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Training Lessons from Seinfeld: Lesson #2 – Don't Overwhelm Your Trainees

— by Trina Rimmer

Business goalsTraining

As I recently watched this classic Seinfeld episode featuring George Costanza’s “morbidly obese” wallet, I immediately made a real-world training connection. Watch and see if you’re reminded of anyone you work with…

One of the biggest challenges I hear about working with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) is getting them to focus on “need-to-know” training content.

These “George Costanz-SMEs” are the bane of every training designer’s existence — seemingly seizing any opportunity to insist on minute details covering every possible scenario, thereby cramming needless content into your training in much the same way George crammed useless stuff into his wallet.

Training Lesson: Don’t overwhelm your trainees!

Unlike George’s wallet, content overload probably won’t cause a trainee’s head to literally explode (thank goodness!), but it certainly impacts their ability to effectively learn the material. Research has shown that our working memory (the part of our brain that consciously processes learning) has limited capacity, and can effectively handle only a small number of information chunks at a time. Because of this limitation, trainees may become quickly overwhelmed when they’re required to process too much information at once.

So how can you help your SMEs keep your trainee’s cognitive load in check? Try using these three filters:

Filter #1: What are the business needs?

The purpose of training is to close a performance gap and/or meet a strategic business objective. However, SMEs sometimes let their passion for the subject, instead of a focus on the needs of the business, drive the training content.

For example, I used to work with a team of experienced Tax Accountants who held their professional standards in such high regard that they believed every person new to tax should learn the subject by reading (and memorizing!) the U.S. tax code. The needs of our business dictated that we had to attract, train, and retain tax preparers, thus making the prospect of spending months of time training newbies on the tax code a losing proposition.

When SMEs are fighting for more and you’re fighting for less, how can you stop the tug of war?  First, commit to uniting divergent perspectives under the umbrella of business needs. In my case, by gently but firmly refocusing on the business needs of the constituents we were all there to serve, it became less of a personal assault on anyone’s profession or beliefs and more of a conversation about how we could collaborate to increase our odds of success. Here’s what worked for me:

  • Re-frame content as a scenario: When my tax SMEs insisted on the vital importance of a new piece of training content, I would ask them to translate that content into a real-world scenario we could use for training.
  • Verify & Align: I would ask my SMEs to explain how the knowledge gleaned by examining the new scenario in training supported a business need. From there I could align the scenarios to the business needs we were attempting to address with training.
  • Edit: Any duplication of scenarios to business needs prompted a pow-wow with SMEs to see which ones were most applicable to “the real world” of our trainees.

Filter #2: What should learners be able to do on the job?

For each topic that a SME wants to add to training ask them if trainees really need the information to perform critical tasks.

  • If the answer is yes, find out how the knowledge gained from the content contributes to job performance.
  • If the answer is no, or if the SME is unable to clearly articulate how the topic supports performance, then the topic is most likely a “nice-to-know” and should not be included.

Using this filtering process helps to ensure that trainees don’t spend time and energy learning things that may be interesting – but not entirely necessary.

Filter #3: Critical training content or performance support tool?

Explore the option of using performance support tools like job aids, wikis, or other quick reference materials to augment training. For each topic ask SMEs if a learner needs to commit the content to memory to perform effectively, or if the information can reside in an external reference that the learner can access as needed on the job.

  • If content must be committed to memory, this is more often indicative of material that should be in your training.
  • If it’s information they need to have access to, a performance support tool is probably a smarter delivery mechanism than training.

By prioritizing content for the learners, you free them to use their cognitive capacity for the information that is most critical to their job performance.

For a great explanation of the science behind cognitive load and additional ideas for how to design training to help learners free working memory, check out this great post from the eLearning Coach.

Looking for additional tips on partnering with SMEs to make your training content “trainee-friendly”? Check out these posts from the Mindflash archives:

How do you work with SMEs to manage learners’ cognitive load? Share your tips with the Mindflash community by leaving a comment.

>> More from Trina Rimmer on the Mindflash blog.

Trina is a learning and communications consultant with thirteen years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training. When her skills aren’t being tested by her children, you’ll find her helping others to develop their own training design muscles.

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