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Ten Tips for New Trainers/Teachers


Just because you've used lots of software doesn't mean you can write code. Just because you've been in lots of buildings doesn't mean you can be an architect. And just because you've logged a million frequent flyer miles doesn't mean you can fly a plane.
But if that's all ridiculously obvious, why do some people believe that just because they've taken classes, they can teach? (Or just because they've read lots of books, they can write one?) The problem isn't thinking that they can do it, the problem is thinking they can do it without having to learn, study, or practice.

I'm amazed (and more than a little disheartened) how many people believe that simply by virtue of their being skilled and knowledgeable in something, they're implicitly qualified to communicate, mentor, teach, or train that thing. It devalues the art of teaching to think that because you've been a student, you can teach well. That because you've experienced learning, you can craft a learning experience.

But with that out of the way, nobody needs a PhD (or in most cases -- any degree at all) in education or learning theory to be a good teacher. Just as there are plenty of great software developers and programmers without a CompSci degree. People can be self-taught, and do a fabulous job, for a fraction of the cost of a formal education, but they have to be motivated and they have to appreciate why it's important. The irony is that most people with this attitude would themselves be insulted if the tables were turned--if their students didn't think they needed to learn anything from them... that just going on instinct and winging it would be enough.
So this is my starter list for new trainers and teachers (I won't debate any distinctions between "teaching" and "training"--we're talking about one who designs and/or delivers learning experiences, so I don't care what you call it, what your subject is, or even how old your learners are. The fundamentals of how humans learn are pretty constant, even if the application of those fundamentals can look quite different on the surface).

There are two different lists here--Eleven Things to Know, and Ten Tips for New Trainers. This is for newbies, so I'm sure I have nothing new to say for those of you who are already experienced teachers/trainers.

(A list of reference links is at the very bottom of the post. These aren't anything more than an off-the-top-of-my-head list, so please don't think of them as The Complete Story! And yes, I'm way overgeneralizing, or this would be book-length.)

Eleven Things to Know

1) Know the difference between "listening" and "learning".

Listening is passive. It is the lowest, least-efficient, least-effective form of learning. That means lectures are the lowest, least-efficient, least-effective form of learning. Listening alone requires very little brain effort on the learner's part (and that goes for reading lecture-like texts as well), so listening to learn is often like watching someone lift weights in order to get in shape.

2) Know how the brain makes decisions about what to pay attention to, and what to remember.

And here we are back to emotions again. Emotions provide the metadata for a memory. They're the tags that determine how important this memory is, whether it's worth saving, and the bit depth (metaphorically) of the memory. People remember what they feel far more than what they hear or see that's emotionally empty.

3) Know how to apply what you learned in #2. In other words, know how to get your learners to feel.

I'll look at this in the Ten Tips list.

4) Know the wide variety of learning styles, and how to incorporate as many as possible into your learning experience.

And no, we're not talking about sorting learners into separate categories like "He's a Visual Learner while Jim is an Auditory learner.", or "He learns best through examples." Every sighted person is a "visual learner", and everyone learns through examples. And through step-by-step instructions. And through high-level "forest" views. And through low-level "tree" views. Everyone learns top-down and bottom-up. Everyone learns from pictures, explanations, and examples. This doesn't mean that certain people don't have certain brain-style preferences, but the more styles you load into any learning experience, the better the learning is for everyone--regardless of their individual preferences.
(And while you're at it, know that most adults today do not truly know their own learning styles, or even how to learn. The word "metacognition" doesn't appear in most US educational institutions.)

5) Know the fundamentals of current learning theory!

(Check out the book links at the end of this post.)

6) Know why--and how--good advertising works.

It'll help you figure out #3. Be sure you recognize why this matters.

7) Know why--and how--good stories work.

Consider the learner to be on a kind of hero's journey. If Frodo is your student, and you're Gandalf... learn as much as you can about storytelling and entertainment. Learn what screenwriters and novelists learn. Know what "show don't tell" really means, and understand how to apply it to learning.

