Testing For Understanding

July 5th, 2011

What is the objective of the training?

Did the students achieve the objective?

How do you know?

I recently facilitated an instructor skills training session where I had those three questions prominently
displayed on a flipchart. After every practice lesson, I would ask the instructor those three questions.

Testing for understanding is one of the key things in delivering a successful training program. If you don’t test for understanding, you run the risk of going onto to more advanced lessons when the students haven’t mastered the basics yet.

It all starts with a good objective. The acronym SMART is frequently used:

Specific – the student should understand what is expected

Measurable – the instructor can measure the outcome to know it has been acheived

Applicable – the objective is applicable to the job being performed

Realistic – the objective can be achieved in the classroom setting

Timely – the objective can be achieved in an appropriate time

One way to think about objectives is to think in terms of testing the student. Is this on the final exam? How are you going to test the student?

A well written objective will provide the means for determining whether the student has met the objective but the instructor must still test the student to see if they have met the objective. In addition, they need to test for understanding for each training point along the way.

In technical training, the instructor is often a subject matter expert that has been drafted into the instructor role. They know the subject but they don’t know how to teach or how to test for understanding.

When I ask the first question, I will usually get a pretty good objective. When I ask the second question, the subject matter expert will answer with a firm yes. When I ask the third question on the first practise lesson they do, I will often get “I asked them if they understood and they said yes.” or even “I asked them if they had any questions and they didn’t.”

This is the wrong answer but it is the answer I commonly expect. Students in a class that don’t understand something will often hide that information. Yes, of course they understand or hope to later on when they actually try it out. No, they don’t have any questions because that would show they don’t know what everyone else in the class obviously picked up.

A question asked by a student shows more understanding of the information taught then dead silence. Questions are often asked to clarify the information presented.

If there are no questions or everybody nods there head when you ask them if they understand, you need to ask them some questions. You need to find out what they know.

I always enjoy the later practise lessons when I get to ask the same questions and the answer to the third question changes to “Well, I asked the class what the steps were in calibrating the printer and they were able to list them in the correct order” or “I observed their performance during the lab session and checked off the objectives as they completed them.”

If you don’t test for understanding, you don’t know if the students learned anything.

Create a Vision of Success

It is natural for us to think negative thoughts. We imagine ourselves making mistakes, of embarrassing ourselves, of not being smart enough. We see ourselves failing so we do.

The fix is simple. Stop imaging yourself failing and start imaging yourself succeeding. Olympic athletes use visualization as part of their training programs to mentally prepare for major competitions. A sprinter will visualize the 100 metre race in his head from the starting pistol to the roar of the crowd as he crosses the finish line in first place.

Of course, not every sprinter finishes first. Visualization is not enough to win a race but it is there to get the athlete over the numbing fear when he realizes that millions or even billions of people are watching him and expect him to win.
Visualize yourself giving your presentation. The audience is interested in what you are saying. They are asking all the right questions. You are giving all the right answers. You are both entertaining and informative. The objectives you have set for your presentation have been met. The audience has gained value from you.

Practise, Practise, Practise

You need to do more than visualization. You need to practise.

By practicing aloud, you can find problems ahead of time. You may have written a great speech or opening line only to find that it is a tongue twister or just doesn’t sound right when read aloud. Practicing will show you how long your presentation is really going to take. You will be able to better determine where are the natural pauses.

Be Passionate

If you are not passionate about the subject matter, why should your audience be?

It doesn’t necessarily matter what you are talking about, if you love the subject it will energize your speech. Your audience will pick up on your energy and it will charge them up as well.

Your tone, your cadence, all will be optimized if you are excited and passionate about the topic. You will find it much easier to speak about the subject if you love it.

Be Knowledgeable

Passion is great but do you know your stuff.

The more you know about the subject you are going to be talking about, the more comfortable you will be talking about it.
Your passion lead you to this topic and chances are you have already done a ton of research. It is in your documentation.
If a question comes up, that you can’t answer, say you don’t know it. If you can make an educated guess, make the educated guess but let them know it is a guess. Write the question down so you can research out the right answer.

Don’t worry about being challenged. You ARE the expert.

Say Hello and Introduce Yourself

Wouldn’t it be just that much easier to talk to someone you know than a complete stranger?

