.
Cons: Requires trainees to write legibly (if writing by hand), and can be difficult to grade quickly.
Pointers: Make sure your question is specific of which answers to enter here; don’t leave any gray area.  Keep your answer blanks to a 2-3 minimum – i.e.: Don’t ask “What are the 47 different Project Management processes?” You don’t want to grade a test like that.

Short answer
Pros: The best way to ensure a trainee’s understanding of complex or large concepts, allows for some creativity or expression.
Cons: Definitely time-consuming to grade, and allows for subjectivity, unless it’s a simple definition question.
Pointers: Short answers can lead to long exams.  Try to keep your answers to a one-paragraph minimum, that way they’re easier to grade, but still gives the trainee ample space to explain themselves.

Keeping these simple guidelines in mind can give you the tools necessary to write good quality assessments.  What are some of the most interesting examples you’ve seen?  What are some of the worst questions you’ve seen on an exam?

Photo credit: The Telegraph

Measuring with Assessments in Training

Tie your shoes  In our last post, we discussed the idea of giving assessments in business training.  We’ve established their necessity, that they measure how effective the training has been and how ready the trainees are to proceed with their re-defined processes.  We know that assessments are crucial, and the identification of what to measure is equally as important, otherwise the whole assessment process is simply a formality.  We are going to give an assessment, but what do we want that to measure?  And how can we format the assessment to measure it?

Let’s take an example of a new process.  I’ll take a page from my old manager and set up the example that we’re teaching a group of colleagues how to tie their shoes.  We need to test them on how well they’ve learned the task so that they can repeat it in the future, and to what quality score they can repeat the process.  How do we measure that?  Well, when it comes to tying a shoe, it ultimately needs to be secure, it needs to be comfortable, and it needs to look clean.  These would be our measurement objectives: security, comfortability, and neatness.

I realize that these categories are a little subjective… everyone ties shoes a little differently (myself included).  But in the end, all business processes have an element of subjectivity.  If you don’t have the correct technique (or process) you won’t end up with a quality result.  We can measure this process by having a trainee demonstrate their understanding of the process in a live environment.  Let’s say we have the trainee tie a shoe on the foot of the instructor (that way they can measure the security and comfortability of the shoe) If we want them to succeed, it may be beneficial to give them real-time advice as they are demonstrating their new shoe-tying skills.  The instructor should watch their demonstration and give them a score on each of the three defined categories.  If they feel that the trainee is competent in the process based on those scores, then they can say the training was successful.

What if we wanted to go deeper, and measure the process underlying the three categories?  We need to measure the process itself and how well the trainees learned it.  We could construct a written quiz to test their knowledge prior to the demonstration.  But we need to make sure the questions are written in a way that are easy to understand, but not too complicated and an easy give-away.  As a teaser, take a look at these tips to writing quiz questions, and we’ll discuss this in our next post.

Photo credit: My Shoes

Disruptive Students… What to do?

Disruption When we last met, we were talking about disruptive students.  Many teachers are foiled by these, and many classes become worthless due to student disruption.  I’ve been in many a class where open discussion is encouraged, even expected, but everyone in that class knows that the discussion needs to be relevant, wholesome, and adds value to the class.  There comes a point when certain scenarios need to be dealt with and class must go on.

CSU East Bay provides interesting insights on dealing with disruptive students.  Here are a few examples from their article:

Making unreasonable demands for time or attention: make a reasonable adjustment for a students’ requests, but at times it might be worth getting administrative staff involved for intervention.  I would also suggest having the student seek a tutor or additional support for their academic problems.
Continually speaking out of turn: Do your best to answer any relevant questions or respond to any comments related to your subject at hand, but be sure to make it clear (and it might take some reiteration) that the discussion should focus on the topic.  Any excess conversation should be conducted outside of class time.
Ringing cell phones, talking to other classmates, or audible distractions: Obviously there should be a policy put in place to minimize these, but my best suggestion would be to simply walk the class.  If you walk behind the person who is generating the distraction, they should get the hint and cease their interactions.  If this doesn’t work, then (in my opinion) you should address them directly and ask them to stop distracting the class.  Some teachers even ask for them to share their conversation (or text message if it’s a ringtone) with the whole class.  I’ve even seen some professors answer their students’ cell phone and ask the person on the other end not to call while the student is in class.
Threatening or abusive behavior: This enters into a whole different realm of classroom management.  If you have a threatening student, you have your own security (and that of the rest of the class) to keep in mind.  Take responsibility for the student and ask the disruptive student to leave.  If they refuse, then they should be escorted by you to the administrator.  You need to have a little more of a backbone in this scenario, but safety is key.  Don’t be a hero and try to do anything irrational.