Humans spent thousands upon thousands of years developing/evolving the ability to learn through stories. Our brains are tuned for it. Our brains are not tuned for sitting in a classroom listening passively to a lecture of facts, or reading pages of text facts. Somehow we manage to learn in spite of the poor learning delivery most of us get in traditional schools and training programs (and books).

8) Know a little something about "the Socratic method". Know why it's far more important that you ask the good questions rather than supply all the answers.

9) Know why people often learn more from seeing the wrong thing than they do from seeing the right thing. Know why the brain spends far less time processing things that meet expectations, than it does on things that don't.

10) Know why it's just as important to study and keep up your teaching skills as it is to keep up your other professional skills. Yes there ARE professional organizations for trainers, with conferences, journals, and online discussions.

11) Know why using overhead slides to deliver a classroom learning experience can--sometimes (often)--be the worst thing you can do.

(Although yes, in many cases using slides for some select pieces of a course are important, beneficial, and crucial. What we're dissing is the practice where the entire class, start to finish, is driven around some kind of slides or presentation.)

12) Know how -- and why -- good games can keep people involved and engaged for hours. Learn how to develop activities that lead to a Flow State.

Ten Tips for New Trainers

1) Keep lecture to the absolute minimum.

There is nearly (but not always) something better than lecture, if learning is the goal. If your class involves a combination of lecture and labs, then if you're short on time--always cut the lecture, not the exercises! (Unfortunately, this is the opposite of what most trainers do.)

2) It is almost always far more important that your learners nail fewer subjects than be "exposed" to a wider range of subjects.

In most cases, it's far more important that your students leave able to DO something with their new knowledge and skills, than that they leave simply KNOWING more. Most classroom-based instruction can be dramatically improved by reducing the amount of content!. Give them the skills to be able to continue learning on their own, rather than trying to shove more content down their throats.

If your students leave feeling like they truly learned -- like they seriously kick ass because they can actually do something useful and interesting, they'll forgive you (and usually thank you) for not "covering all the material". The trainers that get cricism for not covering enough topics or "finishing the course topics" are the ones who didn't deliver a good experience with what they did cover.

3) For classroom trainers, the greatest challenge you have is managing multiple skill and knowledge levels in the same classroom! Be prepared to deal with it.

The worst thing you can do is simply pick a specific (and usually narrow) skill/knowledge level and teach to that, ignoring the unique needs of those who are slower or more advanced. And don't use the excuse that "if they don't have the prereqs, they shouldn't be here." Even among those who meet the formal prereq requirements, you can have drastically different levels. Especially if the teacher who delivered those prereq courses was in the "covering the material" mode. Sure, your students may have been "exposed" to the prereq material, but just because they heard it or read it does not mean they remember it now, or that they ever really "got it."

Techniques for dealing with multiple levels:

* Be sure you KNOW what you've got. Find out before the class, if you can, by speaking with the students or at least exchanging emails. If you don't have access to students prior to the class, then learn as much as you can during introductions!

* Acknowledge the different levels right up front. The more advanced students are far more likely to get pissed off when they think you don't even realize or appreciate their level. By acknowledging it, you recognize their abilities and set the stage for having them act as mentors to the others.

* Have multiple versions of exercises! Have a "base" level of lab activities that everyone must complete, but have additional interesting, challenging options so that your advanced people aren't growing bored or frustrated waiting for the slower people to finish their exercises.

* For slower people, include graduated hint sheets for exercises. (More on that in the next point.)

4) Work hard to get everyone to complete the lab exercises, but NEVER give out the solutions in advance!

This is closely related to #3, because the most likely reason trainers don't have all students finishing labs is because there are some slower learners (and I don't mean "dumber", but simply less knowledgeable or experienced in the topic than the other students, or they just have a learning style that requires more time).

Be sure every students has been successful at the exercises! And if you give them the solution in advance, you've robbed them of the chance to seriously kick ass by working through it even when things get difficult. On the other hand, you don't want students to become completely stuck and frustrated, so use something like the technique below:

Using graduated hints can work wonders. Prepare three or more levels of hint sheets for the exercises, with each level more explicit than the last. The first level can offer vague suggestions, the second can be a little more focused, and the third can be fairly explicit. Students should be allowed to use these at their discretion, so it's best if you don't force the students to go to you for each new level. Make them available, but make it clear that it's important they turn to them only after [insert number of minutes relevant to your exercise].

