As providers of training course material packages for trainers, we are often asked how we put together our course materials ready for training delivery. So, I thought I’d write a few thoughts on the topic of instructional design from a course development perspective with the aim of helping you develop an excellent course.
There is a lot to designing and developing course content, and this article attempts to answer some of the most common issues related to course content development. It’s not a short read, but it is also by no means a definitive and complete response to the topic of course creation. It’s really meant as a guide to get you going on the topic of course material development. I hope the ideas and thoughts will help…
Contrary to what we often see in the world of learning and development, developing training course materials takes a lot more than simply putting a slide deck together on Power Point and dumping as much information down about the course topic as you can. This rarely helps meet course requirements and training isn’t about presentation skills, it’s about interaction and engagement.
Training material packages really need to provide much more support for a professional trainer and a simple set of PowerPoint slides really doesn’t meet the task. Good course material packages will include a Trainer Guide or Trainer Notes, Training Manual or Delegate Workbook, Session Plans and timings, Slide Deck or Power Point Slides and any additional resources that the training content requires such as case studies, activity handouts, exercise packs, assessments, quizzes or evaluation sheets.
Before you start developing your training course materials
The beginning of training course development is often the most crucial stage and you will often face one of two problems…
- In some cases, and depending on the stakeholders, you can be bombarded with information, have lots of data from current course materials or will have several people wanting to provide their own input and you will have to filter and sort all of this information, so you can focus on the key learning points and what is truly required to develop great course content that meets the learning objectives.
- You could be left with no direction at all and someone will say, ‘We need a training course on xyz. Can you put something together?’ This leaves you without clear directions, little idea on training content and no identifiable learning objectives.
The early stages of course design and development is where an instructional designer really needs to show their value and the problems outlined above need to be handled carefully to get the best results. It’s easy to get caught up in ‘nice to haves’ focus too much on existing course materials or lose clarity on what you are trying to achieve. You must ensure that your final product is designed with course participants in mind, with a full focus on learning outcomes, rather than information overload, the whims of stakeholders or a lack of clarity over what the learning experience and eventual learning goals should be.
In the case of the first issue, you need to carefully manage stakeholder relationships and explain that while you value their practical experience, it is important that you focus on learning outcomes and the key development areas. Keep returning to these outcomes and don’t allow yourself to be side-tracked. A useful reminder statement is, ‘How will this helps us meet our learning objectives?’
When you are given no direction at all, it’s important to question whether a training course is the best method of addressing the problem. Some managers can react to workplace issues that are often better resolved through coaching or management techniques by throwing training and development at the problem. It’s easy to become reactive to managers and develop a training course without looking at what the actual underlying issue is, so be prepared to push back where you don’t think designing a training course will help. This means full exploring the learning objectives, understanding desired outcomes, and knowing how your learning intervention will help resolve the concerns.
As you can see, we’re some way in, and we haven’t even started talking about the actual design of training course materials. This is indicative of the actual design process. You should never just dive straight in to designing course content before you’ve researched why you are doing it and what you are trying to achieve by doing so. Develop key learning points, know your course objectives, and consider the learning experience…and only then begin developing course content.
Collecting and structuring information for a training course
Step 1 – Develop learning objectives and a basic course framework
Professionally developed courseware materials using instructional design techniques will focus firstly on learning objectives and what you or the client want the learners to do differently as a result of the training course or other learning solution. From there, you’ll develop a detailed outline of the course topic and perhaps create a table of course content that you use to sift the key learning points and outcomes. This begins the process of deciding what the eventual course content will look like.
Step 2 – Collate course content for material development
Once you’ve established course objectives and clear learning goals, you should begin to gather information to support your training programme, building a comprehensive reference of elements to include in your training material. Look at any existing course materials, talk to stakeholders or subject matter experts, review training manuals, read books on the topic and gather information wherever you can to help source course content.
Step 3 – Filter course data to relevant learning unit
Once you’ve gathered a large selection of information and have a comprehensive reference point for each section of the course, you can begin to filter this under your table of course content. This will help you with the process of building information that will contribute to a comprehensive trainer guide and provide additional content to include in the delegate workbooks.
Considering how best to deliver your message
The next step is deciding how this information should best be delivered during the training programme, thinking about your target audience, the information that is most important to include and how best to provide that information. Remember, this is a training course rather than a presentation, so you need to consider the method of delivery and a good course designer will consider different delivery methodologies and the whole experience to ensure learner engagement for an excellent session that meets course objectives.
Training methods to improve the learning experience and get maximum return
It’s important that you write any activities and exercises into your instructional materials, as good planning of these will help ensure maximum engagement and ‘buy-in’ from participants. This should be a practical guide for the trainer, with a focus on learning outcomes and a specific link to the course objectives. No activities or exercises should be added in only for ‘fun’ and there should be a practical application or link to learning objectives every time. This means relating the activity to basic theory of the course to gain maximum return.
The following is a guide to some of the activities and exercises that might be included in a successful course.
- Icebreakers – Introduce the topic and perhaps people in the group to each other.
- Energisers – Usually short activities that re-energise a group, perhaps after lunch. These should always have a purpose and a link to the training topic.
- Training Games – Like energisers, although often they are longer and more structured.
- Syndicate groups – Placing participants into groups to solve issues relating to the course content. This can often be a ‘working group’ over an entire training programme.
- Breakout sessions – Like syndicate groups, but less structured.
- Flipchart activities – Simply asking participants to work in groups and write their thoughts down on a flipchart. This can include rotating groups around different flipcharts to share group ideas.
- Interactive games – There are various games that can be included in training now and this could include activities built into Power Point or other elements such as online course content, adapted to suit an instructor-led session.
