February 11, 2018

Pilling a Cat: How Training Actually Works

Whether you are an instructional designer or a customer of external training providers, you may succumb to the idea that success of a training depends on:
  • Length (microlearning!)
  • Format (engaging videos!)
  • Digital delivery (online learning is the best!)
With all the buzz in the media, it's hard to resist this opinion. The idea of micro-videos seems to be more enthralling than pie charts. So here's a simple way to see if the "learning nuggets" and "attention-grabbing videos" produce any return on investment:
  • Watch this short YouTube video about giving a pill to a cat.
  • Get a real cat and try giving it a pill (or a delicious snack they are not in the mood to eat).
Assuming you're new to the task, I'm quite sure that the outcome will depend not on your skills, but on the cooperation of the cat. In other words, it's not your mastery, but the ease of the problem that will define the outcome. As soon as you face a cat that deviates from the example in the video, you will most likely be at a loss (quite possibly a loss of blood, too). So much for the learning nuggets. 

The format of the "nugget" doesn't matter. Whether it  is a video, a drawing, or a drag and drop activity to arrange the steps in the right order. None of these will lead to improved performance post-training. 

The reason is simple. The video contains the basic information: hold the cat's head, aim the pill at the back of its tongue, etc. There is nothing wrong with this information. It is useful and worth knowing before you approach a cat, as it can save you some time and trouble of experimenting. But the information is not enough.

Witnessing a demonstration of an ideal process does not necessarily prompt deep-level processing. In fact, it may lead to the false sense of competency. It's like looking at abstract art and claiming that anyone can do it. On the other hand, engaging with a real cat in the real world, gives you a reality check and stirs up a lot of questions, for example: 
  • How hard can I hold the cat's head without causing damage?
  • Can a cat bite its tongue if I try to close its mouth?
  • If the cat is making noises, which can I ignore and which are the signs that I'm hurting the cat?
  • What to do if the cat mastered tongue-wriggling and pill-spitting quicker than I mastered cat-pilling?
In the ideal situation, after grasping a basic idea of what we're supposed to do, we would venture forth and try to pill different cats with the gradually increasing level of difficulty. We would then reflect on our experience and seek ways to improve the outcome next time. This, and not the format of the presentation, would lead to the true engagement with the subject matter and acquisition of mastery.  

Of course, one may ask - how would it be possible to achieve all of this in an e-learning module? I would say that this is a wrong question to ask, since it focuses on the format. Don't put the format before the goal. Look past isolated events and their formats. Consider performance improvement as a process spanning time and variety of contexts. For example, are the newly trained "cat pillers" assigned to cat pilling or do they do inventory? Do mentors observe their work, encourage reflection and provide feedback? Or do they schedule a perfunctory monthly meeting to listen to the learner's self-report of their mastery? Do the cat pillers have access to supplementary tools to aid their performance? Can they use these tools? 

In short, there is nothing inherently wrong with using videos or providing information. What's wrong is stopping there. Whether we design or buy a training program, it must not stop at the dissemination of information.  To achieve performance improvement, a full-scale training program would need to include:
  • Application of knowledge in novel contexts 
  • Realistic challenge 
  • Gradual increase of difficulty
  • Reflection and feedback
  • Continuation of the development post-training
  • Tools and processes that support performance post-training

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