Sure, it would so find out who the judges and other competitors are. Go over and say hello before it gets to your presentation.

Plant Both Feet on the Ground

Some people are movers and shakers when they get nervous. If you are one of these, you want to make sure you are firmly planted to the ground.
Take a strong comfortable stance and feel the power in it. Nothing is going to shake you. You are the mighty oak tree.

If you need to move, move with purpose. Walk across the room like you own it and when you get to where you want to be, plant both feet again.

Breathe. Pause. Get a sip of water.

One of the most common problems with some new speakers is that they forget to breathe. Usually, it is because they are in such a rush to say everything they want to say before you walk away.


You – don’t – need to – imitate – Captain Kirk – either.

You just need to speak normally. You need to breathe. You will change the pace of speech. Sometimes you will speed up (not too much) and sometimes you will slow down. We tend to speed up when we are excited and we tend to slow down when we are saying something really important. That is all part of a normal flow of speaking.

If you lose your train of thought – just pause. There is nothing wrong with dead air. You don’t need to fill it with you talking. A pause lets you collect your thoughts. A pause adds dramatic flair. A pause allows your audience to get a word in edgewise.

Taking a sip of water gives you even more time to collect your thoughts. It can soothe your tired throat and deal with any dry mouth issues. Warm water is more relaxing to the throat than ice cold water or caffeinated beverages. A little honey might sooth some throat tickles.

Make Eye Contact

Eye contact is powerful so use it. Look into people’s eyes.

Feeling nervous, I bet there is one face in that crowd that appears really friendly and supportive. Look at them. Are they listening intensely? You can’t get better than that.


You are staring at people anyways. Now give them a smile. Show them you are friendly and don’t bite.

Smiling at someone says you like that person. People want to be liked. Don’t worry about what your smile looks like. I wouldn’t bother practising it. Just smile.

The Society of Creative Anachronism is a non-profit educational group based out of California but which has spread world-wide. They hold events where their members learn about the middle ages through recreation and research. At these events, they often hold competition for participants recreating the arts and science of the middle ages. The participants are judged on the quality of their work, the authencity of the technique to medieval standards, their documentation, and on a presentation to the judges.

The participants are often shy artisans that are not used to presentations or public speaking. At the event called Winter Defender Tournament, I did a short session on presentation skills.

What are the Judges Looking For?

In the A&S Presentation, the judges will be looking at three things.

  • The entry was presented in a clear and organized manner
  • Depth of knowledge displayed during the presentation
  • Ability of entrant to field questions

If the judges are following the Tir Righ judging format, the presentation is only worth 15 points out of 100. So relax.

The Inverted Pyramid

Most news stories are written using the inverted pyramid style. It really is quite simple.

Put the most important information in the first paragraph.

Follow it up with less important stuff.

Even less important.

Trivial stuff now

blah, blah, blah

The advantage of the inverted pyramid style is that if you run out of time, you got the important stuff out there at the beginning. In a newspaper, a story might have to be shortened to fit the column space available. The stories are written so the editor can just remove paragraphs starting at the bottom.

Keeping it in Character

If you can pull it off, present your information in persona. The judges aren’t judges, they are just people that noticed your item or possibly even ordered the item.

Those are the arrows that you ordered. Well, a dozen of them anyway. The others are bundled up for transport. They are made of good solid ash. I don’t use aspen like some fletchers do. Aspen is fine if you are just shooting at the mark but if you are taking these over to France, you want ash so those bastards know what hit them. Check the thickness of those. They aren’t going break when you loose them. Check out the wrapping on that fletching. Quality work not like some of those punters in London do. The guild had to step in and order them not to be working on the arrows after dark. Poor light leads to shoddy work, it does. Nothing shoddy here. Between the glue and linen, that feather isn’t coming off. Look at the way the shaft thins down near the nock. That will get your archers a clean release.”

Even telling a story or having a conversation, remember to hit your highlights. You can still use the inverted pyramid. Just don’t be academic about it.

Public Speaking

All presentations involve public speaking and people skills. It is important to get comfortable with the idea of speaking in public. Some people find public speaking natural. Most find it intimidating. They feel nervous standing in front of people.

Nervousness may manifest itself in a number of ways that include speech impediments, the ‘shakes’, nausea, muscle tension, increased perspiration, and loss of focus.

