This research study revealed 5 powerful classroom-based instructional strategies to accelerate speed to proficiency of employees in complex job skills. Segmentation of tasks, self-guided pre-work, scenario-based contextualization, emotional loading/involvement and time-spaced chunked sessions.
In a previous post, “Proficiency Curve Analysis Reveals 4 Potential Approaches to Accelerate Proficiency in Workplace Skills“, I described 4 major potential approaches as revealed by accelerated proficiency curve analysis. The 4th approach emphasized a model consisting of 4 phases of proficiency growth. Generically speaking, the phases included pre-training phase, ILT phase, on-the-job experience phase and sustain/maintain phase. These 4 phases were elaborated more clearly in the first section of the post “5 E-learning Strategies To Accelerate Time to Proficiency in Complex Cognitive Skills At workplace“. One of the key things that stood out is that ILT phase if managed well, could impact the initial head start of an individual if he is doing a job not familiar to him/her earlier. In fact role of training towards accelerating proficiency is well-accepted. “We also believe that reducing Time to Proficiency is the most significant contribution the training function can deliver to the organization” (Rosenbaum and Williams, 2004, p.14). Several researchers have voiced and argued about the value of classroom training particular in low-frequency tasks and rare events. The“empirical fact about expertise (i.e., that it takes a long time) sets the stage for an effort at demonstrating the acceleration of the achievement of proficiency” (Hoffman, Andrews & Feltovich,2012, p. 9). Though training and learning research has come up with several different techniques from various studies, a practical solution to accelerate proficiency of employees in a shorter time has been lacking for applications in corporate settings. This post intends to describe instructional strategies discovered in a recent research study to practically accelerate speed to proficiency of employees.
During my doctorate study, I conducted a large-scale research which involved over 85 though-leaders from 7 countries, 20 business sectors spanning over 42 industries. During the data collection process, about 66 success stories were collected from participants. They were asked to detail the practices and strategies in a successful project in which they attained a guaranteed reduction in time to proficiency of employees. Various modes of data collection were employed, mostly being through in-depth interviews. The data were rigorously analyzed holistically using thematic analysis and multiple-case study comparison techniques. Then the data was filtered for initial themes in classroom settings only. The early-stage findings of our study revealed 5 classroom-based instructional strategies that were successfully applied by organizations to accelerate time to proficiency in complex job skills. These strategies were presented as a paper titled “Classroom-Based Instructional Strategies to Accelerate Proficiency of Employees in Complex Job Skills” at American Asian Conference, 2016 at Singapore. This post summarizes 5 powerful classroom-based instructional strategies that hold the potential to accelerate speed to proficiency.
As a note, complex job skills refers to higher order skills such as problem-solving, troubleshooting, critical thinking, complex technical and personal interactions and higher order decision-making. Acquisition of proficiency in complex skill is a slow process. However, business still requires faster speed to proficiency in complex skills. That makes efforts to reduce time to proficiency of employees even more critical.
It is imperative to set a ground here that jobs in today’s business world require employees to learn several tasks which are done in the context of the situations which vary widely. Day in and day out employees are expected to handle complex problems and drive solutions to achieve solutions to these complex problems. The employees are involved in “doing” the tasks. In the process of solving, they experience a high level of emotional loading due to pressures, timelines, stresses, speed, expectations and other factors. However, ironically, organizations tend to copy “an academic educational” model in their work settings. A complex job of site safety professional may end up getting delivered in a closed wall classroom with a project with a curriculum which is content heavy, but context-light. Such training sessions tend to have too much content just because employees are being taught “just in case” some event happen without having a realistic understanding of how often someone will use the skill.
Further, such classroom training pulls the people out of their jobs (i.e. context) where there is “safe” environment with unrealistically low loading on emotions and mind. Further, such classroom training sessions tend to be instructor-centric, follows a rigid institutionalized structure. While there are several new techniques like problem-based learning [See 5 Problem-Centered Design Methods For Training Real-World Problem-Solving Skills] and 6 Guidelines to Develop Training for Acquiring Complex Problem Solving Skills] and others like flipped classroom type of concepts, the classroom training solutions stay largely one-size-fits-all. Due to inherent inertia in even developing such training sessions, the overall time to proficiency of employees is very long. Thus, conventional classroom instructional strategies do not work when the goal is to speed up the proficiency curve of employees. Thus, new and more efficient, more effective instructional strategies are required that can bring employees up to speed quickly.
