Experiential Learning for Technical Training

A funny thing happened at one of my recent sessions with a group of technical instructors. I invited the participants to comment on the applicability of experiential learning to technical training. Audience members were split into two opposing groups of almost equal size. One group said, “Of course, it makes sense to use experiential activities in technical training. Actually, that's the most effective way.” The other group said, “You must be kidding! We have absolutely no time for experiential activities in technical training.”

The ensuing debate between the two groups revealed interesting definitional issues. Those who were in favor of experiential learning were thinking of hands-on activities and lab work related to such skills as arc welding and computer programming. Those who were opposed to experiential learning were thinking of meaningless icebreakers and mindless role-plays.

Obviously, our perception of experiential learning in technical training depends on our mental models. So let us explore the concepts of technical training and experiential learning and arrive at a common mental model. 

Exploring Technical Training

During the past month, I scanned hundreds of books, pored over glossaries, surfed the web, and Googled the term, all in a futile attempt at coming up with a precise definition of technical training. The definitions I found took circular approaches, such as prepare employees for technical jobs or ensure effective transfer of technology. Apparently, technical training is one of those concepts that people have no difficulty in recognizing but find it almost impossible to define.

For the purposes here, I offer the following definition:

Technical training is the type of training that results in performance outcomes associated with the understanding, recalling, and applying specialized skills and knowledge that are related to specific equipment, machinery, devices, procedures, methods, processes, and systems.

This definition is probably no better than the definitions that I was criticizing earlier. If you come across a better definition, please let me know. In the meantime, allow me to prop up my definition through a discussion of related concepts.

It is easy to give examples of subject-matter areas that are strongly associated with technical training. Here are some examples:

  • Aeronautical engineering
  • Astronautics
  • Biological sciences
  • Chemical engineering
  • Electrical engineering
  • Manufacturing
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Medical technology
  • Nuclear power generation
  • Surveying and mapping
  • Working on heavy equipment

lnformation technology—skills and knowledge associated with the use of computer systems and the Internet—is the largest and the most rapidly growing sector in technical training. Everyone—from the occasional user learning how to manipulate a spreadsheet to a seasoned professional learning how to apply object-oriented analysis using the Universal Modeling Language in an elaborate high-tech computer lab—has experienced this type of technical training.

While we may not have a precise definition of technical training, it is easy to differentiate this type of training from other types of training such as interpersonal skills training, sales training, management training, and basic training.  Having said that, let me dodge potential criticism by pointing out that there is probably a continuum between basic training (which provides generic skills applicable to different jobs) and technical training (which provides specific skills associated with a particular job). Here is an example of five points along this continuum.

  1. How to write
  2. How to write a proposal
  3. How to write a technical proposal
  4. How to write a technical proposal for selling a router with an integrated intrusion prevention system
  5. How to write a technical proposal for selling a router with an integrated intrusion prevention system to a medium-sized start-up organization

Similar continua probably exist between technical training and other kinds of training, as shown in these training topics:

  • How to interact with clients at a help desk (technical and interpersonal training)
  • How to make a technical presentation as a member of a sales team (technical and sales training)
  • How to manage software engineers (technical and management training)

Now that we have had this discussion about technical training, let us explore the other critical term. 

Exploring Experiential Learning

In my perception, the key element in experiential learning is the active participation in meaningful experiences. These experiences involve interaction between the learner and other elements such as the following:

  • Content presented through various media
  • Equipment and materials
  • Fellow learners
  • Expert practitioners

Different Experiential Approaches for Technical Training

It is obvious that there are different ways to provide meaningful learning experiences. In our technical training projects during the past ten decades, my colleagues and I have used many different approaches to experiential learning.

Here are brief descriptions of twenty such approaches:

Action Learning involves a combination of action and reflection by a team to solve complex technical problems in a real-world setting. Team members apply existing skills and knowledge to solve the problem and create new skills and knowledge by continuously questioning the problem definition, solution strategies, and the ensuing results.

On-the-Job Training is used both formally and informally in mastering technical skills. It includes guidance before the task, coaching during the task, and feedback after the task from one or more experienced practitioners.

A-Day-in-the-Life Simulations feature a collection of in-basket exercises related to a specific technical context. Participants review a list of “to-do” items for the day (or the week or the month), along with related information. They prioritize the tasks, plan the optimal sequence for tackling them, and implement the plan.

Apprenticeship involves on-the-job training and coaching. One or more technical experts (supervisors or co-workers) support the learning and performance of a newly hired person by guiding and debriefing the activities. The learner begins by helping her mentor and then gradually takes on increasing work responsibilities. 

