How to run a training course

By | 2013/02/15

TrainingOver the years I’ve run a reasonable number of training courses – while I may be a consultant, I’m not a professional trainer. However, I’ve also seen some great trainers, and I’ve equally seen some pretty poor trainers. Finally, I’m all too aware of some of the mistakes I’ve made in the past and still make.

Most trainers are actually somewhere in between – they’re good at some things, they’re great at others, but they definitely have areas they can improve in.

This isn’t a definitive list, by any means, but it is what I’ve learnt from writing, running and being in training courses over the years.

Learning to teach

  1. Watch this video by Don McMillan, How NOT to Use PowerPoint. I’m being 100% serious – if you’re not prepared to watch (and live by) this video, you shouldn’t be involved in training.
  2. Watch this video by Simon Sinek, Great leaders inspire action. If you’re running training, you need to understand the why of your course, and help bring that message to your students.

Your planning

Before you put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard:

  1. Have a goal for the training. What is it the average student should take away from the course? Write this goal down – write, don’t type, and keep the goal nearby. The goal should be about the value the student gets out of the course, not something that is merely a tedious repetition or variant on the course title.
  2. Draw up a complete outline of the material and content you intend to teach (i.e., start with the headings). Don’t start filling in content, that comes later.
  3. Outline number the headings, then step through the intended order asking yourself each step of the way “If I didn’t know this subject, would the order make sense?”
  4. If possible, step through the order with someone who has a peripheral understanding of the material but isn’t an expert.
  5. Once you’re certain of the outline, put it aside for up to 24 hours (or even a bit longer if you can), then come back with a fresh start and re-read it. Does it still make sense?

NB: I’m not going to explain how to write the material – there’s a plethora of other guides available and my primary focus is on the presentation.

Your slides and training notes

  1. For all written materials (be it printed or displayed on screen), have it proof read. Preferably have it professionally proof read, with particular emphasis on spelling and grammar. It should be proof read as well by another subject matter expert, but it definitely should be reviewed by someone with a background in sub-editing.
  2. Wherever possible, avoid making your training notes print-outs of your slides. This may be tempting, but it’s less effective. Your slides should be summaries of your training notes.
  3. A caveat to the above is in order for that to be effective, your training slides must reference section and page numbers in the training notes. If not, students will regularly face a disconnect where they’re not sure what part of the notes they should be referring to.
  4. If using training notes that are an expanded version of the slides, ensure you still leave plenty of whitespace on the notes so students can make notes.
  5. Do at least two practice runs through any new material – one assuming you don’t get asked any questions, and one assuming you get asked questions every 3-4 slides. Take the average from that and you’ll have a fair idea of how long it will take to present each section. While there’s some rules-of-thumb around, I find it varies between types of and the level of complexity of the training material, so you need to come up with a number you’re comfortable with.

The presentation

  1. Say / Teach / Tell – at the start of each module or section (and indeed, each day), say what you’ll be aiming to teach, then do the teaching, then at the end of it, tell everyone what you just taught them. It neatly brackets the material, provides people with a summary, and perhaps most importantly of all, lets people know the core messages they should be taking out of each section.
  2. Introduce yourself and the purpose of the course.
  3. For smaller size professional training courses (e.g., up to 20 students or thereabouts), have each person introduce him/herself, asking them to mention what they’re hoping to get out of the course and why they’re attending. (Remember: “my boss made me come” is a valid reason. It just potentially means your job is a bit harder.)
  4. Don’t go more than 3 hours (preferably 2) without a break. (If teaching theory, aim for a maximum of 2 hours without a break; if the section includes practical activities, you can stretch to 3.)
  5. Practical sessions in training courses are highly important in most situations.
  6. Regardless of whether you can/can’t do practical sessions, ensure you’re also doing group discussion scenarios. Many people learn by talking through ideas and concepts.
  7. If you’ve got control over it, keep the air-conditioning cooler rather than warmer. The warmer a room, the easier it is for people to drift off. We all assume people would only fall asleep in a training course if the material is boring or uninteresting, but that’s a fairly simplistic outlook – some people will get more sleep, others less, and others struggle to stay alert when stuck at a desk for a long period of time.
  8. Get everyone to have their name on their desk so you know their names when you’re talking.
  9. “Say / Teach / Tell” should actually be “Say / Teach / Tell / Ask” … regularly ask questions of the students to keep them involved. Use the names of individual students at least 50% of the time; that way some questions are general for anyone to answer first, and others are aimed at keeping individuals engaged in the course.
  10. Give plenty of examples. Theoretical information forms the basis of learning, but practical examples allows people to relate to the material in a more personal way.
  11. Keep your examples with as broad a frame of reference as possible. For instance:
    1. Don’t make every example based on the assumption everyone is a parent or heterosexual.
    2. Don’t assume everyone has the same personal tastes and interests as you.
    3. Don’t assume everyone comes from nearby/the same city.
  12. Record yourself at least once – become aware of the frequency with which you use filler words … “um”, “ah”, “like”, etc. Every time you present a training course, keep yourself aware of the use of those filler terms. If you’re aware of them, you’ll progressively use them less and less.
  13. If you’re an introvert, give yourself at least half of the lunch break in isolation, away from the students. This will let you recharge for the rest of the day.

The exam

Not all training courses will have exams, and not all exams are ones that you’ll be able to write, particularly if they’re certification exams. However, if you are writing an exam:

  1. Avoid questions with double-negatives. While this may seem clever, unless everyone has good written language skills, a question with a double-negative is more geared to “trick” the reader than to test the student. For people whom the test language is not their native language, this is likely to be even more so.
  2. Proof-read the exam, too. It’s surprisingly easy to word a question (accidentally) in such a way that it’s pure gibberish – particularly if you’re in a rush.
  3. Have a subject matter expert who has read the course material do the exam. Preferably several, in fact.
  4. Be firm on the exam time allocated – some people taking tests will take as long as they can get away with; don’t be tempted to give them an extra five minutes. If nothing else, it’s hardly fair on other students who finished within the allotted time.
  5. At the end of each module, walk through sample exam questions (and discuss their answers), so that people have a degree of comfort with the exam in advance.
  6. If an exam is open book, the pass mark should be much higher. (E.g., 75%).
  7. If the exam is open book, at least some of the marks should come from material you discuss but aren’t in the notes.
  8. Clearly state the pass mark on the exam paper.
  9. If different questions have different marks, be sure to note beside each question how many marks the question is worth.
  10. If you’re marking the exam, don’t be afraid to fail someone if they really did fail – otherwise, the exam is pointless.

Wrapping up

One final point – be sure to get (anonymous) feedback from your students covering at minimum the following:

  1. The facilities – did they find it a comfortable and practical environment?
  2. The content – was it understandable? Balance by asking how regularly they think they’ll be putting the training material to use.
  3. You – you need to understand whether you succeeded in being an effective teacher for the students.