I found a recent article from the National Education Association (NEA) on handling disruptive students,  It provides an interesting anecdote, and focuses mainly on threatening young adult students.  It names the interaction between teacher and student as a “delicate dance”.  This is true, as a teachers’ method of dealing with students can be a make-or-break situation.  It could set a bad precedent, make the students lose respect for the teacher, or even cause additional problems with other students in the class.  It’s important to deal with any scenario that way class can resume and education can continue.

What are some interesting stories that you’ve seen or heard?  Have you ever been the target of disruptive student behavior?  Let’s chat about it and share experiences!

Photo credit: Inspiring Teaching

There’s Always One…

classroom I was in a concert today in Reno, and we were singing Ralph Vaughan Williams “A Sea Symphony”.  We had just gotten through one of the more difficult parts of the second movement, and all of a sudden, we hear a familiar tone come from somewhere in the audience.  It was the tone of someone’s cell phone turning on, and the AT&T theme playing during a time when you can hear a pin drop in a packed concert hall.  I can only imagine that at least half of the choir and orchestra members were rolling their eyes or wanted to strangle those people.

Obviously this is a more drastic example of what would happen in a classroom situation, but the idea is the same.  We all have had those classes where someone inevitably has their cell phone make a sound, where they constantly ask questions to the point of being disruptive, or turns around and talks to the person behind them while you’re trying to talk to the group.  Many teachers have different ways to deal with these disruptions, and there are a number of different schools of thought on how the teacher should react to distractions in the classroom, but the fact remains, something must be done.  You can set a very bad precedent if you leave the distractions as they are, as other students can see that as a sign of lost credibility, trust, and authority.

Whatever happens, you need to have a good policy of classroom management.  You need to set up an environment of comfort and respect for the students, but ultimately you need to have a policy of discipline and authority so that you can maintain the class as needed.  Set up (in your mind or class syllabus) an understanding that any disruptions to the class will be dealt with accordingly.  Most importantly, follow through on that policy.  Having a policy and not following it makes the teacher seem like they don’t care or don’t have the authority to keep students in line.  It may make the difference between success or failure, not to mention the teacher keeping their job!

Ever had a student that won’t stop asking questions?  Ever have a group of talkers that don’t regard you?  Ever felt so irritated at a student that you want to just kick them out of your class?  Stay tuned to see what you can do.  It’s your class, and you have the right to impose order.

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Establishing Credibility as a Trainer

credibility Have you ever been to a class or training where the teacher didn’t seem like they knew what they were talking about?  You probably sat there with your arms crossed, wondering when it would be over.  You stare at the clock, waiting for it to hit the time when you get end your misery.  As you sit waiting for the teacher to finish their stammering, you take a few scribble notes and lose precious time sitting in a training room with a number of other victims.

There are many things that a teacher or trainer can do to boost their creditability in a classroom.  You don’t necessarily need to be a full-on expert of the given subject (although that almost never hurts) but you do need to have a firm grasp of the content.  Avoid saying things like “Um…” or “Uhhh” too much, as it may give away your hesitation.  When you ask a question of the class, give them a moment to respond before you answer it for them.  If you have a disruptive student, deal with it in a professional manner without embarrassing them in front of the class. Langevin Learning Company has some additional tips on boosting one’s credibility in class.

Some of the most basic things can help your credibility as well.  These things might not come to mind immediately, but they are good things to remember when setting up a training class:

  • When you prepare the training, get as much information about your audience, the topic, and the intention as possible.  This is part of the Analysis phase of ADDIE.
  • Set up the room to be comfortable yet professional.
  • Do a thorough review of the materials and look for any confusing information, or items that need to be revised to make it easier to understand.
  • Prepare cheat sheets or handouts yourself to pass out to your students to help them remember the information (and more importantly, the class itself).
  • When you speak to the class, speak with authority and clarity.  Enunciate, make sure everyone can hear you, and make sure that nobody has a potential distraction.
  • Finally, if you see someone in the class giving you a bewildered look, feel free to ask them (either in class or during a break) if they need some help.  If the whole class looks utterly confused, then take the time to explain yourself in more detail.  It will make you look like you care about their success in learning.

