Trainees by gate

What makes a good training session?

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My journey into professional training started like many others; I developed certain technical knowledge/skills and felt the urge to share these with colleagues. The first training I delivered was on the topic of bat call analysis and was delivered to new-starters at the company I worked for. The feedback I received was positive and so I continued with this training and soon became the go-to person for this type of training.

Eventually, I tried my hand at delivering longer training sessions to less-familiar audiences including volunteers at the local Wildlife Trust. Having refined my craft on a voluntary basis, in 2015 I applied to become a freelance trainer for CIEEM. This led to me developing and delivering courses on Surveying Woodlands for Bats, Advanced Bat Survey Techniques and Ground-level Tree Assessments.

Turning a hobby into a career

With increasing training experience, in 2016 I took a part-time position as Training and Technical Officer at the Ancient Tree Forum. In this role I was responsible for delivering courses on veteran tree management. In 2017 I took another part-time training and technical position at the Arboricultural Association.

Jim and Tom Joye
Jim with colleague Tom Joye on an Ancient Tree Forum training course

Since then I have worked full-time as a trainer. In the interest in continuing my education, I completed a course on the topic of instructional techniques; up until this point I had got by on intuition, guidance from colleagues and good luck. This 4-day instructional techniques course was required to become a LANTRA trainer. During this course I learned about a range of things which help make for an effective training course. These include; setting learning objectives, lesson plans, the learning cycle, learning styles, teaching aids and dealing with difficult behaviours (there’s always one on any course!).

Full of new information, I returned excitedly to the workplace ready to practice what I had learned. However, some of the courses I was asked to deliver had little more than a set of PowerPoint slides. Furthermore, when I had the opportunity to attend training as a delegate I was surprised to see trainers not following the basic messages I learned on the instructional techniques course. This I put down to the fact that the trainers i) had no formal training in the skills of being an effective trainer or ii) quickly forgot these key messages and returned to old habits.

How do we improve?

As I work full-time as a trainer, I was keen to continue my own learning. To that end, I am currently studying to become a Qualified Teacher. I am constantly fine-tuning my training so my learners get the most of their time with me. The process of evaluation and adjustment is an on-going one, and I am always looking for ways to improve.

I would encourage anyone involved with ecological or arboricultural training to further their skills through some form of teacher training. However, if now is not a great time, in this short post I aim to share what I consider the five most important elements of an effective training course. I hope these may be of use to new and existing trainers within the environmental field.

1. Set your learning objectives for your training

These are short statements that allow you to convey what it is that a learner will gain; why they should choose to spend their time and hard earned money with you. Think about what it is that you are trying get across. Perhaps it’s a practical skill or some underpinning knowledge. Either way, treat these as SMART objectives:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-based

Having well-thought out and written objectives will allow you to plan effectively and evaluate whether the training has met the objectives.

Here is an example from the first session (Legislation, licensing and planning) of the Bat Licence Training Programme: “By the end of this session you will be able to … Describe the legal protection afforded to bats across the UK.”

2. Learning styles

There are numerous theories surrounding how people learn, each with recommendations on how learning should be designed and delivered. There is even one theory that questions the science of learning theory! Whilst each theory varies slightly, the key message is that the way that people learn varies; there is no ‘one-size fits all’.

The typical mistake a trainer will make is that they will develop training materials that suit their preferences. Whilst this may meet some of their learners needs, it is unlikely that all of the learners will have the same experience.

The VARK model (Fleming & Mills 1992) separates learners into Visual (seeing), Aural (listening and talking), Read/write and Kinesthetic (doing) categories. They also acknowledge the majority of learners are multi-modal (i.e. they don’t have a single strong preference but learn best in two or more ways).

Honey and Mumford (1992) introduces some personality traits such as Activists (open to new experiences and learn by trial and error), Pragmatists (like to apply what they have learned to real life), Theorists (need time to take in/research information) and Reflectors (like to think about what they have learned. Happy to try, review, and then try again).

Whatever learning theory you subscribe to, the take home message is to be aware that other people will learn differently to you. This should be borne in mind when developing and delivering training. Variety is key; the greater the a range of approaches the better. Where possible, present information visually as well as in a written format; a picture is worth 1000 words after all. I hope to share more about learning styles in a future blog post.

Learning styles exercises
The results of an exercise on learning styles

3. Active vs passive learning

As mentioned above, both Fleming & Mills (1992) and Honey and Mumford (1992) identify learning styles that prefer an active role (Kinesthetic and Activist). In addition to this, there are various studies that compare how much information is retained following different activities such as listening, seeing or presenting; the more active the learner the greater the retention rate. The trainer on my instructional techniques put it nicely – ‘never do for the learner what they can do for themselves’. A mantra I try to follow when developing and delivering training.

This approach is second-nature for practical skills, for example conducting a bat survey. However, it can be challenging when trying to take this approach when teaching theory. In such instances, perhaps you can engineer an exercise where you allow the learners to find the information out for themselves and ask them to feedback to the group. This approach will require them to be active in the process, filtering out the relevant from the irrelevant and conveying the key points to the rest of the group.

A word search used to teach legislation
Using an interactive wordsearch to discuss legislation

4. Volume of information

Have you ever attended a training course where the trainer has run short on time?  Or a conference where a presenter puts up a slide only to say words to the effect of “you won’t be able to read this slide”? This is often a result of the person trying to convey too much information in the limited time available.

Not only is this frustrating and may come across as unprofessional, there is also a risk that the recipients will not be able to take in all the information. There is a limit to the amount of new information our brains can process and retain. However, this can be improved by re-visiting information again at a later date.

The key here is ‘less is more’. Try to distil the key points and convey these effectively. Keep slides simple, ideally with something visual to illustrate the point. Where there is more detail behind these key messages, further reading can be provided to interested parties upon request.

An example slide showing less is more
One of Jim’s slides conveying a key threat to barbastelle bats

5. Review and evaluate training

Having delivered your session, you are going to want to know how it went. Did you meet your objectives? Did you deliver the content in a way that suits different learning preferences? Were learners suitably engaged and not overwhelmed by the volume of information? 

Seeking honest feedback is a crucial element of the process. This is usually achieved through some form of feedback form. Alternatively you can seek feedback through a short discussion; this option may be appropriate if you have a friendly face on the course. You should also have a fairly good gut instinct about how the session went, don’t forget to listen to it.

Whatever you learn from seeking feedback, make sure you plan to improve for your next session. Personally, I make time at the end of each session to review my lesson plan; considering what worked well and what didn’t or how well I managed to stick to my timings.   

I hope the above is some food for thought, whether you are new to training or an old hand. Good luck!

Feedback summary graph
A graph summarising the feedback from a course

References:

Fleming, N.D, & Mills, C. (1992). Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection.

Honey, P., & Mumford, A. (1992). The manual of learning styles. Berkshire: Peter Honey Publications.

Want to learn more about bats and trees? See our short course page.

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