- Case studies – There’s nothing quite like a case study for helping a course designer relate the whole experience of classroom training to the workplace. This helps to ensure employee training can be applied to real world scenarios for a person’s professional development.
- Simulation training – This means providing practical examples of the skills you want the learners to apply to the workplace and includes them trying out key tasks. An example of simulation training is someone in a call centre practicing the required standards for a call with a potential customer.
This list is just a small idea of some of the elements you can include in a training package. It’s ultimately up to you what you include in your full course materials and the course content will be dictated largely by your target audience, their learning needs, the required standards and personal elements such as your learner’s previous experience.
General writing tips for developing training materials
Up until now, we’ve really focused on writing for a classroom, instructor-led training course. However, these writing tips can be made more general and suit any form of training. This might include traditional course materials, training manuals, instructional materials, online training, expert guides, video modules, workbooks, and various other delivery methods.
Know your audience (participants, learners, delegates, coachee)
Whatever the training material packages you are developing; the starting point should always be to understand your audience and develop content with them in mind.
You should take the time to understand the key development areas that the training audience has. Some useful questions to ask yourself are…
- What is their current level of knowledge?
- What are their technical skills?
- What delivery method best suits them?
- What level of reading ability do they have?
- How much time do they have for the training?
- What cultural barriers might there be?
- Is there anything specific about this audience that you need to take into account?
Understanding the needs of the person at the end of your course content will help provide quality assurance and a confidence that you are designing the right product for the right people.
Write the training in a conversational language
Whatever delivery method your course creation is meant for and whether the content will be used by a trainer, or by someone who is reading your written materials as an end user, you should try to write as someone talks. It’s easy to fall into formal language when writing course materials, but this becomes hard for the audience to read. That doesn’t mean slipping into jargon or using lots of slang, just that you should avoid using three words when one will do.
Replace long words or phrases with shorter ones
It’s tempting for those involved in course creation to add long words into their text, where a shorter word will help with clarity and understanding. This is particularly true in expert guides, where people might feel the need to insert longer words to show their experience. This rarely helps with learner engagement. So, don’t write ‘utilise’ write ‘use’. Avoid ‘commence’ and use ‘start’.
Write shorter sentences if you can
Shorter sentences are easier to read. This makes it easier for learners to follow. This helps improve engagement and understanding.
Add stories to training to build engagement
People have been telling stories over the ages and we are hardwired to buy-in to a good storyteller. Providing stories throughout your training material will help learners engage with the content and will draw them in to the message you are trying to convey. Storytelling can be a powerful technique in course creation, as it helps learning courses come alive and should play a big part in your material development.
Relate training to the workplace
By putting the training into something that people can relate to in their job, you are helping to embed the learning by association. When training providers demonstrate the practical nature of what is being delivered, the learner is better able to understand and apply the information within the training material.
Consider the length of your training
Training should be as long as it needs to be, but no longer.
Nobody will thank you for putting unnecessary content into training. This goes back to the pre-design stage, where you drilled down into all the elements that are specifically required to help you meet your learning objectives. If you have a detailed outline, you should stick to it. People can only retain a certain amount of information and anything unnecessary may take the place of useful information in their head.
Just because a piece of information is interesting, or you have a fun activity, it doesn’t mean this should be included. Keep the training to what people need to know…and no more.
Make it chunky
It’s easier to take information in when it is broken down into parts, so chunk the training into sections. If you are writing a training manual, this might mean creating different sections for the learning. In a training course, you might split the course into modules. The idea is to separate the learning content, so that people can follow it more easily.
Use humour, carefully
It’s ok to have a sense of humour when you are writing learning courses and, in some cases, a funny anecdote or example can help the learning process. However, there is a level for this, and it should never be taken too far. Certainly, you should avoid anything that could be considered offensive or insulting as, of course, this is never going to be well received. Again, understand your training audience and keep their opinions in mind.
Don’t fear contractions
A lot of grammar tools available on word processor software will encourage you to avoid using contractions of words. For instance, they might advise against using ‘won’t’ and instead suggest ‘will not’ as a better alternative. This advice should not be taken as fact and it’s perfectly reasonable to contract words in this way. It’s actually a good way of personalising language and makes the flow more conversational. So, do not be scared of ‘don’t’.
Proofread your content
It’s important that you proofread your own course content during material development and once complete, as errors and mistakes can easily slip in. Use spellchecker software, but don’t rely only on this, as it can miss out some glaring errors.
Some software will now dictate what you have written to you. This can be helpful, as it not only spots errors, it will also give you an idea of the flow of your work.
Yes, proofreading will add to your development time, but ultimately, it is worth it.
Ask a colleague to review your content
It’s hard to be critical of course content when you have written it. Of course, you know what you mean, you wrote it! Ask a colleague to read your content through, not just for proofreading and spelling and grammar, but also for flow of learning and whether the content makes sense to a learner.
Don’t be scared to change it
We get it. Once you’ve written a training course, it becomes your baby, but honest feedback from stakeholders, learners or colleagues should not be taken to heart. Even the best learning can be improved upon and if you get good advice, don’t ignore it, think about it realistically and if it improves the content and helps you better meet course goals, where’s the harm in adapting?
Right at the start, I mentioned that this is just a small insight into the development of an effective training program and it’s by no means definitive. I stick by that. However, by following the guidelines provided, I’m confident that you will be some way on to developing an exceptional learning experience for those people the training is aimed at. I hope it helps.
Andrew Wood is the Managing Director of Trainer Bubble and has over 25 years’ experience of designing training course materials, training manuals, e-learning courses, and video workbooks. You can view the training content developed by Trainer Bubble by following the link.