Make sure free lunches pay

April 28, 2000

WHY. Many people forget what they learn the minute they walk out of the door, writes Jennifer Moon

WHAT.

Workshops and short courses are a popular way of developing professional skills in most organisations.

HOW.

In a previous role, I helped organise one or two-day courses in health promotion for National Health Service professionals. Participants expended a lot of energy finding the time and cover to attend. They seemed to enjoy the course as much for the break in routine as for the learning. It gave them a chance to socialise and compare notes. Student evaluations were always enthusiastic.

Back in the workplace, however, participants soon forgot their resolutions about putting all the new ideas and training into practice. I wondered how many ever really got round to doing things differently as a result of what they were taught. If they did not change working practice, the courses were a waste of time, effort and money. The same sort of thought must occur to short course providers across the country. Yet more and more academics are selling their expertise to a variety of organisations in the form of short courses. They need to guarantee results.

So what can be done? There are the obvious solutions, such as making sure course content matches the participants' working practice, or improving the quality of course delivery.

But what about other, more subtle matters, such as aims and outcomes? The aim is what the teacher intends to cover on the course and what the course is directed towards achieving. Written out it might include prerequisite or corequisite knowledge or skills participants are expected to possess. A learning outcome is what the students are expected to know, understand or be able to do by the end. But what do we mean by "the end"? It is not just the knowledge gained from the course, but also the subsequent changes in work practice.

To ensure that people change the way in which they work, they have to be aware of their current working practices.

An ideal four-point framework in which to achieve this, which could also be used in modules, is to:

* Get students to define their work practice

* Introduce a set of new ideas

* Get them to relate these ideas to their work practice

* Encourage them to imagine how these new ideas might change practice.

Time is a real problem with short courses. A day or two of learning can easily be forgotten. How can you overcome this problem?

One strategy is to extend the time covered by the course so that, for example, a one-day course is conducted over two half-days. The key is to make good use of the gap between the sections of the course and ensure that it contributes to learning. Participants may be asked to work on different aspects of the course in the intervening period and report back.

Another means of extending the effective length of the course is to set a task to be completed after the course. This probably implies assessment and recognition of success in the form of a certificate or credit.

The type of task the tutor sets is more likely to concern the change in practice or outcome. It might take the form of a reflective report or an evaluation.

A more unusual, but very effective, means of extending the learning time is to request a brief piece of work before the course starts. The challenge is how to ensure that the "pre-course work" is completed other than by applying a three-line whip. Its importance can be signalled by asking for copies of the pre-course work to be sent to the course leader in advance and by indicating that the content of the work will have a distinct role in the course.

A useful form of pre-course work is a set of four to five questions that stimulate thinking about the deeper issues of the course in advance. Going back to the four-point framework, the questions may elicit thinking about the nature of practice and the anticipation of change. It is important that the content of the pre-course work is incorporated in course activities. If it is sent in advance, extracts from responses can be displayed on flipcharts or on overheads, or may be used to structure or progress discussion.

But what about the quality of learning? Research shows two forms of learning: deep and superficial.

A learner who engages in deep learning intends to relate the new material to his or her existing understanding and to seek new meanings.

A surface learner treats material in isolation and is not particularly interested in relating the new learning to previous understanding. He or she learns in whatever seems the easiest way to get by and does not question meanings. One group of surface learners on a short course are those who come for the lunch or for the socialising.

Course providers want their students to take the deep approach because this gets results. Deep learning will allow the student to reconstruct work practice.

As people tend to adopt a surface or deep approach to learning under different circumstances, there is an onus on the teacher to ensure those circumstances are the most conducive possible to deep learning.

One way is to make good use of time to allow students to reflect. There is a tendency to try to squash too much content into a short course and this encourages the adoption of a surface approach. Breaks for directed reflection consolidate understanding. One mechanism is a learning journal, even for a day course. If there is pre-course work, this can form the start of the journal. If there is a gap in the course, it is a vehicle for reflection.

During the course itself there are short spells when participants are asked to make entries such as "How does this (new) material relate to your previous understanding?", "What do you need to think about as a result of what we have just talked about?". As a variation, you can ask them to talk through their thoughts, sharing the time equally. The four-point framework can provide a structure for the reflective activities so that every component in a short course contributes to its impact.

Jennifer Moon works in the staff development unit at the University of Exeter. She has just completed a book on short courses to be published later this year.

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