Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

I’ve worked with a number of instructors over the years, and I’ve run into a lot of instructors who make some key mistakes, whether they’re designing a course, or delivering one. I think there’s a key to understanding why certain instructional techniques are useful. I think it’s important to understand the concept of scope, when it comes to instruction. And unfortunately, I think a lot of instructors – often through nothing more than genuine enthusiasm for the topic – miss those important bits.

If you’re going to be teaching people, you might try to see if you can spot the following characteristics in your own presentations, and actively think about whether they’re serving your audience.

THE STORYTELLER

I’m a huge fan of stories and analogies as part of instruction – when they have a purpose. For me:

  • A story provides context. Telling a story about a problem helps students understand the problem, and helps them understand why you’re teaching a purported solution to that problem. Or, it helps them understand how a solution applies in the real world. Context is something that adult learners require in order to retain information; by providing relevant context, you help shortcut the context-seeking process their brains will naturally perform – making learning more effortless. However, this only works when the story is concise, and when it doesn’t distract from the learning path. Anything longer than a few minutes – maybe 5 at the outside – becomes a tangent.
  • A story provides a break. Adults’ brains need catch-up time to perform a variety of background cognitive tasks, including contextualizing, triaging, and sorting information. After covering a major block of content, I’ll often tell a completely unrelated story – making it clear that the story is just for fun – to give their brains time to do that. 2-4 minutes is all I’ll allow myself – and after that, I’ll ask for Q&A on the topic we’d just covered.

But I see instructors using stories in what I believe are poor ways. Stories that go on for too long become tangents, and you sort of track-shift your students away from the topic at hand. Stories told during other cognitive tasks – like when students are working on a lab – are distracting. Personally, I get bored stiff during lab time, so I have to exercise great control to prevent myself from talking during that time.

THE FIREHOSE

This is the instructor who shows way too much material into the time allotted. They don’t usually do this maliciously – they’re just excited about the topic, and they feel they just have to share all this information.

This is a huge disservice to your students in most cases. You have to decide who your audience is at the start of class – what do they know? What is it they need to learn to do at work? You then have to decide – and this is crucial – who they will be at the end of class. You can’t take a beginner and make them an expert in 5 days – you just can’t. So you have to have a reasonable definition of your audience’s end-state.

Once you do, don’t teach anything that doesn’t lead to the desired end-state. In some cases, that may mean glossing over some technical details, for example. Not lying – just not exploring the depths of every technology, because at this point, the audience isn’t ready for that. 

“But they just NEED TO KNOW this stuff!” you cry. To which I say, “define ‘need.'” If I’m teaching a class that takes an entry-level person from zero knowledge, and trying to get them comfortable using, say, PowerShell as an interactive console, then they do not need variables. They do not need scripting. They do not need a lot of things.

I think the important thing to remember is that, no matter what you’re teaching, this will not be the last education your students receive on this topic. I think it’s also important to know that your desired audience end-state might not be a real-world useful end-state. Take the CompTIA Network+ as an example. I’m taking someone who’s likely got zero networking experience, and my desired end-state is nothing more than “they understand the basic foundations of IP networking, and can participate in further education on the topic.” I’ve taught them some concepts and terms, in other words. The end-state of the audience isn’t that they can go off and be a CCNA; the end-state is that they’re now equipped to pursue additional training on the subject.

It is your responsibility as an instructor to triage information for your students. They don’t know what they don’t know, and they don’t know what they need to know in order to reach the end-state. You know that. But their brains can only hold so much, so it’s your job to only feed them what they need to hit the end-state. Every time you go past that, you’re burdening them, and potentially keeping them from reaching the end-state because their brain doesn’t know what to retain.

And do not make the argument, “well, when I present extra material, I tell them they don’t need to know it.” If they don’t need it, don’t give it. “You don’t need this extra piece of cake, but I’m going to put it here on the table anyway.” Yes, it’s delicious, but you’ve done them no favors – and potentially hurt them.

My research and experience suggests that adults can absorb a maximum of five new things in an hour, after which they need about another hour to digest, contextualize, and so on. Most adult learning courses try to include non-learning elements like labs and discussions – which are reinforcement elements – to provide that break time. Instructors who try to cram more information into those hours, however, are working against their students’ brains, and they’ll often find retention and comprehension to be lower.

THE HATER

This is the person who rails against the objectives they have to teach. “These are stupid! These are incomplete!” I run into this almost all the time with instructors on entry-level content.

It gets back to the firehose. Who is your student? Who do you want them to be by the end of class? Is what you want actually achievable? Maybe your class is only supposed to prepare the person for further learning – not accomplish a more measurable real-world goal, or to teach a real-world set of skills. You can’t teach everything in five days.

Understanding what your course is meant to accomplish, and having reasonable expectations about that goal, is the key. Understanding where students go next is also a hugely important thing, because you can make sure your course delivers what they will need to move on. 

Remember: There’s always a learning experience beyond this one, and your course’s main goal should be to line students up for that next learning experience. You need to realize that you may be being selfish about what you think students need to know, and not respecting the physical facts about how their brains are absorbing what you’re laying down.

This is one reason I loathe courses described as “hardcore” or “boot camp” and so on. Everyone thinks students want those, and many students think that too. But those courses inevitably push too far for the end-state of the audience, and most students end up retaining little of what’s poured into them.

THINK OF YOURSELF AS THE STUDENT

I think the best thing you can do is really put yourself in your students’ shoes. Who are they, today? Who must they be when class ends? What’s the shortest path between those two points? How can you make that path as easy as possible? None of those answers will justify “extra” content, or things that make the class “cool.”

Yes, it’s a blurry line sometimes. Helping students see how something could be useful is definitely legit, because it provides context – provided you can do so succinctly and without creating a tangent. And provided the context you provide can build off something the student already knows – because if you have to teach them about the context, then you’ve really just created a tangent.

Know your audience, and respect the trust they’ve vested in you.

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