Oscar Wilde on Exams

October 25, 2010

In examinations the foolish ask questions that the wise cannot answer


Making training stick

October 27, 2009

“Made to stick” by Chip and Dan Heath – a book widely recommended on various blogs on presentation and management. Its about how to get ideas to “stick”, and the principles outlined can be applied in various contexts, but the one I’m interested in is teaching and training.The core idea in the book is that to make ideas stick the message need to have a number of attributes, summed up by the acronym SUCCES. They should be

* Simple

* Unexpected

* Concrete

* Credible

* Emotional

* use Stories

The last of these is particularly important as stories usually involve concrete examples, can get to the core of the idea and can be framed to include unexpected and emotional aspects. The Heath’s practice what they preach with stories (lots of examples) forming the basis for the book.The occupational hygiene profession is not very good at making things “sticky” – the very name we use for our discipline is perhaps a good example of this!

Although we often can work out what our core ideas and principles are, we are not always very good at using the other aspects discussed by the Heath’s to put them across to an uninterested audience we are trying to influence, whether management, workers or regulators. For example, I was discussing the COSHH principles of good control practice with a colleague a few days ago, and we both agreed that while the principles are good and sensible, they are anything but “sticky” and its perhaps not surprising that very few people, including many general safety practitioners, have not really heard of them. From a training and teaching perspective, making ideas “sticky” is important if the learners are to remember what you’ve tried to get across, and the SUCCES principles can be applied to make the instruction more memorable.

Making things “simple” doesn’t mean “dumbing down” but making sure ideas, however complex, are put across in a way that can be understood by learners new to the principle. Things that seem obvious to an expert need to be carefully explained. This can be made easier if the ideas are illustrated by concrete examples. Every good trainer will have “war stories” that can be used to illustrate application and implementation of the principles. Case studies too are types of stories and can be based on concrete examples and are a good way of getting the learners to think through the principles. The stories and case studies clearly need to be credible if they are to be seen as relevant by the learners.

The idea of using emotion might seem a bit airy fairy but is really about making the ideas relevant to the learners by showing them that what they are learning is relevant to them, either as individuals or as part of a group. Unexpectedness is probably the most difficult principle to apply – I think that it can only be used sparingly – you can’t make everything unexpected. However its a good way of waking up the audience and grabbing attention and can be particularly useful during awareness type training, particularly where the audience might be uninterested, and can help to get the emotional “buy in” you are trying to achieve.

One thing isn’t covered in the book, which is particularly important in making training and teaching “sticky”. The book focuses on getting a message across and making it stick by presenting people with information i.e. by presenting the information verbally or in writing. Learning isn’t just about listening and reading- quite the contrary. People learn best by doing – sometimes finding things out for themselves or reinforcing the points put across in presentations and written material. Perhaps some of the ideas in the book could be applied to practical exercises. As I’ve already mentioned above, they can be applied to designing effective case studies.

So all in all, a useful book. The ideas it contains have certainly stuck with me!

Virtual Flip Chart

May 14, 2009


The problem with Powerpoint and the like is that they are passive tools. They’re great for presenting pre-prepared material (if used carefully and the slides are well designed – big ifs!) but don’t allow for input from the audience and for the presenter to display something that arises during the presentation itself.

I’ve believed for a long time that training should be interactive – it should be more like a discussion or conversation than a lecture. One technique I use quite a lot is writing on a flip chart. I either use it to summarise points made during a discussion, to pull together findings and key points from practical exercises or for “brainstorming”.  The problem with this is that my handwriting is not so great and, despite my best efforts, tends to deteriorate as the discussion progresses. So, for a while, I’ve been on the lookout for a software tool I could use as a sort of “virtual” flipchart. As usual, I don’t like paying for anything (especially software!) so I’ve been trying to find a good, but free, program  that would fit the bill. I’ve considered using Freemind, a mindmapping tool that’s been around for a while, but I find that the charts it produces are rather cramped. There are a number of web based tools I’ve tried out, but they’re not really amenable for use in the class, requiring an Internet connection which, in UK hotels, is expensive, and there’s also the risk of the system or connection failing. However, I think I’ve found something that will do the job for me. Dropmind is another online mindmapping tool, but a downloadable desktop version is also available and it looks promising.

As I see it, the positive aspects of using a mindmapping tool on my laptop with a projector include

  • legible charts!
  • the charts can be changed as we go along, something that isn’t really possible with a flip chart
  • the charts produced can be saved for reference in a more convenient format and can be printed out

Inevitably, there are negatives, too. The ones I foresee are

  • using a computer based tool will tie me to the laptop and restrict movement around the room
  • the projector would still be switched on. One of the nice things about using a “real” flipchart is that it introduces variation – turning off the projector makes a nice change.

There are bound to be other pros and cons. I think I’ll give it a try and see how it goes down.


Stand-up comedy routines are really nothing more than a type of presentation. Like anyone else addressing an audience, comdeians’ routines are about putting across their “ideas” or “points”, albeit in the form of a series of jokes or as humourous observations or stories.

Good comedians have to be effective presenters. They have to “grab” their audience’s attention and then keep it. And they have to be masters of timing.

