Strategies for learning and performance support 2: instruction

In last week’s post I looked at the simple strategy of exposition. You will recall that this involved little more than the delivery of information from teacher or expert to the learner, perhaps with a little Q&A and discussion, but largely one-way. Exposition occurs live through lectures, presentations and webinars, but can also be packaged up in textual, audio, video or multimedia forms. Exposition can work well for independent and experienced learners, who will be happy to ‘get the information straight’, but is likely to be overwhelming for more dependent learners and novices, who are less familiar with what they know and what they need to know.

 Instruction, the second strategy we are examining, is still a teacher/trainer-centred approach, but is much more carefully crafted to ensure that the learning outcomes are actually achieved, regardless of the learner’s ability. In this sense it is process rather than content driven. This process depends on the explicit and up-front definition of learning objectives and then the careful selection of appropriate activities and resources that will enable those objectives to be achieved. The process of ‘instructional design’ is teacher/trainer centred because it focuses on learning objectives rather than learmer goals; on the other hand, the fact that instruction is typically an interactive rather than a passive learner experience, means that the process can be adaptive to some degree to the individual differences of particular learners.
Instruction can be a live experience, whether in the workplace (‘on-job training’) or in a physical or virtual classroom; it can also be self-paced, through interactive materials delivered online or using offline media (workbooks, CDs, etc.). While learning at work occurs in many different ways, it would be fair to say that, for most workplace trainers and e-learning designers, formal instruction is what they do. Hopefully they will be doing it well, and that means the following:
  • being clear about outcomes;
  • concentrating on meeting a small number of key learning objectives thoroughly, rather than a large number only superficially;
  • following an instructional process which is appropriate for the objectives in question;
  • engaging the learner;
  • helping the learner to make new connections with prior knowledge;
  • presenting new material clearly and at an appropriate level, making use of demonstrations, stories, examples, visual aids and other tools to aid comprehension;
  • providing activities that allow new knowledge and understanding to be reinforced and consolidated;
  • allowing for plentiful opportunities to new skills to be practised, with the aid of timely and constructive feedback;
  • being responsive to the needs of individual learners;
  • providing support until all objectives are achieved.
Perhaps strangely, one of the key skills for instructional designers is to recognise when instruction is and is not an appropriate strategy. I’d say you’re likely to be safe going the instructional route when your target population consists of less confident learners, particularly those who are novices in the field in question, who need or want to be led step-by-step through the learning process, knowing they are capably supported. When these conditions are not met, instruction may still work, but you run the risk of ‘over-teaching’ and even patronising your population. Best to reserve your efforts for those who need them most.

About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd has written 244 post in this blog.

Clive is a consultant specialising in the application of technology to learning and business communications. He was previously Director of Training and Creative Services for a multinational corporation and co-founder of a major multimedia development company. For four years he was chair of the eLearning Network.

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  1. Lewis Barton says

    You make some good points here. You say that instruction may be the right strategy when you are dealing with less confident learners who are capably supported. This “capably supported” is so important, but I think maybe you’ve glossed over it a little. One reason why instruction can fail is when some important factor is getting in the way of people applying what they learned. For example you can instruct somebody in how to use the the telephone to deal with customer complaints, but having the knowledge and skill may not be enough for them to succeed. There may be lots of other inhibitors that will stop them from performing; if you don’t deal with these as well as instructing people then the instruction will be wasted. And it gets worse, because some people might blame you into the bargain and say, “That instruction did not work because we’re still getting complaints and losing customers”. To illustrate what I mean I’ll stick with this scenario of call handlers in a telephone call centre. Here are some of the performance blockers I’m thinking about:

    Your telephone exchange cannot cope with the volume of calls
    Your call centre software is too slow
    The lighting is poor
    People are on low pay with no valuable benefits and no performance incentives
    Nobody seems to notice or care whether or not you do a good job
    Managers and supervisors set a poor example themselves
    Line managers resent the time lost to training and “bad mouth” it
    The important and valid measures of performance are not collected or analysed
    Any data that is collected is not openly displayed for call handlers to see at the time they need it
    Management don’t tell people what is expected of them
    There are not enough staff to handle the volume of calls
    There are no easy scripts or checklists for call handlers to use
    Feedback is absent

    I could go on but I hope this makes the point. You can do the best instruction in the world but if you don’t give people resources, authority and support to perform then you might just as well have saved your money and people’s time.

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