At the start of a new project we always ask our clients to teach us as they would teach their students. After all, we are lowly eLearning experts. We don’t know how to manage a reverse circulation drill rig in the desert or what betting products are available at the races. Well, at least we’re not likely to know this sort of thing without researching it. Our clients are the subject matter experts, and in order for us to design an engaging and effective training programme, we need to know what the students need to know.

It doesn’t end there though. After all, we’re not students. Our expertise lies in designing training that works as eLearning, and it is our role to ask questions around the content and to not only understand what the content is, but also why it is relevant.

In our experience, training programmes that confuse or lose the learners tend to have a common flaw: they fail to answer the question: WHY? Or, put another way, they fail to put the training into context by putting context into the training.

The Three Course Meal

I’ll explain using a simple analogy. Think of a training intervention as a three-course meal. A skilled chef will create a meal where the dishes all complement each other. The starter prepares the palate for the main course, which is then rounded off beautifully by the dessert.

Many training designers make the mistake of overlooking the importance of the starter and take the learner straight into the mains, but this is a recipe for confusion. It is in this starter section, the introduction, where the training is given its context. This is where the learner is prepared for what is coming up in the course. It eases them in gently, so that when they reach the crux of the training, they are able to imagine how the knowledge or skill that they are learning about might be applied. Context gives grounding to theory, providing clarity and preventing confusion.

Crucially, this starter portion is also the part where learners find out why it is important that they do the training in the first place.

It’s all about Motivation

Ask a child to do something and they will invariably ask you why. And, as annoying as it might seem, it’s actually the right thing to ask. In the case of most children (and indeed some adults), a forceful “Just because…now do as I say,” will elicit action. However, adult learners tend to be a little more stubborn. They demand a better answer to the question, and the answer determines their motivation for doing something; it provides them with a reason for doing it.

In this case, that “something” is training and the reason for doing it needs to be provided from the beginning if you hope to keep the learners interested. And, unlike children and their Brussels sprouts, it’s no good telling learners that the training is “good for them”. You must convince them that they need the skill or knowledge with which you’re empowering them; and that requires context.

Are there any Exceptions?

Sure, in some cases, the learners don’t need the introduction and jumping straight to the point has its merits. This is a distinguishing attribute of a lot of just-in-time (JIT) training for example. By its nature, JIT training implies that the learners are already aware of the context in which the required knowledge or skill is relevant. They know why they need the skill or knowledge, because they are actually experiencing a situation where it’s applicable, and it is the context of their current situations that motivates them to actively learn how to solve it.

Guidelines for Adding Context

Everybody loves guidelines, so to finish off I’ve put some down here:

  1. Ask why

You need to understand the problem that the training programme is trying to address. So, ask the subject matter expert about it. Ask them why the learners should learn this, and then pass that message on to the learners.

  1. Understand your audience

As with the rest of the programme, the context needs to be pitched at the right level for the learners. Unless you’re training rookies, you don’t need to go right back to the basics.

  1. Connect the dots

Part of understanding your audience is figuring out what experience and knowledge they have already, and using that as an anchor point, or point of reference, for what they’re about to learn. For example, in teaching a new process, you should show how it fits in with other existing processes that they may already know about.

  1. Provide examples

Demonstrate how the knowledge or skill could apply to the learner, by using examples that are relevant to their environment and day-to-day experiences.

  1. Contextualise continuously

Context should not only be explained at the start of a course. It should also be used throughout a course in the form of mini-introductions for new concepts. Just be wary though of becoming too repetitive or slowing the pace of the training down too much!

I hope that you’ve found this useful. Let us know your thoughts on context in the comments below and please contact us if you have any questions or suggestions.