How Engineers Can Build Better Courses
I made a career pivot from a Director of Web Services in the public sector academia, supporting the online education tools and services for students, faculty & staff to the private sector, supporting onboarding, continuous learning, and tools for engineers.
Teaching faculty, subject-matter-experts in a variety of fields, how to use technology to enhance learning, is similar to teaching developers, subject-matter-experts in engineering, how to design internal courses. The same instructional design principles apply. I talked to my learning and development counterparts at various companies about their struggles with developer training. I grabbed all my favorite books about instructional design and cognitive studies, reread them with my new Developer Education perspective, and created a comprehensive list of best practices to apply to instructional design specific to Corporate Developer Education.
The ADDIE model is a traditional process used by instructional designers to develop training. Most of the current instructional design models are spin-offs of this model.
- Analysis — What are your desired outcomes, timelines, constraints, audience, and goals of this training?
- Design — Outline, storyboard, prototype, and bounce ideas off your potential audience.
- Development — Create your course.
- Implementation — Conduct your training.
- Evaluation — Evaluation should happen throughout the process, but you should always be refining your training based on feedback from participants.
Adult Learning Theory
There are many different theories of adult learning, including andragogy, neuroscience, experiential learning, self-directed learning, and transformational learning. All these theories have one goal to help you create effective learning experiences for the adult corporate learner that are different from the child student learner. The overarching themes tend to be to treat adults like adults, with freedom and responsibility. Adults want self-directed, immediately relevant, contextual, and task-based, hands-on learning.
People don’t pay attention to boring things. They decide in the first 60 seconds if they are going to listen to you, and you will lose them every 10 minutes if you don’t engage or trigger them in some way, such as humor. One neuroscience theory on why we are easily distracted is that using one area of our brain for prolonged periods depletes it from glucose, so we need to jump to other areas of our brain to compensate.
Advanced learners, such as Senior-level engineers, need more autonomy and resources that they can choose to access as-needed. When building systems for engineers, none of the learning experiences should be required. Nothing must be locked down, preventing a learner from progressing without completion of prior activities. Allow the learner to choose their journey.
When presenting a topic, it’s good to let your learners know your relationship with the information and what makes you a subject-matter-expert. If the learners believe that you are an authority on a topic, they are more likely to trust and find value in training. You do not need to give a full bio listing all your credentials. Try to explain why you have authority in a topic in three sentences or less.
There are 3 major challenges engineers face when it comes to learning. Overcoming these three challenges is what every developer educator has to tackle.
- Time — Not enough hours in the day. Can you be more concise in your training and personalize it to what I need to know, right now.
- Resources — Cannot find the training I need. Can you curate the resources I need, maybe even predict what you think I may need.
- Management — Overloaded with work and management does not prioritize learning. Can you have a day of learning? Can you build a culture of learning at your company?
Can you condense your training into a cheat sheet? What is the 20% most crucial information you covered? Be careful not to only focus on all the great features of a tool, product, or technology. Tell them all the workarounds and where people are most likely to get stuck and why. Make it a living document that your participants can edit using online collaboration tools like google docs. The cheat sheet will help with retention and be an evolving resource for your future courses.
Reading or being walked through slides does not mean understanding or ability to apply knowledge. Learning does not occur by passively listening but by applying knowledge. With Developers, you should offer multiple learning modalities, beyond slides, and provide opportunities for the learner to engage in safe experimentation of learning through labs.
Give learners contexts, and they are more likely to remember. Consider when someone asks you a question about an issue from 3 months ago, but if they add more context, you are more likely to remember because it triggers your memory. By providing context to your learning, such as examples or stories, you will help make the content more relatable and easier to categorize in multiple areas within the learner’s brain.
When determining if you should teach a workshop or creating a self-service learning module consider your motivation. Are your users having challenges with your application that you feel the training could solve? Can you solve it by offering a better user experience? Avoid offering training as a crutch for a poorly designed system. Also, avoid in-person training as a means of avoiding having to create proper documentation.
You are going to be training a diverse community of learners. When providing opportunities to ask questions or speak, you need to be considerate that some cultures are less inclined to jump in and ask questions but will make eye contact if they want you to call on them. In American culture, we tend not to like silence and can sometimes unintentionally dominate discussions. Trainers need to give opportunities for everyone to participate, even non-verbally.
The reason people fall for clickbait is our innate curiosity. If you spark curiosity, then you trigger a feeling of deprivation in the brain that gets a learner engaged. George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology, describes curiosity as “arising when attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge. Such information gaps produce the feeling of deprivation labeled curiosity. The curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or eliminate the feeling of deprivation.”
Diffusion of Innovation (Everett Roger’s)
A theory to explain how, over time, an idea gains momentum and diffuses (or spreads) through a specific population or social system. The theory can also be applied to garnering the adoption of new technologies.
- Relative Advantage — Is this new idea better than the current process? Why?
- Compatibility — Does this idea align with how our company works and its goals?
- Complexity — How difficult is it to understand or use?
- Triability — Can you do a proof-of-concept? How can we test this will work?
- Observability — How can we measure that this was successful?
Dunning Kruger Effect
The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. You don’t know what you don’t know.