Why So Nervous?

You are nervous because you want to succeed. If you didn’t care, you wouldn’t be nervous. A certain amount of nervousness should be expected. Mark Twain said “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars”.

Embrace and deal with your nervousness. Remember it is sign that you care and want to succeed. There are a number of steps you can do to minimize the effects of the nervousness.

  • Create A Vision of Success
  • Prepare and Practise
  • Be Passionate
  • Be Knowledgeable
  • Say Hello and Introduce Yourself
  • Plant both feet firmly on the ground
  • Breathe, Pause. Get a sip of water.
  • Make Eye Contact.
  • Smile.

RRSP Time Again

February 23rd, 2011

Well, it is nearing the end of February and that means it is time for us training types in Canada to look at our RRSPs.

Hopefully, you have your tax slips already so you can do a quick estimate of how much money you will either get back or have to pay come April 30th. If you are getting a refund, there is a tendency to not worry about putting money into a Registered Retirement Savings Plan but you should.

What is the marginal tax rate you are paying? Since the typical trainer in Canada is making in the $50K to $60K range, chances are that your federal marginal tax rate is 22%. Your Provincial rate will vary depending on your province but for me it is 7.7%

What does this mean? It means that for every $1000 you put into an RRSP, you can reduce your taxes by $300.  If you are already getting a refund, that could mean an additional $300 in your pocket instead of the government. At the same time it also means you will have another $1000 squirreled away for when you retire.

Of course, you will get taxed on it later but that could be at a lower marginal rate. It doesn’t have to be when you retire. Let’s say you get laid off and you have a year with no income coming in. Oh sure, you plan on getting another job right away but many people are finding that the market is really weak so they go back to school. Well, if you take out money from your RRSP and keep it under $40K, you can get the marginal rate of 15% instead of 22%.  So yes, you pay taxes but at a lower rate.

I am also surprized at people who don’t bother putting money into an RRSP when the company they work for provides a matching donation. Boy, that is a pretty simple way to double your investment and get a tax deduction at the same time.  Come on, it is free money.

The Geek from UNCLE

February 9th, 2011

As a kid growing up, one of my favourite television shows was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Even today, I still remember that UNCLE stood for the United Networks Command Law Enforcement. Acronyms were cool.

I think a fair number of UNCLE fans went into high tech. That would explain the over abundance to TLAs that I have seen in my 25 years working in high tech industries.

What is a TLA you ask?

It is the three letter acronym for Three Letter Acronyms.

Yeah, I know a proper acronym should really form an actual word. UNCLE is a proper acronym but CIA but is just a abbreviation. In general usage, TLA, CIA, and UNCLE are all acronyms.

In high tech industries, it seems that most of the technical acronyms are three letters and they can be very specific to just one company so that if you change jobs you have to learn a whole new set of acronyms. Of course, you do get the occasional EFLA – Extended Four Letter Acronym.

The problem for any new person starting at a company is that they have to learn the acronyms for the new company. Some will go with the industry but many are company specific. Sometimes, one acronym will mean one thing at one company and something totally different at another company.

It can be pretty overwhelming at meetings when the TLAs and EFLA start flying.

I have always had the urge to just start making up TLAs on the fly to just see if anyone even asks what they mean. It is pretty amazing the number of people who will just scribble everything down and then go look up the acronyms after the meeting rather than just raise their hand and ask.

It can sometimes be amusing when they do ask. I have seen the speaker suddenly realize that he has been using the acronym so long he forgot what it stands for. Everyone starts flipping through their documentation and glossaries to figure it out.

In one meeting, a combination of acronyms came up. A hand went up. “I know that DPR stands for Data Program Review but I don’t know the acronym PRE stands in table 2 under the column heading PRE-DPR.” About five minutes passed with much searching through notes and paper before a sheepish voice from the back spoke up. “I think it means before the DPR.”

In your training and technical documentation, always spell out what each acronym means. They save real estate in your presentation slide but the students need to see what they expand to. You can write it on a flip chart sheet and post it on the wall adding to it as the course progresses. This makes it visible throughout the training.

Provide either a separate glossary or an appendix in your manuals. A company wide small format glossary can be handed out to all new hires.

