Training has to be fun. Simple as that. To inspire changed behaviors and adoption of new practices, training has to be interesting, motivating, stimulating and challenging. Training also has to be engaging enough to maintain interest, as trainers today are forced to compete with handheld mobile devices, interruptions from texting, email distractions, and people who think they can multi-task.
Many trainers cringe at the term edutainment, the necessity of education to be entertaining. But the fact is: if class time is boring – regardless of how important – your efforts will fail. Regardless of the content, to boost interest and retention, training has to be interactive.
Today, there is great innovation going on in classroom practices – and not only from online delivery. In class, I use as many games, exercises and examples as I can to engage and challenge students. It takes longer than a lecture, but it’s much more effective.
What is clear about training adults is that lectures alone do not work. The content is easy to create and most efficient in terms of delivery time. But, in my experience, the retention rates are just too low! It’s essential that there be learning activities – and the more the better.
There must be learning activities to:
- Verify the content delivered was received
- Get feedback and replay to gauge the level of understanding
- Challenge adults with having them immediately apply the information – a key achievement for adult learners.
- Make the training more diverse and interesting to keep attention and increase retention
- Entertain, make training more interesting and fun
This does not have to be complex, time-consuming or a big event. At a minimum it can be an instructor-led walk-through of a testing example. It could be relating a past project experience. Although an instructor-led walk-through will have less interaction, telling effective stories can expand thinking and application. It could also be a testing simulation applying a newly learned process from start to finish. Knowledge needs more than one method of delivery for retention and application.
It has become increasingly popular in recent years to have corporate classes designed as simulations. Within this format, the classes are conducted with numerous activities and learning games, which have proven to be the key method to learning and applying job skills.
A Scrum Master Class Full of Games
Let’s talk about learning activities from an extreme. A few years ago I became a certified scrum master. I took a training class where the majority of the classroom hours, content and key learning topics were delivered using games.
Everyone in the room was highly motivated; no one was there because their manager made them attend – we were eating up the information, which was very well received. From these classes, I took away five important ideas about games in training:
1- I learned a lot! There was great participation. Games were fun and effective. In fact, I am using some of the same games now in my Testing in Agile class. [http://www.logigear.com/services/game-testing.html]
2- People were happy. A few participants did miss some learning points or the real essence of the activity. The games were time boxed and there was casual pressure to finish the tasks on-time (a key aspect of SCRUM). Some people were so focused on the task at hand and in finishing on-time that they missed the [key] learning point. So, “happy” does not mean all people learn.
3- Even with highly motivated people, the instructor had his hands very full answering individual questions, clarifying game rules, keeping his eyes on the clock and organizing things. Game activities often make instructing more difficult.
4- Just a few learning activities were played for the sake of playing a game where, with highly motivated participants, certain topics would have been more efficiently delivered as lecture and perhaps a discussion.
5- There were situations where not every participant was highly motivated, for example, at the end of the training day. Some people got distracted and it was clear attention wandered. In these cases, the retention and application of information was more problematic.
Learning Styles and Activities for Greater Content Retention
To get a fuller understanding of the impact of learning activities on retention, familiarize yourself with the following resources:
Learning styles: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_styles)
Bloom’s taxonomy which shows the progression of awareness in acquiring new skills: [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloom’s_Taxonomy]
Cem Kaner’s seminar on Teaching Testers from BBST: www.testingeducation.org/course_notes
Source: Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001. Via Wikipedia.
Clearly, the goal of any training, after comprehending the content, is to apply the gained knowledge to do a better job, improve quality, feel more confident, and be happier in one’s work.
It’s basic to every curriculum developer – be it a skilled trainer or a fellow team member putting a few slides together on the bug tracking tool – that training for adults should be both useful and compelling. Building training needs to be a mix of lecture, homework, reading, online video, exams, an array of exercises or even heady theoretical content. Vary the content delivery to accommodate learning styles, and climb Bloom’s taxonomy past understanding – first to application of the knowledge and then higher to analyze, evaluate and create new work habits, ideas and processes based on the gained information.
Some might complain “These are adults. It’s their job!”, “They should be self-motivated.”, “The instructor should be focused on efficiency – do a lecture! Follow up with some Q&A and be done with it!”
It’s not so easy. Adult learners, motivated or otherwise, fall across a spectrum. Their optimal learning experiences vary widely. Each has a different retention level based on the type of content delivery. What I know empirically is that a lecture, in and of itself, has the lowest retention rate.
To learn more about learning styles, I’d start with Fleming’s learner types – visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. At a minimum, content must include reading, lecture with discussion, and learn-by-doing activities. Diverse delivery methods better suit the full range of learning styles and keep energy levels up. Use activities to actively engage participants’ minds.