After teaching literally thousands of programming and other courses, I can say with certainty that the vast majority of your students will NOT simply go to the most explicit hints right off. But this is conditional... I'm assuming that the exercise is relevant and interesting and challenging without being ridiculously advanced or clearly takes more time to complete than you're able or willing to allow for the exercise. If your exercises suck, for whatever reason, then hint sheets won't fix it.

5) Do group exercises whenever possible, no matter what you've heard.

I've heard every excuse, "Adults don't like to do group exercises." or "Professional developers don't like to do group exercises." or "People don't like to do group exercises when they're paying big bucks to be here." or "People from outside the US don't like to do group exercises... ". They're all bulls***. There is a huge social component to learning, regardless of how much we try to eliminate it in the classroom. There's a way to do interactive group exercises that works surprisingly well, and is usually quite easy.

A simple formula for group exercises

* Use groups of no more than 3 to 5. Try to go above 2, but after 5 you'll end up with some people hanging back. With 3-4 people, everyone feels more obligated to participate and be involved.

* When you assign an exercise (like, say, a two-page diagram of an enterprise architecture that they must label and explain), have each person START by working individually for a couple of minutes, THEN get them into their groups (be sure that they know who their group is BEFORE they start any work on the exercise).

* Eavesdrop on the groups and comment or just make sure they're on the right track. Drop hints or give pointers if they're veering into an unproductive approach.

* After a certain number of minutes, give a heads-up warning "60 seconds left..." so they can finish up.

* Be certain that someone in each group has the responsibility to record what the group comes up with. One person should be the designated spokesperson.

* After the exercise is done, keep the people in their groups and query each group about their answers, or any issues/thoughts they had while doing it.

Note: the first few times you do this in any new classroom, students might be quiet or skeptical about doing it, but after the first two or three, they'll have a hard time imagining how you could do it any other way.

6) Designing exercises

The best execises include an element of surprise and failure. The worst exercises are those where you spend 45 minutes explaining exactly how something works, and then have them duplicate everything you just said. Yes, that does provide practice, but it's weak. If you design an exercise that produces unexpected results... something that intuitively feels like it should work, but then does something different or wrong -- they'll remember that FAR more than they'll remember the, "yes, it did just what she said it would do" experience.

Note that paper and pencil exercises are GREAT. Even if your teaching programming or any other topic that involves doing. In our books, for example, we have simple "magnetic poetry" code exercises that don't involve everyone having to go to the computer. You can design even simple multiple-choice quizzes, although the more sophisticated the better. Be creative with creating workbook style exercises when you're teaching challenging subjects. In a programming class, for example, I'll have paper exercises (that they do both individually and in a group) that involve everything from, "fill in the rest of this class diagram with what you think should be there" to "fill in each empty method on this sheet with bullet points or pseudo code for what you think should happen there."

Depending on the classroom, you could even have an exercise that involves one group "teaching" something to another group. Assign group A to figure out the File API, for example, while group B has to research how and why the Serialization mechanism works the way it does in the lab you just did...

As hokey as they are, sometimes game-show style quizzes can still be fun. Especially when there's a set of topics that DO require boring, rote memorization. When they have to burn in certain key facts... you can liven it up and make it a little less painful.

The exercises in our Head First books (especially HF Java) are examples of paper execises we do in classrooms, that are separate from hands-on programming "lab" exercises.

The best form of longer lab exercises get learners in the flow state! This is where your game design studies can really come in handy. Remember, the flow state comes from activities that are both challenging but perceived as do-able. Get the challenge level right! Having multiple levels of hints means that a single exercise can work for a wider range of skill and knowledge levels without being too easy or too hard -- both of which will prevent the flow state.

Exercises should feel relevant! They should not feel like busy work or strictly practice (although for some kinds of learning, extra practice is exactly what you need, but in most cases -- you're looking to increase understanding and memory rather than simply practice a physical skill).