A strategy to tackle this is by creating a pretest to help engineers spot their weaknesses. Have someone who knows nothing about the content try to take your pretest. If they score higher than 40%, then you need to re-write your pretest.
The environment for which you learn becomes part of the context, so if you are learning something for work, it helps to be at your desk on your laptop as opposed to in a completely different environment. When you are teaching, you need to ensure your learning activities allow your learners to practice in the same way that they will need to perform.
As an expert, you forget that not everyone has the same experiences and what it was like to learn your topic for the first time. A tactic for addressing your expert blindspot is to teach a learner about a topic one-on-one. Ask that learner to attempt then to teach someone else who has no prior experience. Your original learner will be able to rephrase your topic in a way that has no expert-bias and is most relatable to a new-learner. This is a common tactic by college faculty who will ask students to pair up and attempt to teach each other.
According to the mere exposure effect, the more exposure a person has to something, the more they will like that thing. This can be applied to learning too. If they repeatedly hear your topic followed by a positive adjective such as “excellence” or “friendly,” there will be a natural, unconscious association. Seeing your face in the halls repeatedly is a form of exposure that builds familiarity and a subconscious likeability. It helps if you smile.
We tend to offer training that is at a more advanced because we do not want to insult our developers by providing rudimentary training. Psychologically learners appreciate the foundational topics in their training because familiarity gives them a sense of superiority and psychological safety. Part of the job as a trainer is to make the learners feel smart. You still want to challenge them but give them a safe path for learning that includes adding content that you may consider obvious. If you proudly spew your genius to demonstrate your high level of intelligence, then it will alienate your learners.
They may not even remember half of what you said when they leave the room, but they will remember if you made them laugh. If thinking about your topic makes them remember a positive experience, they will be more inclined to self-learn or attend your training again. Repetition leads to retention.
People tend to love reflections of themselves in others and on products. This is called “implicit egotism.” We like people who share our birthdays, have names similar to ours, or similar experiences. Can you make yourself relatable as a trainer to your learners? Were you once in their shoes?
“The unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way people learn to do their jobs” Informal learning tends to be where most fast-changing knowledge is disseminated because formal training requires too much planning. People share articles, books, and ideas regularly. How do you capture it? Documentation, open forums, company chat channels (slack, teams), wiki, blogs, and memos are more ways you share knowledge across your company. How you curate informal learning or structure your knowledge management so that you can quickly reference the information your learner needs is critical to a learner’s success.
When creating your courses, identify the minimum learnable unit (MLU), and applying the 80/20 rule. Meaning focus on just 20% of the most important information to your audience. Work Smart, not hard. Don’t write a novel that no one is going to read, write one page of condensed information.
Provide easy access to learning opportunities in the products that your developers are using. People are busy, and trying to find learning materials or documentation takes away from time spent being productive. How can you make the learning available as soon as the developer needs it?
Learning Communities & Networks
How do our developers engage with other subject-matter experts within and external to the company? Try to promote conferences, meetups, and other network engagements as part of your company’s internal culture of learning. Also, publicly recognize the efforts of community contributions such as technology blog authors, conference presenters, and open source contributors.
Learning happens everywhere within your engineering org, including documentation, slack, memos, emails, support questions, knowledge bases, meetings, and informal learning. How do you capture questions asked during meetings so everyone can benefit from answers? How do you curate content and make it easily discoverable? How do you reward those who facilitate and engage in learning? Do you give your staff time to incorporate learning? Is there psychological safety for your engineers to admit not being an expert in an area and reaching out for training?
In Academia, we had a rubric we would follow for best-practices in teaching online that users could check off. Developer Educations teams should have a checklist of best practices for in-person or online teaching.
- Do all our courses have learning objectives?
- Are the objectives useful, things they would do in real life?
- Is there a way to prove if that learning objective was accomplished?
- Bloom’s Taxonomy — Have a series of questions that tests if people can do the following with your content? (remember, understand, analyze, apply, evaluate, create)
A learner’s previous experiences impact their understanding of the material, and that is why no matter what you do, the understanding of the material will vary in your class of learners. The best way to tackle this is by creating learning experiences that incorporate a variety of approaches.
Make Learning Visible
Encouraging and reinforcing positive behavior through some type of public acknowledgment creates intrinsic rewards, which leads to increased learning engagement. You do not need to recognize the person directly, but you can recognize what was created as a result of their learning efforts.
For example, “Bob created this awesome thing. Bob took these classes.”
You are not rewarding Bob for taking the classes; you are rewarding Bob for what he accomplished after completing the courses.
Microlearning is more than slicing and dicing a 20-minute module into ten 2-minute modules. Effective microlearning creates learning activities or assessments that deliver a full learning experience in just a few minutes. Microlearning delivers short “bursts” of information, ideally at the point of need.
During training, you need to test for misconceptions to ensure learners understand what you are presenting. This also helps reinforce learning. Starting with misconceptions can ensure the learners do not “zone-out” during sections of your presentation that they believe they are already familiar.
Motivational gaps can prevent learners from successfully absorbing your training.
Motivational gaps can happen if:
- A learner does not buy into the outcome of the training.
