I once saw, “Chalk and talk is dead,” on the website of an exam training provider, advocating digital learning above all else. I imagined training without the classroom trainer. I saw training materials agreed by committee, formulaic presentations by computer-generated talking heads and candidates passively absorbing information. I didn’t like it.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a Luddite. I love the flexibility that digital learning affords, but it is a tool to enhance classroom training, not the ultimate answer to learning and development. For exam training especially, the classroom trainer gives the content more personality and can drive attention and understanding much more effectively than a digital presentation.
One of the primary considerations in training is the quality of the course materials. Most exam boards produce an official study text for the exam and all candidates receive a copy of this. However, the engagement with this material prior to training can be limited. Reading through sections of the study text in class is an option, but is not conducive to effective learning. Cbeebies Bedtime Story uses this method with the sole purpose of putting people to sleep – it works for me – and that is the last thing you want to do to your class. Instead, effective classroom materials need to be used to supplement the study manual.
Any materials used on courses need to be accessible and engaging. They need to make sense both on their own and in reference to the main sources of information. Where there are complimentary materials, there must be easy cross-referencing between them.
Slides are the most common form of classroom material used in training. These will almost certainly provide a framework on which the trainer will build the learning. They will cut out any less relevant asides often present in study texts but go beyond the basic statement of points in order to illustrate those points.
The handouts given to candidates should not just repeat the information on the slide. Ideally, the handouts will take advantage of notes pages. The notes pages can be used to give tips for remembering and understanding the information, explain the logic behind and application of the information, as well as give examples of how the information may be approached in the exam.
But a study manual, complimentary study materials and someone to talk through them could all be provided without the need for a classroom trainer. Many distance-learning providers do just this. An academic writes the study text, a committee agrees the complimentary material and video recordings illustrate key points. Even the recording, in some cases, eliminate the trainer, preferring to use an actor or even a virtual tutor.
On the one hand, this can deliver a well structured, well presented explanation of a topic or area. On the other hand, it provides isolated information, and no opportunity for the candidates to connect with the content to explore beyond or within what is presented. For candidates who not only need the information, but also need to show an understanding of how the information links across a syllabus and apply this understanding to scenarios created in an exam, a classroom trainer is better placed to develop these materials more effectively.
The experience of a classroom trainer gives them an intimate knowledge of what works and what does not work. They receive constant appraisals, both implicit and explicit, on the effectiveness of the materials they use and can make changes accordingly. They are also immediately accountable for the quality of the learning experience, so become invested in that experience.
A classroom trainer is better placed to deliver the material more effectively. A trainer will have the flexibility to assess understanding in the class, will be able to adjust the pace to meet the ebb and flow of attention in the class, can make links to previous or forthcoming information and can illustrate the application of the knowledge.
You are constantly reading body language that may show a potential question that is too shy to come out on its own, but can be elicited directly.
As someone involved in training, you know how this is done. In each session, you stand and talk for an hour, but you are also interacting. Your initial contact at the start, just an informal greeting or checking that they found their materials, creates a small link that begins to bridge the gap between the perceived pedagogue and the attendant. You build on this through regular eye contact and throwing out casual “does that make sense?” or “does anyone have a question?”. You develop the interaction further through relatively straightforward questions to encourage participation, rewarding good answers with compliments and rewarding good questions with good answers.
In each session, you stand and talk for an hour, but you are also looking and watching. You are constantly reading expressions for flickers of confusion, which prompt a sense-check in the training or a question to the class. You are constantly reading body language that may show a potential question that is too shy to come out on its own, but can be elicited directly.
In each session, you stand and talk for an hour, but you are also assessing attention and measuring the pace against the attention levels. A trainer can prolong the attention of a class much beyond that achieved by a pre-recorded presentation through changes in pace, changes in activity and changes in tone of voice. Your changes may often be planned, but the ability to tailor these to the mood of the class is a real benefit of classroom training.
In each session, you stand and talk for an hour, but do you? Punctuating the presentation are pauses, sometimes short to emphasise a point, sometimes long, to allow the candidates time to formulate the questions they want to ask or an answer they want to give, and sometimes simply to allow you to assess whether the class is ready to move on to the next slide or topic.
At the end of the hour, a short break of a fixed period allows the information to settle in the candidates’ minds, allows a quick review of what has been covered and allows any questions where the candidate “didn’t want to bother the other candidates with silly questions”. It also allows the candidates to absence themselves from the room and do something else: get a coffee or a snack, or mingle with their peers. If you have time left over during the break, you might leave the room yourself. Trainer absence can be a very positive thing. It allows the candidates to discuss the content and training more openly, and also take more possession of the environment. The classroom becomes as much their space as yours, which encourages further interaction once you take the stage again.
For exam courses, there is an ultimate objective in the minds of the candidates, and that is to pass an exam. However important the knowledge and understanding are, question practice is also vital to reinforce information and learn exam technique. Practising questions allows the candidates to apply the information they have received, and focus on what they need to do – that is, understand the information with regard to passing the exam. Another advantage of question practice, if the questions are chosen carefully, is to encourage further discussion to avoid what can be a didactic format of presentation.
Many training providers put questions, answers and justifications on an online portal, allowing candidates to test their own knowledge at a time convenient to them. This is clearly a good thing. However, questions used in isolation will not always lead to the understanding necessary to pass an exam or develop competence. Questions need to be used in conjunction with the classroom materials and the study text. Using questions at key moments in the presentation allows the trainer to affect the pace as necessary, to influence the learning directly and to provide very specific feedback on elements of misunderstanding that a written justification could never give.
Many training providers are increasingly offering online helpdesk assistance, giving those studying for an exam support outside the classroom. Often, a team of administrators provide answers to helpdesk queries, referring to study texts and giving textbook responses. Yet even here, the experience of a classroom trainer is essential, if the helpdesk support is to be genuinely beneficial. An experienced classroom trainer knows the candidates that sit towards these exams, knows the areas and issues that typically cause concern and, most importantly, has effective methods to ensure understanding. These trainers can read between the lines of a helpdesk query and give a more tailored response to meet the candidates’ needs more fully than any textbook answer.
Technology has greatly advanced the methods available for training, there is no doubt about that. Online question tools, digital reading materials, video tutorials and, of course, the internet provide almost unlimited flexibility for the learner to access material when and where they wish. However, the value of a tutor in the classroom cannot be underestimated in enhancing learning both directly and through the creation of effective learning materials.