During preliminary phases of the research study, a conceptual model was developed to see how 5 instructional strategies interplay to accelerate speed to proficiency. The model is shown in the figure. The details of proficiency growth analysis that led to this conceptual proficiency vs. time graph are discussed in other posts [see ]. The horizontal axis is time and the vertical axis is the hypothetical proficiency levels from P0 to P5. P0 represents the proficiency of someone in a given role at the outset. P3 represents the desired or target proficiency defined for a role. Typically during time N01 to N1, a learner may be just waiting for a classroom training if the job is technically intensive and required new knowledge/skills to perform the job. Several jobs do offer some block of time for classroom-based training – whether product or process or service focussed. Traditional training is typically classroom-based and instructor-centric, which are denoted as ‘traditional ILT’ curve’ in a simple piecewise representation. Once this training is over at time N2, bringing a learner to proficiency level P1, typically remaining tasks/assignments this learner would learn on-the-job through several assignments, projects, and tasks. Assuming piecemeal representation in simplistic terms, the ‘traditional on-the-job learning curve’ would lead the learner to attain desired proficiency eventually in time N5.
During our research, we found that by using 5 critical classroom instructional strategies, the proficiency growth curve can be altered and can be accelerated so that the learners attain desired proficiency in time N4.
As a first strategy, it was found that segmentation of critical tasks was extremely critical which allowed deciding what skills can be learned by learners before they come to formal classroom training, what should be learned during the classroom and what should be learned during the on-the-job learning phase.
The key activities, content, and knowledge are identified as pre-work, usually done as self-guided learning, may conceptually allow uplifting the initial entry-level proficiency slightly with which a learner starts the classroom training. This is shown as ‘pre-work curve’ between time N0 to N1.
Inside the classroom training, instead of a contiguous block of time for instructions, it is seen that if classroom sessions are chunked appropriately and delivered in shorter meaningful sessions. The key strategy to design these sessions is contextualization with scenarios. What it means is that each session is designed around scenarios or problems and each session attempts to provide a measurable ability to handle or solve certain kinds of problems or situations one is likely to encounter at the job.
Another strategy which is seen effective alongside scenario-based contextualization is to space these sessions in time. The spacing works best when consecutive sessions are interleaved with on-the-job activities, tasks or assignments. The benefit of this approach is that a learner is actually involved in doing job assignments based on what he learned in the chunked sessions. Further, the realistic job tasks are used to which learners are required to deliver. Such real jobs would build the emotional loading of time pressure, quality expectations associated with the deliverable and general dynamics of the job amidst of which one is required to deliver. Doing so could result in a higher level of proficiency that is attained out of such training compared to traditional training. While the length of the formal classroom-training may increase from N2 to N3 due to time-spacing and interleaving, the resultant proficiency ends up much higher than proficiency P1 otherwise attained in traditional classroom training.
The rate of acceleration depends on how well sessions are chunked, skills delivered in those chunked sessions, the spacing between two chunked sessions, the quality of on-the-job assignments interleaved between two chunked sessions and level of emotional loading/ involvement.
In some settings, such an arrangement of ‘chunked time-spaced sessions interleaved with on-the-job learning’ might continue till learners reach desired proficiency in terms of delivering on-the-job performance. However, in other settings, it may be pure on-the-job learning that continues from N3 to N4. Learners may seek support from peers, performance support systems and other tools or just-in-time learning as and when needed during on-the-job learning. Conceptually, the learners would have a great head-start advantage during on-the-job learning. As a result, learners are likely to attain desired proficiency in time N4 instead of time N5 which otherwise would have been required using the traditional approach.
Though each strategy in itself could be successful in isolation, however, time-to-proficiency is impacted hugely if all five strategies are orchestrated together in the appropriate mix based on context, job roles, and business challenges.
“Classroom is a place to learn the skills which cannot be learned in any other mode.”