In the years that I’ve spent developing curricula, I can tell you that it is a lot easier to simply put together a bunch of slides for a lecture on some topic. Get the points covered, and communicated well. It’s a nice, fast delivery – only problem is that it has the lowest retention rate. Great, challenging, useful, fun activities are much more difficult to develop and incorporate into limited-time trainings. While difficult, the results of activity training justify the added effort. Knowledge needs to come to life! Effective training needs walkthroughs, examples, exercises, games and learning activities.
This discussion on retention brings up one of the hot topics in training today: online learning. My work is mainly with product test teams or corporate training of individual testers working in that organization. With teams, there are many additional benefits to gaining knowledge – discussing immediate implementation of new knowledge, how to apply it with existing tools, toss out misguided tribal knowledge, even team building and better communication. These additional benefits are more difficult to obtain when groups rely on online learning.
I go into greater detail about the benefits and pitfalls of online training in: Continuous Training for Test Teams.
Problems with Learning Activities, specifically Games
For an instructor or activity leader, I have a few words of advice: “Practice, practice, practice”. Things can easily go wrong. To lead challenging activities you need to be skilled in encouraging, coaching, communicating, salvaging difficult situations, reinforcing the learning point, managing time, and sometimes dealing with difficult people.
First, the time factor. Activities always need setup time. The more complex the activity, the longer the setup time. This time needs to be clear, efficient, and kept to a minimum. There have been times that I developed a good activity only to discover that the setup time was too long. Some groups may be slow in execution, some individuals may be slower, some may be so creative and engaged that time becomes problematic. Getting the exercise completed without getting distracted into worrying about time is important.
The post game discussion to reinforce the learning points and answer questions is the most important part of the game or activity. It is a mistake to cut this short. Also, games often do not go perfectly. They can run long, go wrong and need to be saved through a discussion of what happened and how to fix it if that happens in real life.
When setup includes people moving, or supplies or furniture moving around– whether it is balloons, basketballs, paper and scissors or chairs and desks, the momentary break can be a distraction. People may take it as an opportunity to make a call, text, or refill coffee. Time management can be challenging.
Lastly, the biggest failure in any complex, challenging, compelling learning activity is students missing the point! Remember that the activities are metaphors or representations of day-to-day work. Whether the activity is making paper airplanes, guessing the number of gumballs in a jar, or writing soap operas about distrustful family members trading stock on eTrade – whatever the game or activity, participants need to be kept focused on why it is important enough to take class time.
Let’s use an easy example of the simplest form of activity – the icebreaker. Icebreakers rarely have good learning points. Even in a soft skill, communication, team building topic, of which I have many in Working with Offshore Teams, and Leading Software Test Projects with Confidence, there is no time or activity which do not have a clear and direct link to a skill or idea important enough to be in a time-limited class.
The essential aim or idea of every learning activity must be obvious in its application of the learning point. If the activity only gets people moving around or breaks up the monotony of a lecture – it’s an inefficient use of time. Activity for the sake of activity is not effective.
Make every moment count. Reiterate the learning point, expand its application, and elicit questions and examples.
A key consideration for anyone developing training material on testing is – must all the learning activities be about software testing?
I like to use as many testing examples as I can. It’s becoming more common for instructional course designers to build complex and long activities – devoting hours at a time – to solve problems common in their domain. My training usually does not have that time luxury. I most often cover a wide variety of topics in a couple of training days. For the sake of time, efficiency, convenience and fun, I most commonly use testing topics but occasionally mix in other topics.
There are four examples that come to mind of effective learning activities in Testing and Leading classes I want to share. Some are directly about testing/software development. Others are not.
1- All my Children do Online Banking
Soap Opera Test Case Development – real-world, simulation. Testing related.
I’ve been teaching scenario-based testing (meaning workflow, user scenario, path testing) for a few years. The material was fine and it was interesting enough. Scenario based testing is a pretty straightforward topic. But actually writing effective, useful, potentially bug-finding scenarios is not as easy as it seems. After a couple of years, I updated the chapter exercise to a much more difficult, complicated exercise. In this more difficult exercise, the teams have to write a scenario. Then, the other groups in the class evaluate them; estimating their bug finding ability.
To do this exercise, I chose a well understood system; buying a book at Amazon.com or transferring money and paying bills in online banking; an easily understood system makes choosing personas, interesting and meaningful functionality and excellent data are all key component of the exercise. Then, the teams read their scenarios to their co-workers and get graded. The most interesting part, to me, as the instructor, is that at least one team’s scenario will “fail” in the other teams’ judgment. That is, it doesn’t meet the criteria of great test scenarios.