If students don't get the point of the exercise, you're screwed. It's up to you to either have an exercise where the point is dead-obvious, or that you can make a case for. The exercise does NOT need to be "real world" in the sense of the actual, complex world you live in. It should, however, reflect a simplified virtual world with its own set of rules. In a learning experience, you're usually trying to help them learn/get/remember only a single concept at a time. Way too many lab exercises that attempt to be "real world" have so much cognitive overhead that the real point you're trying to reinforce is lost.

7) Leave your ego at the door. This is not about you.

Your learners do NOT care about how much you know, how smart you are, or what you've done. Aside from a baseline level of credibility, it's far more important that you care about how smart THEY are, what THEY know (and will know, thanks to this learning experience) and what THEY have done. I'm amazed (and horrified) by how many instructors don't ever seem to get to know anything about their students. You should know far more about them than they know about you.

At the beginning of class, you do NOT need to establish credibility. You nearly always have a certain amount of credibility in the bank, even if they've never heard of you. You can LOSE that credibility by doing things like lying (answering a question that you really aren't certain about, without admitting that you're not sure), or telling them you really DON'T know what you're doing. But you'll usually hurt the class if you spend time talking about how great YOU are.

The best way to let them know what you've done is in the context of a question someone asks, where you simply say, "Well here's how I solved that on an accounts database I was working on at...." But even better if you say something like, "Well here's how one of my clients/students/wo-workers solved it..."

8) Have a Quick Start and a Big Finish.

Get them doing something interesting -- even if it's just a group discussion -- very early. Don't bog them down with YOUR long introduction, the history of the topic, etc. The faster they're engaged, the better.

Don't let the class fizzle out at the end. Try to end on a high. It's like the movies... where they usually put the best song at the very end, during the closing credits... because this often determines the feeling you leave with. Ask yourself, "what were my students feeling when they left?" Too often, the answer to that is, "overwhelmed, and stupid for not keeping up". And usually, the fault is in a course that tried to do too much. That tried to cover (whatever the hell that means) too much.

9) Try never to talk more than 10-15 minutes without doing something interactive. And saying, "Any questions?" does not count as interaction!

Whether it's a group exercise, a lab, or at least an individual paper and pencil exercise of some sort... get them doing rather than listening. But be sure that the interaction isn't perceived as a waste of time, either.

10) Don't assume that just because you said it, they got it. And don't assume that just because you said it five minutes ago, they remember it now.

In other words, don't be afraid to be redundant. That doesn't mean repeating the same material over and over... but it often takes between 3 to 5 repeated exposures to something before the brain will remember it, so take the extra time to reinforce earlier topics in the context of the new things you're talking about. Great teachers know how to slip in the redundancy in an almost stealth way... where the thing is looked at again but from a different angle. It's up to you to keep it interesting and lively.

11) If you're not passionate, don't expect any energy from your learners.

That doesn't mean being an annoying cheerleader. Be honest, be authentic, but be passionate. It's your job as a trainer to find ways to keep yourself motivated. A lot of teachers/trainers feel it isn't their job to motivate the students. But that's ridiculous. Even the most motivated person in the world still finds it hard to stay motivated on each and every topic... especially when it gets tough. Think about how many technical books you've sat down to read on topics you were extremely interested in, but then couldn't find a way to keep yourself reading. Motivation for the overall topic and motivation for the individual thing being learned are completely different. You're there to supply the motivation for the individual things you're trying to help them learn.

Your passion will keep them awake. Your passion will be infectious. It's up to you to figure out how to stay passionate, or quit teaching until you get it back.

And finally, don't think of yourself as a teacher or trainer... since that puts the focus on what YOU do. Remember:

It's not about what YOU do... it's about how your learners feel about what THEY can do as a result of the learning experience you created and helped to deliver.

Rather than think of yourself as a teacher or trainer, try getting used to thinking of yourself as "a person who creates learning experiences... a person who helps others learn." In other words, put a lot more emphasis on the learning and a lot less emphasis on the teaching.


