By Gregg Collins, Ph.D., Head of Instructional Design, NIIT worldwide
You can see a lot just by looking. —Yogi Berra
A man’s errors are his portals of discovery. —James Joyce
I took tennis lessons for years when I was a kid, and they were boring and mostly ineffectual, as evidenced by my weak tennis game. So when I signed up for my first lesson in 25 years while on vacation in Mexico, it was due more to boredom than to any thought that it would seriously improve my skills. I told my instructor, Rick, a crusty former touring professional from South Africa with a right forearm like Popeye and a complexion like tanned wildebeest hide, that based on past experience I didn’t expect a lot either from him or from myself. Rick asked me what my previous lessons were like, and I told him they had involved lots of verbal instruction and artificial drills. He laughed and said, “Don’t worry, doc, I don’t think you’ll have that problem today.”
At the start of our session Rick told me that we would “just hit the ball around a little, like you would with one of your mates,” and that’s pretty much what the lesson was like, if your “mate” happened to be a world-class player. Every couple of minutes, though, Rick would stop and offer me a small suggestion. Each suggestion was simple and easy to implement. Many were about things I’d never thought about much before, like what to do with my off hand while hitting a backhand, or how to avoid ending up off balance after I hit a hard forehand. Each suggestion seemed to create an immediate improvement, and by the end of the lesson I was feeling pretty good about my game. I felt even better when I got back home and tried my new game out on some old friends. I had made a quantum leap. Granted, the leap was from bad to maybe halfway decent, but it was still astonishing that this could be accomplished in a single lesson.
Where previous instructors had focused on trying to teach me a systematic and comprehensive approach to the game, Rick took a different tack: He observed my current performance, identified the one the mistake I was making that was causing me the most trouble, made the simplest possible correction to eliminate that mistake, and repeated the cycle. The lesson was incredibly efficient because we spent time working only on those things that would have the biggest possible positive impact on my game.
Notice that there is nothing about this strategy that is specific to teaching tennis. The logic behind it makes sense for any skill. For example, think about the last corporate training course you took. It’s likely that much of the material in the course turned out to be of no direct help to you in executing the skill you were allegedly being taught. You may well have come away with little improvement to show for it, and with the feeling that a lot of your time was wasted. This, unfortunately, is the experience many employees have with corporate training.
What if the course you took, like my tennis lesson, had focused solely on mistakes you were making currently that were hampering your performance at whatever skill the course was focused on? I suspect that if this had been the case, your experience would have been a lot more like my tennis lesson from Rick—rapid improvement in skill with minimal time and energy consumed. Of course, it wouldn’t actually be practical to tailor a corporate training course just to you, but it is probable that the mistakes you are making in executing the skill in question are similar to those made by others with the same approximate level of experience as you.
Insurance Agent Case Study
We have created a corporate training course that works along these lines, in collaboration with a client in the insurance industry. Concerned that the agents in one of its lines of business might be misquoting the cost of insurance to prospective customers, causing them to lose sales, our client wanted to create a course to address the issue. A classic corporate training approach to such a need would begin by talking to experts to determine everything the agents were supposed to know about how to construct the quotes correctly, and then proceed to the development of a course containing all of their advice and instructions to learners.
Instead, in this case, our client constructed a simple, fictional example of a moderately challenging situation in which to create a quote, and sent this out to their agents as an exercise, with each agent generating a quote and the rationale for the quote. The results of this were stunning: The agents on the average misquoted by more than 10 percent of the correct quote. In a highly competitive insurance market, this level of over-quoting is potentially disastrous.
Working with our client, we analyzed how the agents had come up with their inaccurate quotes, and compiled a list of the specific mistakes they had made, sorted by frequency and severity. We then created an e-learning course consisting of some brief simulation-based training scenarios that addressed and corrected each of these mistakes. Post-testing revealed that this training, which took less than an hour of seat time, eliminated more than 90 percent of the mistakes agents were making, resulting in a conservative return on investment that was in the millions.
Traditional instructional design tends to focus on the creation of systematic and comprehensive courses based around the knowledge subject matter experts want to convey to learners. Courses that are constructed, instead, by identifying the errors learners are making in practice, and addressing these errors with efficient, targeted training scenarios may be a more efficient approach to many training needs.
Gregg Collins is the head of Instructional Design for NIIT worldwide. A Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence from Yale University, Dr. Collins played a key role in the seminal research carried out at ILS and was one of the authors of Northwestern's graduate program in instructional design. He was a co-founder of Cognitive Arts Corporation, which was incorporated in 1995 to commercialize ILS. Dr. Collins became head of instructional design for Cognitive Arts in 1996, and subsequently for NIIT when it acquired Cognitive Arts in 2002. During this time, projects created under Dr. Collins’ leadership have won numerous international awards, and Cognitive Arts has been recognized as a pioneer and leader in the effective use of instructional design and technology to support pedagogy. For more information, visit http://www.niit.com.