Wanna know if you are a real geek. Sure, you knew what UNCLE stood for but do you know what the show’s enemy agency, THRUSH, stood for?

If so, yeah, you are a real geek.

The majority of all corporate and technical training is still done in the traditional classroom.

Hasn’t e-learning replaced it already? One would think so from the many claims made by e-learning pundits but e-learning is getting the press because it is the new kid on the block. Okay, it is the newer kid on the block.

E-Learning has been around for a fair while and predictions of its rapid rise are finally coming true. We are seeing and will continue to see more and more e-learning options available to the learner. There are benefits to e-learning including both a reduction in travel expenses and a reduction in the actual delivery time. There is usually a time-saving of around 40% over the traditional classroom training.

One of the big boons to the recent growth of e-learning is the availability to have instructor-led webinars. While the classic page turners still exist with the only interaction being emailing a course facilitator, the webinar has enjoyed enormous success even while it takes away one of the advantages of e-learning in that the student is no longer learning at his own pace.

So with all the wonderful things that e-learning provides, why is almost 75% of all training done in the classroom using traditional methods.

One obvious reason comes from the word traditional. We do it because we have always done it. It has a history and we know it works. It is comfortable and both management and workers trust it. Many people still consider e-learning to be a fad and not ‘real’ training. As such, there is not always the buy-in from either employees or management in using e-learning.

Many people have had bad experience with e-learning because, well, there is a lot of bad e-learning courses out there. Oh sure, some classroom training is crap, also. It is traditional crap that we are familiar with already. We have an instructor right there in front of us to either blame, vent to, and try to nudge into turning the class around. .

Having both the learner and the instructor/facilitator in the same room provides a level of trust and communication that we can’t get from most webinars. We are community oriented and we prefer to actually gather together. E-learning does not allow the body language of the participant to be conveyed. In some cases, we aren’t even sure there is a body on the other end of a webinar or that it is the body that is supposed to be there. In the classroom, the instructor knows whether the student is bored or engaged. They see the confused look on the face as well as the eureka moment when the learner has learned.

The students see the instructor’s body language as well. They see the hand gestures that signify whether this is really important or not. The tone and timber of the instructor’s voice are not filtered by any limitations of the technology being used to transmit their voice.

The classroom allows the instructor the most freedom in how he delivers the learning. He can play the room to bring out the best synergy from the participants. He can be up front delivering a PowerPoint presentation or right behind a student showing him where to click the mouse.

When technology fails, out comes the good old-fashioned flip chart and the Mr. Sketch pens. According to a survey conducted for the American Society of Training and Development, 45% of companies thinking of implementing e-learning solutions were concerned about the technical competency required.

There is a flexibility in the traditional classroom when changes need to be implemented. With technical training, procedures can change frequently with software and hardware revision. The training has to be revised as well. For e-learning, this can be a very costly and timely process involving new screen captures or creating new video. In the traditional classroom, new software and new procedures can be implemented immediately with an instructor just explaining the differences.

E-learning is making great inroads but people still prefer the comfort of an instructor led traditional classroom. In designing training courses, one can optimize both method by blending them and offer some parts of the learning through e-learning and then following up with traditional classroom training.


Am I in the technical learning business or the technical training business?

I have to admit I really hate semantics but it is all part of choosing the right marketing terms to sell your product or service. Everything comes down to money and are people more likely to buy a training or a learning solution.

Is there a difference between training and learning? Well, yes. Learning is a much broader term and there are many ways to learn something. You can learn at university or you can learn from watching television. You can learn something on the job from the guy that has been doing it forever and a day or you can learn from the school of hard knocks.

Training is just one means of learning something. The school of hard knocks doesn’t have a specific objective. Training does. Training tends to be very specific and task oriented. At the end of this course, you will be able to do something.

I do technical training. I train people to do specific tasks with the software and hardware they have purchased. These people could learn to do this in other ways such as the school of hard knocks. While the school of hard knocks is incredibly valuable and the lessons learned stay with you all your life, it is not the most efficient way to learn a specific task.

I like calling what I do technical training. Most people wanting technical training know what it means. Some prefer computer training but the words technical learning just don’t seem to do it for most people. 

 That said, the word training has a bad rap with some people. They would prefer that I to use something like I facilitate learning.