Related posts on this blog:

The brain's crap filter.

Most classroom learning sucks

Getting what you expect is boring.

Crafting a user experience.

Keeping users engaged.

Users shouldn't think about YOU.

Learning doesn't happen in the middle.

Books and blogs

Lessons in e-Learning

Designing world class e-learning

E-learning and the science of instruction

Simulations and the future of learning

What video games have to teach us about learning

Digital game-based learning

Chris Crawford on Game Design

Mind Hacks

Mind Hacks blog.

A whole new Mind

Memory: from mind to molecules


The Writer's Journey
(not just for writers!)

Purple Cow
(not just for marketers or product designers!)

Cognitive Science Foundations of Instruction
(Dated, but has some really interesting research)

Eide Neurolearning Blog

This is just a start for consolidating some of my learning links. I have another huge set of book links, but I'll post those separately. Have fun!

Posted by Kathy on July 11, 2005 | Permalink


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BTW: Interactive also means that if you take pains to write long blogs, you also take a bit of effort to see what others wrote and also let them "know" that you saw and "learnt" from them.

PS: Ok I did check some of your posts and saw you replied, but still not enough. Hope I'm not misunderstood. If we're a community then we must congregate. Don't matter where, don't matter how.No?

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Jul 11, 2005 4:42:02 PM

One other tip I would give is that when you ARE lecturing and writing stuff on the board, make sure you give time for people to actually write down the text beforing moving on to the next point. I will usually use the time that they are writing to re-state a previous point that lead to this point and then re-read the point.

In short, realize that it is difficult to write and listen well at the same time, but don't just stand there for a long pause.

Posted by: sloan | Jul 11, 2005 5:19:05 PM

It is nice to hear that you are going to publish your book links. I thought it would be nice if you had one quite often reading your blog. In fact, I've bought some books you've mentioned, so that probably means I will be facing more expenses, but nevertheless I am looking forward to see those links. And if you will comment a bit on every book - that would be fantastic indeed.

Posted by: Rimantas | Jul 11, 2005 8:39:08 PM

You totally, totally rock. =D

Posted by: Sacha Chua | Jul 11, 2005 9:15:30 PM

Thanks for sharing a valuable list of ideas for creating a better learning experience for the student. It's not just for new teachers, but it's a good list of reminders for the experienced educator as well. I'll just add that lectures are not always necessarily a poor teaching method. The Chronicle of Higher Education had a good article about this in the past year. It featured a number of faculty who are known for providing excellent lectures that keep students fascinated and absorbed in the subject matter. Like much of teaching, leading a good discussion for example, it's an art. Not everyone can do it well. But let's not write off the lecture entirely. At times and for certain content it has its place.

Posted by: steven bell | Jul 12, 2005 6:39:06 AM

When there will be a "Head First Teaching"?


Posted by: Einzling | Jul 12, 2005 7:39:14 AM

This has become one of my favorite blogs. I learn and get inspired by something new almost everyday. Anyways, thanks.

Posted by: Brian | Jul 12, 2005 9:27:13 AM

Tarry: You're right, I don't interact enough on the comments. I put whatever time and energy I have for the blog in my posts, but I should try to dedicate a little more to responding to comments. Thanks for the reminder.

Sloan: great advice! I've really had to work on my whiteboard skills. I had to learn to write *bigger*, and to change colors, but your advice on giving them time is really important.

Riminatas: I don't know exactly when I'll get to it, but I will definitely take your advice and make comments on each book. Thanks!

Steven: You're absolutely right -- I know I've listened to a lot of gripping lectures that were both engaging AND effective. And with a conference presentation as opposed to a classsroom, that's often the only appropriate thing you CAN do... I think a good lecture can be awesome and effective, but most of us don't have great skills for that. This is something I need to work on -- I use the other techniques, in many ways, to compensate for my weak lecture abilities.

Sacha and Brian: Thanks!