- The end-goal does not make sense.
- A learner has anxiety or concern about the change.
- A learner is distracted by other pressing items.
- A learner doesn’t have enough big picture context into the importance of their participation.
- The content is presented in a challenging way. For example, a difficult font to read.
Think of teaching technology as a building. Some concepts will change quickly, maybe daily such as the interior decorating, but other things change much more slowly, such as the foundation, walls, structure. What is the Pace Layering of the classes that we offer? We have opted to do more in-person training because the content is continuously changing. What parts of our training do not change as often and can break those training into recorded videos?
You also need to identify fast and slow skills. Fast skills are like throw pillows, and slow skills are like moving walls. Identify if the skills you are trying to build are fast or slow and manage your expectations accordingly.
Not all engineers are excellent communicators and for some, the thought of public speaking causes so much anxiety that they actively avoid teaching. With imposter syndrome, it is challenging to be vulnerable in front of your peers and there is a fear that the focus will be on your poor communication skills instead of the technology or service you are presenting.
The same thing happens for engineers participating in training who are afraid to ask questions and risk being judged for not knowing the answer already. Without psychological safety, you cannot create a culture of learning and both your presenters and participants will have challenges. Provide your presenters the skills and confidence they need to be successful or offer them other modes of teaching that may feel more comfortable. For participants, set up an opportunity to ask anonymous questions at the end.
People forget 75% of what they learn within six days if they do not apply it. Scientifically based on how our brain functions, the information we are provided will disappear within minutes, unless:
- It sparks a survival instinct (stresses you)
- Is unusual and breaks a previous pattern (seeing a purple dog)
- Triggers a previous memory (relatable)
- Is important to the learner (worthy of focus)
The way to make long-term memory more reliable is to:
- Explain why it is important to them.
- Incorporate new information gradually and repeat it in timed intervals.
- Integrate it with previous relatable experiences so the memory can be attached to and triggered by related items. (Context)
- Incorporate visuals — “Don’t tell me, show me.”
- Chunking learning makes it easier to digest and retain. (For example, this article is chunked by headers)
- Attempt to teach the topic yourself. Being a facilitator will reinforce the topics you are presenting and make you a stronger subject-matter-expert.
- The more elaborately we encode a memory during its initial moments, the stronger it will be. Can you spark all the retention tricks listed above during the learning activity?
Another consideration for retention is that we are more likely to remember items at the beginning and the end of a training due to primacy and recency effects in our brain.
Are you giving them the tools they need to learn more on their own? Sometimes your training courses have the most value when you are teaching the learners how to learn more about your topic as opposed to expecting them to become experts in an hour.
Skill vs. Knowledge
We have some information that we share as knowledge resources that we want our users to be aware of, such as your company directory. We have some info targeted on building a skill, meaning it requires practice to master. It’s important to identify if your training is building a skill or disseminating knowledge when determining how to ensure learning.
Since your developers may be subject-matter-experts themselves, allow them to contribute to the learning materials. Do not rely solely on one person to build the content, instead allow the content to grow overtime organically with continued contributions by engineers who are engaging in the content.
My favorite example of this is with onboarding documents. The manager provides a generic onboarding document. The new employee contributes to that onboarding document, and that is replicated for the next person. The onboarding document continues to evolve as you hire more staff without the manager having to continually keep it updated or knowing everything that a new hire may find of value.
The more engineers see other engineers engaged, the more they will want to participate. You will see this in class enrollments and participation in slack channels. Having ongoing discussions that include a history can maintain the appearance of engagement and encourages continued participation by new hires.
If people you trust recommend something, then you are more inclined to participate. If colleagues can see the classes, other peers have taken, they will be more willing to register. You see, this in eCommerce and social media frequently.
If your learners are experiencing stress in their personal lives, it will make it almost impossible for them to retain new learnings, especially if they are also sleep deprived. As I write this, we are experiencing a global quarantine because of the COVID-19 virus, and some thoughts are that people at home, working remotely, will have more time to learn. Unfortunately, with some having to home-school children, concerns over the health of family and friends, significant disruption in life cause stressors that will inhibit learning.
Talking to Learners
It is likely your company does surveys after each training because it’s essential to get feedback from learners. Learners will tell us how things worked instead of how we think it should have worked.
A good question for engineers, who have been at your company for at least a year that could benefit our new-hires is “what do you wish you had known when you first started as an Engineer at Netflix?”
Technology Acceptance Model (TAM)
If you want an engineer to utilize your tool or service, they need to believe that it’s useful and that it won’t be a major pain in the butt to use. For every tool that you push on your users, you should ask:
- Is the new tool genuinely useful?
- If it is useful, how will the learner know that?
- Is the tool easy to use?
- If it’s not easy to use, is there anything that can be done to help that?
Unlearning & Relearning
If an engineer is being encouraged to use a new solution that is different from what they are accustomed to, they may have to unlearn old ways of doing things that lead to a loss in momentum and productivity short-term. You want to minimize that transition time by making the relearning as seamless as possible.
The Pictorial Superiority Effect is that we learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words. If an image accompanies a text, people will have a 65% higher chance of remembering that image more than the text.
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