The difference lies with the focus. Training focuses on the instructor or trainer. Learning focuses on the learner or student. Many people remember taking training where they did not learn anything. The trainer sat up at the front of the room and lectured and lectured but the student just sat there and failed to absorb anything. Maybe the student was daydreaming or maybe the instructor barrelled through the information without checking to see if the class was still with him. It doesn’t matter why but the result was that the while the trainer trained, the learner did not learn.

Some people feel that the term learning facilitator will make it more likely that the person up there in front of the class will remember that the focus is on the learner. Others like that it is not focused solely on an instructor led classroom training. The facilitator can direct to you to other learning whether it is self-paced or instructor-led or on-the-job mentoring.

These are valid but it sounds too much like a whitewash to me. The problem is that some people are just not good instructors. Training should be learner focused. If the learner hasn’t learned, then training has failed.

Semantics aren’t really the issue. People will use whatever buzzword everyone else is using but it is not going to change behaviour.

If a person was a bad trainer, they will probably suck at facilitating learning as well.

Relational Presentations

December 29th, 2010

As a software or hardware engineer, you may be asked to perform a technical presentation based on your expertise on particular product or subject. Some common reasons are:

  • sales presentations to potential customers
  • project/budget presentations to upper management
  • product demonstrations at corporate tradeshows

The first inclination for many engineers is to do a simple sales pitch highlighting the bells and whistles of the software or hardware. A better approach is to do a relational presentation that is targeted to the audience you are presenting to.

Presentations can be thought of as a form of selling. You may be selling an idea rather than a product and no cash changes hands but you are selling. Of course, if this involves a potential customer, one hopes that cash does change hands at some point. Many sales people have switched to a selling philosophy known as relational selling. Relational Selling is a sales technique based on establishing a relationship with a client and selling products to that customer that will solve issues he/she has.

A sales person may have spent years building relationships with customers. This may have even started with another company or even when the sales person was just another client. The key aspect is knowing the client and his/her business well enough to understand their problems. When selling a product to this client, it is not necessary to run through all the features of the product. Instead, you have to show the customer how this product solves their problems.

Any technical presentation is going to need to do the same thing. It is going to need to show the customer how this is going to solve their problem and it is going to address specific questions that the customer may have. The questions are really the customer’s way of testing to see if you really can pull off the solution the saleperson claimed you could.

As a technical engineer, you have probably not had a chance to meet the customer so how do build that relationship if you are meeting them for the first time at the presentation.?

Your first bit of homework is to talk with the person who already has a good relationship with the customer. The salesperson. What are the customer issues? What is the solution that the salesperson pitched? Why does the customer want a technical presentation instead of just a sales presentation?

Work out what your presentation is going to cover and what the sales presentation is going to cover. You will probably want to establish any limitations on what can be discussed. You don’t want to be bringing up confidential projects that are still in development.

Even if you are presenting to a group, there is usually one decision maker. While this is the person who ultimately needs to be sold on the product, this person may not be your audience. If the president of the company you are pitching to is there, he is likely the decision maker but he may not have the technical expertise to know if the product is really going to work as promised. The salesperson may have already sold him but he wants his technical people to check on the technical aspects. In this case, you are presenting to the technical experts in the room and not that key decision maker.

These may be people that the salesperson has never met before so they may not be able to help you out. There will usually be a small amount of time at the beginning of the presentation to socialize. Use it to talk with customers and, if you can, find out what the technical background of your audience is and make sure you speak to all levels.

If the customer’s technical representatives are your peers, don’t be afraid of talking to them on that level. Of course, try to ‘translate’ the geek speak into english for everyone else in the room. Of course, be careful of jargon if there are no peers on the customer side.

From the perspective of the audience, ask yourself “What’s In It For Me?” This is commonly abbreviated to WIIFM (pronounced whiff -em) and will be the key to a successful presentation.

If you tell the audience how great the product is and list all its features, the audience has to figure out what is in it for them. Everybody sells great products. Every product has bells and whistles.

If you tell the audience what’s in it for them, they can concentrate on the product and not get lost comparing Brand X to your brand. If you know what their problem is and what your product does to solve that problem, tell them.

Hit The Mark Training Solutions offers a one day workshop on Technical Presentations.