Next, as a group, we fix the failed scenario. The change in participation, understanding, and fun was immediately palpable with the new, more difficult evaluation, scoring and fixing part of the activity.
The things that makes this game worthwhile and effective is that after the lecture and discussion, we immediately apply the knowledge to a testing problem, critique the other team’s solution, score it – reinforcing why we are writing these “test cases” – to find bugs, and apply the knowledge again by fixing low scoring or bad scenarios. Reinforcing the knowledge is crucial to retention.
I regularly hear at the end of this exercise: “I thought writing scenarios was easy. Now, I know I have to go back and fix a bunch of end-to-end workflow tests I have been relying on.”
As I mentioned above, adding exercises can significantly add time to the class. This is the challenge I’ve come across with this exercise. I need to keep the teams focused, keep it fun, keep it creative, and get it done in a reasonable time.
With many time consuming elements for this activity, it takes focus and attention to the clock to get it done as quickly as possible. This activity is fully related to testing and applicable immediately to test case development.
2- Build a Bicycle!
Constraint analysis and critical path planning. Hypothetical game exercise. Not related to testing.
In my, “Lead Software Test Projects with Confidence class”, there is content on resource planning and allocation. We do a game on constraints and critical paths analysis before making a schedule. The exercise is short but effective. The activity does not directly relate to testing.
The example I used varies from making a cup of tea to repairing a flat bicycle tire, among others. It is important to state, and re-state, that this exercise uses making a cup of tea but is not about making a cup of tea. It’s about constraint analysis, defining and measuring the critical path. It also involves moving around and working fast. Teams communicate and make decisions in order to beat their co-workers’ time to finish the task. It absolutely wakes people up. It gets the groups energized and involves each person. The additional benefits to the learning points are great for the class dynamic.
3- Blind-folded Basketball Coach
Coaching and Leadership game. Not related to testing.
In my class on Working with Offshore Test Teams we play a game on the topic of coaching, mentoring and delegating. I vary this game between throwing balls into a bucket – similar to shooting baskets – blindfolded, or building bridges out of only newspaper and tape. These games are always fun – sometimes hilarious – and at the same time, we never get away from the learning point. The activity is not about who can throw the most balls into the basket or build the longer bridge. It is about coaching offshore teams; coaching when you can’t see the person, on the telephone, when you may not be located in the same office, when you may not be in the same country. Coaching face-to-face is difficult for some and coaching remotely is that much more difficult. A level of trust must be in place for remote coaching to be effective.
The reinforcement and discussion around these learning points are what makes this exercise useful and not merely a distraction or waste of training time.
4- Tell me a Test!
Lightning fast test development exercise, simulation. Related to testing.
In all my testing methods classes, whether it is the core, foundation level class – Testing Computer Software or the Applied Testing Topics advanced class, I very often do a rapid fire, instant test case development, lightening fast exercise. I set up the test situation and point my finger at each student for rapid fire test case development recommendations. The class wakes up and results in changes to their posture. And, most importantly, I get full participation as each person must answer immediately, whether it is a piece of data or test conditions. For example, in the Applied testing class, we use Google Checkout for an API testing example. After we setup and discuss the idea of passing parameters, we do rapid fire, lightening ideas for developing great test data.
Lightening tests – in a nice way – get everyone involved, assesses understanding, and are always fun. People come up with new, inventive, creative test data – fast. The added bonus is that it comes from co-workers, not me. I do this enough during long classes, that people joke with me, point their fingers at me and say: “Tell me a test!” When I have more time available for this exercise, I have other people in the class rate the test or test data as excellent (5 points), good (4 points), mediocre (3 points), bad (2 points), or will probably miss a bug (1 point).
Training is crucial to any test team’s success. But it has to be effective in a way that is engaging to boost retention which will push staff to apply the gained knowledge. No one can afford to waste time, effort and money on mediocre training. Training for adults needs to be applicable, fun and interesting – bringing to life content introduced by reading or lecture. It must apply to work situations, provide real-world examples, and result in discussions about how to apply these concepts. Practice exercises and simulated work situations are great ways to convey these ideas. Use a variety of learning activities to climb to higher classes of Bloom’s taxonomy – to analysis, synthesis and evaluation. This will foster application of skills for better testing with more confidence and less stress.
Michael is a co-founder of LogiGear Corporation, and has over two decades of experience in software engineering in banking, securities, healthcare and consumer electronics. Michael is a Certified Scrum Master and has co-authored two books on software testing. Testing Applications on the Web: Test Planning for Mobile and Internet-Based Systems (Wiley, 2nd ed. 2003), and Global Software Test Automation (Happy About Publishing, 2006).