As a teacher or trainer, credibility is one of the most important things that must be maintained in a classroom.  Without it, your students will disengage from the class and not learn anything, because they won’t take you seriously.  Worse yet, they may not even believe what you’re trying to tell them.  You need to demonstrate that you are trustworthy and that their time with you is well spent, and that they will learn what they need to in your class.

Photo credit: Knowledge Bridge Inc.

Keeping Attention on You

training  We’ve been spending some time talking about motivation in the classroom, but that is only part of the equation.  Some students have a hard time focusing and paying attention in training.  In a business setting, it is assumed that all of your trainees are adults and will do their best to pay attention to what is going on in class.  You need to keep up their attention so that they can maximize their absorption of the materials, and be able to recount them when needed in their jobs.

From personal experience, one of the easiest and quickest ways to get your class’ attention is to say something like “you might want to write this down… it will be on the test.”  Telling the class that there will be an assessment at the end of the course has its merits as well, but this is dependent on your reputation and the precedent of giving assessments at the end of every training.  We’ll talk about assessments in a future blog post, since it’s a major talking point in business training.

Indiana University states that the normal adult attention span is 15-20 minutes.  In a training class, the teacher needs to be able to use this attention span to their advantage.  Barraging your trainees with a mountain of content can overload them, so you need to break it up into smaller, easier to digest, chunks.  I found an interesting list here to reference some tips on keeping an audience’s attention.  Some of them are pretty easy – offer refreshments, give them a quick break, and use humor to keep them interested.  I like #9 in particular: shake things up.  Maybe assign an impromptu skit or Q&A session.  Get the students up and moving around, maybe with an ice breaker or other activity.  Keep the mood light, and be open and honest with your class about how important the material is, and you are there to facilitate their learning in the easiest way possible.

Sometimes you’re lucky enough to have managers in your class, who might be there as part of their job, or because they need to learn the materials just as much as their employees do.  To keep their attention, all other external stimuli should be removed.  Set some ground rules before the class begins: laptops should be closed and phones should be put away.  If you’ve got a class where hands-on exercises on a computer is planned, walk around the room while you teach.  Use your presence as an authority figure to press them into paying attention and not goof off on their computer.  Distractions should be as limited as possible, obviously except for those that you plan as part of the course.

Above all, remember that people are still people, and that they can only hold their attention for so long.  If you keep these things in mind, and make your class as interesting as possible, then you can say that you did your best to teach the materials and your class is ready for what’s coming next.

Photo credit: University of Texas

Creating Motivation in Learning

Motivation at work  There’s always one.  One person who comes to you before or after class and says “Why are we here?  What is the point of this class?”  Heaven forbid this person blurts this out in the middle of class.  If it’s not a class that you are completely sold on, or perhaps something that you’re not completely qualified to teach (a math teacher in a science class, for example), you may not have a direct answer quick at the ready.  You might be caught off-guard with the question and be sitting there saying “Uhhhh… Ummmm….”

How do you deal with that?  How do you create motivation in your students, be it for a required class in school or a business training that the entire company must attend?  Teachers and trainers alike struggle to answer this question, and many don’t come up with a simple answer.  The bad news is, there is no simple answer.  The good news is, there are plenty of things you can do to generate motivation in your students, it just takes some creativity and prep work ahead of time.

We talked about motivation a while back in a previous blog post: “Motivation is Key to Learning“.  There are mountains of evidence (not to mention personal experience of any trainer or teacher) on why motivation is important to the success of a class.  I found an interesting (albeit somewhat outdated but still relevant) article on Stanford’s website about Motivation and how one can create it.  For any class, relevance to the audience is key.  Make the learning objectives personal for them and show them how the material can help them succeed, or where they might need to remember this in the future.

In a business setting, most likely the trainees are directed to attend the training as part of their jobs.  This leads to some inherent motivation, but not necessarily because they want to be there.  You, as a trainer and subject matter expert, need to tell them why this information is necessary for the completion of their jobs.  It may even be necessary for the survival of the company – take SOX compliance or customer privacy training as examples.  This information should also be echoed by management.  They may not be excited about being in training, but you can help by making the training more fun.  Use some humor, pass out candy or run some interesting exercises.  Ice breakers and impromptu skits are a good way to keep the energy going in the room.

Whatever you do, any trainer or teacher will tell you that motivation is essential, otherwise there is no point in anyone wasting their time.  This motivation will help the students engage in your materials, and they might even enjoy the time they spend in the classroom, learning new things.

Photo credit: Examiner