Near-the-Job Training is especially suited to equipment-operation skills. Learners work on machines and equipment when they are idle. Alternatively, they may use a set of machines that are set aside for training purposes. Learners are given various authentic tasks and provided with guidance, coaching, and feedback, as in on-the-job training projects.

Board Games motivate learners by providing an optimum combination of cooperation and competition and a tangible score-keeping system. In technical training, the spaces in the boards may represent milestones in a technical project. The players' progress may be accelerated or impeded by chance cards that identify the use of best practices and inefficient approaches.

Assessment-Based Learning Activities (ABLA) require learners to complete a performance test and receive feedback about their technical competencies. Whenever appropriate, ABLAs encourage interaction and discussion between learners and coaches to improve future performance.

Card Games involve pieces of technical information (such as facts, concepts, terms, definitions, principles, examples, symptoms, and questions) printed on cards. These games borrow procedures from traditional playing card games and require players to classify and sequence technical content.

Coaching Activities involve an individual practitioner (the coach) supporting the learning efforts of another individual (the coachee) through interactive questioning, guidance, and feedback. The process usually requires both people to establish technical goals and the coach to observe the coachee, debrief the activity, offer relevant feedback, and suggest suitable improvements.

Email Games are conducted through the Internet. They may involve the play of electronic versions of interactive training games or specially designed activities that permit asynchronous communication in which people receive and send messages at different times. Typical email games exploit the ability of the Internet to ignore geographic distances and involve participants pooling their ideas to solve technical problems.

Instructional Puzzles challenge the participants' ingenuity and incorporate technical training content that is to be previewed, reviewed, tested, re-taught, or enriched. Puzzles can be solved by individuals or by teams.

Interactive Lectures involve participants in the learning process while providing complete control to the instructor. These activities enable a quick and easy conversion of a passive technical presentation into an interactive experience. Different types of interactive lectures incorporate built-in quizzes, interspersed tasks, teamwork interludes, and participant control of the presentation.

Object Lessons incorporate physical objects and equipment as the main source of training content. Working individually or in teams, the participants explore the components and functions of the object. As a result, they master skills and knowledge associated with effective use of the object.

Pair Learning is based on the extreme programming methodology in software design. This strategy involves two people working on the same computer, sharing a single keyboard. Paired learning between an expert and a novice results in the latter learning new technical skills. Paired learning between people from different technical fields results in more effective collaboration skills.

Procedural Simulations are dress rehearsals of real-world events, such as making a technical presentation to a client, troubleshooting a piece of equipment, or providing emergency technical assistance. By working through these simulations, participants get ready for real-world events.

Production Simulations involve the design and development of a product (such as a piece of metalwork or a report from a database). Different teams may compete with each other to create the best product. The initial briefing in this strategy involves teams receiving specifications for the final product, along with a checklist of quality criteria. The final products are evaluated by a panel of outside experts who provide feedback along different technical dimensions.

Simulators are mechanical, electrical, or electronic devices that present test conditions that closely resemble actual field conditions. Most modern high-fidelity simulations include computer programs.

Structured Sharing facilitates mutual learning and teaching of best practices in  technical area. Typical structured sharing activities create a context for dialogue and brainstorming among practitioners.

Textra Games combine the effective organization of well-written technical documentation with the motivational impact of experiential activities. Learners read a handout or a manual and play a game that uses peer pressure and peer support to encourage recall and transfer of what they read.

Troubleshooting Simulations require participants to systematically find the causes of problems and to fix the problems. These activities can use simulators or computer printouts of information regarding a faulty system.

Web-Based Games are interactive activities presented on the Internet. A variety of games and simulations can be played on the web by individuals or by teams. Multi-player games permit several participants to interact with each other at the same time.

Integrating Content and Activity

An interesting and disquieting aspect of experiential learning is that people don't learn from experience alone. Hectic experiential activities may actually result in confusion and frustration rather than useful learning. To produce learning, we need to combine experiential episodes with briefing, guidance, planning, feedback, reflection, and sharing of insights. Here are three chronological contexts in which active experiencing is integrated with factual and conceptual content and deliberate and collaborative reflection.

Briefing before the experiential activity involves providing relevant facts, concepts, principles, and mental models. Learners incorporate these content elements in planning for the experiential activity.

Coaching during the experiential activity involves providing just-in-time and just-enough feedback and guidance. Learners incorporate these pieces of information in revising and improving their performance.

Debriefing after the experiential activity involves providing questions and comments. Learners incorporate these elements to reflect on the experience, come up with useful insights, and share them with each other.

In summary, the secret of effective and efficient experiential learning in technical training is to integrate content and activities, participation and reflection, and the hand and the mind.