The trainer has left the building: Creating tutorials to leave behind

At a recent meeting of the Chattanooga chapter of the American Society for Training and
Development (ASTD), Derek Bartley of C2Q, Inc. demonstrated how to train a worker to perform a complex task:

  1. Establish a relationship with the worker and find out what the worker already knows about the task.
  2. Provide a context for the task by showing the worker the end product and explaining why it is important to perform the task correctly.
  3. Demonstrate the task multiple times, pointing out key aspects of the task.
  4. Watch the worker perform the task multiple times, discussing key points and any issues the worker may have with the task.
  5. Follow up with instruction as the worker becomes comfortable performing the task
    on the job.

The case for cheat sheets

During this presentation I thought about what happens when the training and coaching sessions conclude. What sorts of print or electronic materials can a trainer leave behind to remind the worker of key points in the task? A training manual may provide everything workers need to know about the task, but readers can get exasperated by the details when all they really want are quick tips and reminders.

I suggest leaving learners with “cheat sheets” – summary work instructions. Cheat sheets can be printed cards, brief files to view on computers or tablets, or brief videos.

If the trainer doesn’t prepare a cheat sheet, workers will. I have seen excerpts from manuals taped to walls in laboratories and pinned to office cubes. I’ve also seen summaries that management painstakingly created and posted on or near equipment. And I’m pretty sure there are YouTube videos for any task imaginable. My quick search yielded, for example, a cheat sheet for quality control in medical device manufacturing, a music industry glossary defining terms used in album manufacturing, an interactive ballistics calculator used to determine ammunition needs, instructions for measuring process work with a time study, and animated fly-tying examples.

To prepare a cheat sheet

Cheat sheets are often tutorial in nature, emphasizing the key points that are described in full during training sessions. To create an effective print or electronic tutorial:

1. Start simple

These are the five elements of a simple procedure:

  • A title
  • A conceptual element (Why perform the task?)
  • An infinitive subheading (Example: “To calibrate instrument optics:”)
  • Steps in the procedure (Limit the number of steps in a procedure to 10 to 12 steps; break a complex procedure into a series of independent, manageable tasks.)
  • Notes

You can number steps, put them in a table, or even show the steps graphically and skip most of the words. The goal is to provide an at-a-glance reminder of how to perform a task.

2. Eliminate elements

  • Combine the title with the infinitive subheading. (Example: Title a summary of tying a particular type of fishing fly “To tie a shad fly:”)
  • Eliminate conceptual material; cross-reference or link to complete explanations of why the job is important or to theory of operation.
  • Pare down or eliminate notes, again by cross-referencing to complete documentation.

Note: Be careful not to eliminate required safety notes or conceptual material crucial to safe operation of equipment.

3. Cut away the details

Get rid of repetition by placing tasks repeated over and over again in one spot. For example, if an electronic task requires multiple login steps, explain how to log in once, up front. Then refer to these instructions at the appropriate point in the procedure. (Example: “Log in a second time as an Administrator to access security settings.”)

Combine multiple related actions into one step. (Example: “Ensure that you can reach all controls, adjust the seat and mirrors, then start the forklift using the key and the start button, as shown.”)

Delete intuitive procedures that require little explanation. For example, if installing a software upgrade is straightforward and the user interface easy to follow, tell users how to start the installation and then direct them to follow on-screen instructions.

When to focus on concepts, not steps

In some cases, concepts are more useful than step-by-step instructions. Sometimes a process or product is so well designed that reminders are not necessary; you can focus on concepts and minimize procedures. Experienced workers may want to know what else they can do with a product, or how to streamline a process for increased efficiency. Scenarios based on common usage help give the learner context for the task at hand. Parts lists might be helpful if workers need to replenish or replace parts frequently. For software, if new users are likely to have problems navigating through an interface, an interface map or flowchart may be more useful than a detailed set of steps.

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