The research findings suggested that the mastery of all skills or knowledge was not required to produce a given outcome, or at least was not required to be learned upfront. Also, not all skills included in a training program were so equally frequent, critical or important for a given job that acquiring all of them at once was required. Thus, it is suggested to use the technique to segment and categorize tasks, skills, events, activities, etc., based on characteristics such as frequency, complexity, criticality and the nature of skills through data analytics. It is beneficial to focus on two things: first, the things that mattered the most at the job towards producing desired outcomes; and second, the most frequent events (i.e. tasks, skills or tools) that a performer was surely going to encounter at his job. Segmentation prioritizes what was essential. This strategy also determined how a given skill should be delivered depending on criticality and nature of category – it could be self-guided material or it could be a hands-on session.
Key design inferences
“Preparing learners on certain learning outcomes before the instructor-led session cuts the training time.”
It appears that leveraging blended e-learning based pre-work strategically to prepare learners in advance for ILT sessions could accelerate time-to-proficiency. One of the approaches could be to design low complexity skills including informational content as a pre-training course to give head-start to learners. Self-guided pre-work and homework assignments are designed to cover highly complex skills which require deeper thinking and reflection. Highly complex skills are covered during ILT sessions which are spread over time.
Key design inferences
“Time-to-proficiency gets accelerated if learning happens in the context of the actual job or learning is contextualized.”
Contextualization refers to linking the task at hand to the realist job environment and realistic challenges (Clark & Mayer, 2013). The study findings indicated that contextual experiences, in a training intervention or at the job, contributed towards accelerating proficiency when performers were actively immersed in the task with similar challenges they encountered at the workplace. This important strategy of problem-based learning or scenario-based learning is shared in detail in another post: 5 Problem-Centered Design Methods For Training Real-World Problem-Solving Skills which details how to scenario-based contextual learning accelerates learning and proficiency. The research perspectives and use of this powerful strategy were described as ‘Contextualized scenario-based e-learning: As realistic as situated learning’ and as ‘Active involvement and non-linear thinking: More than just learner’s engagement’ in the post 9 Promising E-learning Curriculum Design Methods from Research To Accelerate Proficiency. Detailed guidelines to design problem-centric training were covered in 6 Guidelines to Develop Training for Acquiring Complex Problem Solving Skills. The inferences and conclusions discussed there are equally valid for classroom-based training.
Key design inferences
“Workplace challenges and consequences drive emotional loading of an individual in a task e.g. aggressive timelines, consequences of errors, complex interactions which impact speed-to-proficiency.”
The findings suggested that by creating emotional loading similar to the actual job led to accelerating proficiency significantly. As opposed to the traditional approach of keeping emotions out of training, they incorporated emotions and emotional loading similar to what a real workplace challenge would drive. That included similar pressures, stakes, consequences, time constraints, performance specifications and team dynamics to what would occur while doing the task in the real job. This important strategy of emotional leading is shared from the perspective of application in e-learning as ‘Emotional involvement and stakes: More than just motivation’ in the post 9 Promising E-learning Curriculum Design Methods from Research To Accelerate Proficiency. The inferences are equally valid for classroom-based training.
Key design inferences
“Spacing the shorter sessions in time reinforces the retention of skills and proficiency”
The findings suggested to convert larger tasks or activities and lessons into smaller chunks, distributed those over a period of time, delivered using performance support systems, technology or just-in-time systems. These small segments of learning are used just-in-time during other contextual activities such as job shadow. The findings suggest embedding learning and work together was to interweave training sessions and work assignments, which could allow authentic learning through on-the-job practice. Keeping the delivery of learning (chunked learning sessions) closer to the point of need and in the context of the job in order to accelerate proficiency. Performers should be made to work on things that were essential to producing outcomes. I discussed this strategy in the context of e-learning as ‘Time-spaced micro-learning content’ in the post ‘5 E-learning Strategies To Accelerate Time to Proficiency in Complex Cognitive Skills At workplace‘ and as ‘Microlearning: Learning big in small steps’ in the post 9 Promising E-learning Curriculum Design Methods from Research To Accelerate Proficiency. While those articles dealt with e-learning perspective, basic inferences are applicable to classroom-based training too.
Key design inferences
Classroom-based instructional strategies need to be rethought ‘beyond classrooms’ and ‘beyond instructors’ to use the workplace as the curriculum with real context and real job using following strategies:
At the same time, it must be understood that classroom training is not the major source of accelerating proficiency. What it does is provide initial proficiency at an accelerated rate, particularly when skills involved are new, complex and requires hands-on practice in a controlled environment.