Einzling: Stay tuned. There isn't a Head First Teaching coming, but we *are* doing a book that has a lot of learning theory in it... I'm not ready to give the details yet, but I can tell you this *mystery book* will be out in January ; )

Cheers and thanks to all commenters and trackbackers.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jul 12, 2005 11:09:22 AM

I wish I'd had a copy of this when I had to TA a class in grad school. I disliked teaching, because I knew I wasn't good at it. And since I didn't like talking in front of a room full of people, I'd get the students to do group exercises as much as possible, even though I absolutely hated group exercises as a student. I thought I was just wimping out, but maybe it was better for the students after all! :)

Posted by: Jennifer Grucza | Jul 12, 2005 4:36:04 PM

Great Post!

I run a Hands-On J2EE user group in Dallas. I'm by no means the most educated on the subjects covered, but either way I have to explain new concepts to people of varying degrees of knowledge.

I will absolutely put these tips to use! Thanks...


Posted by: Erik Weibust | Jul 13, 2005 9:00:22 AM

Refreshing posting (how's that for an emotive statement)! Captured for me the notion that having learners "dis-cover" and "un-cover" content is much more useful than "covering the content".

This was my first visit to the blog thanks to a link from Steven Bell. I'm sure I'll be back.

Posted by: dbalzer | Jul 13, 2005 9:01:22 AM


Thanks for you feedback/reply(actually I'm also posting to let (you) know that I checked back.:-)

Posted by: Tarry | Jul 15, 2005 12:38:03 PM

This is a great post. I can't wait to see your comments on the books you'll recommend. Could you do a set of mini reviews? just a couple of paragraphs on why you consider them important.

I was thrown into the training role for a year and a half and I would have loved to have something like this. The hardest part was having to take 2 hours of material and cram it into 40 minutes. By running the students through the motions and having the students do a lot of things, they remembered most of it.

Doing is far more effective them lectures in those cases where it applies.

Posted by: Stephan F | Jul 15, 2005 4:21:47 PM


What a goldmine! This article has virtually pulled what I knew by the ears and turned things around. GREAT article!

Posted by: Regnard Kreisler C. Raquedan | Jul 25, 2005 6:17:56 AM

Fabulous! Matt Raible's blog pointed me here. I'll be studying this posting and accompanying links as I prepare to give my first ever course next April. I am filled with trepidation but I think with a little help from my friends I can pull it off. Wish me luck!

Posted by: John Tangney | Jul 25, 2005 3:35:25 PM

Just found this blog / site whatever, on a google search, i am creating a learning experience tomorrow morning for a group of potential trainers. This material was inspirational, not just for confirming the good things i know and do that make me a good trainer but for tugging at my conscience and reminding me of the things that i do that detract from me being an even better trainer.

thank you

Posted by: Nik | Oct 4, 2005 4:31:15 PM

The Eleven Things To Do and Ten Tips are the best articles I've read so far. They really helped me a lot to improve my training skills. I actually conducted a Train the Trainer module based on the tips given here!!

Posted by: Supria Joshi | May 5, 2006 3:09:46 AM

You wrote:
And while you're at it, know that most adults today do not truly know their own learning styles, or even how to learn. The word "metacognition" doesn't appear in most US educational institutions.)
I studied Psychology in the Netherlands (Europe) and I really enjoyed reading your intelligent remarks. I'm writing a book (both in Dutch and in English) on this matter (learning style, thinking style) but I expect it to be hard to find a publisher. I agree with you that we all do verbal thinking and visual learning, but what about meta-cognition indeed?
I put an answer to this question in my book.


Posted by: Odile Schmidt | Dec 7, 2006 8:50:42 AM

i am confused, there are so much resources on the web and so much books written, that one wishes to study only and to write.
some times your memory is slow so all these rules, as they are just like bridals for our concentration on the topic and focus, they seem quite difficult to remember and to be followed up.
how much one can believe that certain tips are general enough to be applicable to diverse human minds; and how much is the authenticity.

Posted by: yasir | May 8, 2007 5:37:26 AM

the tips for new trainer are excellent, will be obliged to have more on the same.

Thanks and regards.

Posted by: Rupal Panchal | Aug 10, 2007 9:27:49 PM

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