“Training people using webinars is great for training fishermen how to fish.” a project manager once told me.

That is pretty damning words for a new training medium that appears to be exploding onto the training scene. I am sure many e-learning specialist will already be scribbling down their rebuttal. The course wasn’t designed properly. You just took traditional training and presented it on the web.

But he is right. A webinar is a great way to train fishermen how to fish. That is not a bad thing.

I know what you are thinking. What is the point in teaching somebody what they already know? Of course, it must be a bad thing.

Ahh, but is there only one way to fish? Of course not. There are all sorts of ways to fish. Just because someone knows how to fish, doesn’t mean he couldn’t be taught another way to fish. Perhaps, he can be taught a more efficient way to fish. Or, perhaps, he has just bought a brand new fishing rod with some nifty new features that weren’t on his old rod. Can you put laser scopes on a fishing rod?

Key thing is that we are often teaching knowledgeable people another way of doing something. Sometimes we find better ways of doing something. Sometimes, we just want to give them a refresher course because while it might be crucial to do a certain task in a certain way, we just never get enough on the job practise.

Maybe we have just upgraded some software or hardware. Who hasn’t upgraded their Microsoft Office product and then spent the next few weeks trying to figure out where your favourite tools and menu options are. Yes, that ribbon interface is supposed to be more user friendly and it probably is provided you haven’t already learned the older interface.

People do not want to come into a training centre to learn about a few simple changes? I know what Word does so I don’t want a full workshop on Word 2010. I just want to know about the new interface.

In many cases, a short webinar is all that someone needs to take. In the time it takes to find a parking spot at the airport, the student is trained and ready to go forward with the knowledge.

A great strength of e-learning is that you don’t have to deliver an entire curriculum. You can train someone on just one objective. You don’t have to let the clock decide how long the class is going to be. You don’t have to wait until the product has undergone ‘significant’ change before updating the class material.

Training a fisherman to fish is not a bad thing if we make the fisherman a more effective fisherman in the process. It is not that a fisherman doesn’t want to learn, it is just that he wants to fish. E-learning recognizes that the fisherman already knows his job but just wants to make him better at. The fisherman is happy that he has learned something new and that it only took 15 minutes and he can go and try it out right away.

RTFM – Read the Friendly Manual

December 15th, 2010

“What is covered in the training?” a customer asked me over the phone trying to decide if he needed to sign up for the class.

I ran through the objectives of the course. It was a programming language course for a data collection terminal.

“What do you cover in the course that isn’t covered in the reference manual?” he asked trying to figure out whether he could just learn this on his own.

“Nothing.” I said. “It wouldn’t be a good reference manual if it didn’t cover everything.”

“Why should I take the course if everything is in the reference manual?” he countered.

“Because you aren’t going to read the reference manual.” I told him.

“Well, I…” he stopped mid-sentence. There was dead air for a few seconds. “You’re right. Sign me up.”

What can I say. It worked. I am always surprised when somebody is looking for some secret in a training course. Some piece of information that they just can’t get in documentation or on-line help. Like I told my customer, a good reference manual should have the information you need. That is the whole point of the reference manual.

The value in the training is not giving the student some secret information only available to those that popped the $2000 to take the week long course. The value of the training program is in making the learning process more efficient.

A reference manual is a great piece of documentation that a person using the product is going to want to refer to from time to time. It is not really an efficient way to learn about the product. It doesn’t prioritize anything. It may provide the what but not the why or even the how.

Granted, you could still sit down in front of the product with the reference manual and go through trying out different things. With enough time, you could become an expert on the product. More likely, you will start reading the manual, get frustrated or bored, and find something else to do. When someone asks why you haven’t gotten around to using the product, you will tell them what a horrible product it is and how it is so unfriendly to use.

Most people are not going to read the reference manual until they have their foundation with the product establish. A training course is going to give them that foundation. It is going to condense weeks of trial and error into a week or a few days or a few hours. It is going to eliminate weeks of reading manuals and reading them again because you are still not quite sure what they meant.

A good training course is going to show you how to use the manuals and on-line help documentation so you are not just winging it or thumbing randomly through a guide hoping that serendipity will guide you to your solution.

You are going to take the training course first.

Then you are going to read the friendly manual.