Monday, May 31, 2010

Exercises count, or "Welcome home"

I figured it out: since April 23rd and May 23rd,  I slept in my own bed for seven nights--and all of those were in one continuous string between getting back from Spain (with a week in Toronto) and leaving on our "east coast road trip (New York to Alexandria, teaching the "Strategic Thinking for Operational Managers" course for the first time in the US for Learning Tree). Since I got back from Spain I've been trying to finish up the revision of my ASP.NET course and get back on deadline with Visual Studio Magazine.

Doing this revision of the course gave me a chance to look back at the way I've written exercises in the courses that I've written for Learning Tree. In the first course (way back in the late 90s) my goal in the exercises was to explain some technology...well, actually "to show off" some technology. Basically, the exercises proved that I hadn't lied in the lecture portion of the exercises. I bet that my courses were 75% lecture because, after all, if I said it then the participant's learned it, right? The exercises were also very "standalone": since all I was doing was demonstrating that I hadn't lied about the technology there was no need for the exercises to actually deliver a working application.

Learning Tree eventually gave me a book on Active Learning which emphasized that most people only really learned what they did, not what they were told. Learning Tree eventually advanced on this to say that it was silly to pack a course with knowledge that people only remembered 30% of it--you were better off to structure a course where people would remember 80% or 90% of the material even if you only covered 60% of the material (you do the math). About the same time, the company also started pushing us to have our exercises be built around a case study that reflected the real world: a "case study."

Here's my problem: In a technical course: I know the stuff in the course, the people taking the course didn't. What would "Active Learning" look like in this situation? I should talk, the participants should sit there listening and, eventually, they could do one of my exercises. The 'doing' part would be my exercises...which were, at best, 25% of the course time.

I eventually realized that what people did know was their problems and that was what was driving them into the course. One way I could incorporate activity into the course was to let participants talk about their problems and what they wanted to do. I could then base the course content around the problems of the people attending the course. I would drive the course forward by drawing a bright line between the participants' problems and the technology in the course.

If I wanted to do that, I also needed to provide more opportunities to do stuff in the course. The problem is that, with setting up to do a programming exercise and cleaning up afterwards, an exercise includes 5 minutes of unavoidable "overhead". I had the idea that, to make an exercise worthwhile, I needed an exercise to be "at least" 20 minutes in length. I was also still "lecture focused" so I felt that I needed to lecture through all the material that "hung together" before interrupting the lecture for an exercise (remember that 5 minutes of overhead?).

Putting those two things together resulted in 'death march' exercises that kept the participants banging away at their keyboards for 30 to 45 minutes at a stretch, often in exercises that did four or five different things because an exercise had to incorporate all of the topics covered in the previous lecture.

For the last couple of years, I've been moving in a different direction: JITT (Just-In-Time Training). My goal is a class where participants spend most (60% or better) of their time building the case study. The case study is interrupted by "just enough" training (lecture) to prepare the participants to do the next thing in the case study. Once we've covered enough material to do something in the case study, we implement that.

This sometimes means that the new version of the course may have one slide of lecture material followed by a slide with instructions on how to advance the case study. Sometimes the course has five or six slides that cover how to do the "next thing" and the participants do an exercise that takes 15 minutes (with overhead, I don't believe an exercise that requires more than a slide to describe will take less than 15 minutes). About once or twice a day, there may be an exercise that takes 20 minutes.

Each lecture portion takes somewhere between 3 and 15 minutes and leads immediately to extending the case study. Sometimes, following an exercise, the course covers material related to the stuff covered in the previous exercise that isn't part of the case study.

I like this new structure...but then, I would. It'll be interesting to see how (a) the paying customers and (b) the poor SOBs that have to teach the course feel.

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