I was watching Dara O’Brian’s performance on his DVD – Dara O’Brian – Live. One of the things he is particularly good at is engaging and involving the audience. He picks on individuals (note – keep well to the back if you take in one of his shows!!) holding a conversation with them, but without losing the attention and interest of the rest of the audience. There are some lessons here for presenters of lengthy “keynote” speeches and lectures.

Another feature of stand-up comedians is that they can manage to keep an audience engaged and interested for relatively lengthy periods without using slides.  They aren’t obsessed with Powerpoint but rely on the quality of their material and power of their delivery. Again there are lessons here for presenters.

Picture credit –wvermeulen via stock.xchng


May 5, 2009


The following article by the philosopher AC Grayling appeared in The Guardian on Saturday:

Knowledge and genius

I think it makes some very valid points which are relevant to education and particularly so with respect to the training of professionals.

In the article, Grayling states:

there is no automatic connection between knowledge and intelligence“.

I agree wholeheartedly with this. Simply being able to reel off facts isn’t proof of ability to perform a task. Yet there is too much reliance on rote learning  in my own profession where trainees are required to learn masses of facts when studying for their professional qualifications, while there is very little testing of their ability to apply the knowledge to solving problems.

An enormous amount of information available to us in the modern world – and it continues to expand exponentially. It is not only unrealistic to expect a professional to absorb and remember a mass of facts, it is, in my opinion, poor practice. It is more important to know how and where to locate information than to memorise it – and then to be able to use it to analyse and solve problems.

Turn off that projector!

March 31, 2009


The best type of learning is active. People learn best by doing, rather than simply listening. Unfortunately too many training course involve sitting and listening to the trainer while watching an endless stream of  poorly designed PowerPoint slides. After a while the audience inevitably starts to lose concentration.

Slides have a role to play in training, but they should be used carefully. They are usually used in a passive way where the trainer talks over the slides. This can be OK for a short while, to introduce concepts or sum up a discussion, but it can get tedious after a while, even if they are well designed.

There are ways of using slides actively. For example by showing pictures on screen which can then be discussed by the class or by using them as the basis of a quiz. But there are plently of other ways of including active elements in a class. For example, brainstorming, exercises, practical demonstrations and role plays.

Introducing variation in courses keeps the audience more involved and interested and breaks up the monotony which can be associated with using one teaching method.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to turn off the projector!

Slide Design

March 27, 2009


I’ve recently been involved in running a pilot of a course intended for an international audience. It’s the fourth in a series of course that are being developed. A couple of major companies have been funding the development of materials that can be used free of charge by anyone running the course as a way of encouraging the takeup of these courses. For the course I was running, someone else had been commissioned to prepare the material – a manual, exercises and PowerPoint slides to use during classes.

When I was forwarded the material and saw the slides I was far from happy. They were excellent examples of the old approach to slides. Full of words and very few pictures. What pictures there were were generally poor quality. They weren’t just full of bullet points – but contained whole paragraphs copied straight from the manual.

I have put a lot of effort over the last year in working to improve my use of slides in my presentations. I’ve considered where and when to use slides and also their design. There are a number of good books on this, Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson, Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and Slideology by Nacy Durate have been particularly useful. There are a lot of blogs, too, devooted to presentations and slide design. So there is plenty of advice and experience out there to draw on. The general consensus is that the traditional approach to using PowerPoint is ineffective at best and even detrimental to learning.

The approach I’ve adopted is to use slides judiciously – as one method of conveying information. I use other methods of getting information across  – demonstrations, excercises, flip chart/whiteboard – to introduce variety but also because sometimes other techniques are more effective. Where I use slideware I’m trying to avoid slides with loads of bullet points, limitthe amount of information per slide (using more slides where necessary) and using pictures and graphics as much as possible to make the learning more visual. I know I haven’t got everything with regard to slide design just right. I like the Presentation Zen / Slideology approach but think that it needs some adaption for small group teaching. So I’m still working on it.

So I was horrified when I saw the material I was given to work with. Consequently I put quite a bit of effort into modifyig the slides more allong the lines I’ve adopted. Time constraints meant I wasn’t able to change everything completely, but I was much happier when I used them on the course itself. I didn’t have any negative comments about the slides from the course delegates and everything seemed to go well.

After the course the modified material was made available to the sponsors. One of them, however, was not happy with the changes. His view was

    • the slides were very different to those from the other courses previously made available and he felt they should all have the same style
    • the English language ability of many of the delegates on courses would not be strong and they oflten couldn’t understand the presenter, so the slides needed to convey the information.
    • The wordy slides were needed as the delegates who were not very proficient at English could copy down the information as they could understand written English better.
    • The wordy slides acted as a summary version of the course material

      If English langiuage skills are a problem copying lengthy passages from slides is not the solution. The delegates don’t gain much benefit from doing this and there is little value in having them sitting in the class – they could pick up the same points by reading the course manual. The value of gathering people together for a course is the interaction with the tutor and other delegates. The slides are there to support learning and should not form the main mode of communication between the tutor and the learners.

      The principles of good slide design apply whatever the circumstances. if there  is a perceived problem with language, using wordy slides isn’t the solution. It begs other questions. Is there any real benefit asking learners with poor English language skills to attend a course where they are going to struggle to undertand what is being said? If it isn’t possible to run the course in their own language, what is the best way of training them so they can learn something useful? Is there anyone out there with experiences they could share on this?