Book Review: Evidence-based Training Methods – A Guide for Training Professionals

Very simply put, if you educate others whether in higher ed, Extension, or as a volunteer, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy and read Evidence-Based Training Methods: A Guide for Training Professionals* by Ruth Colvin Clark. Actually, I recommend that you pick up the second edition because it has recently came out, and I am quite confident new topics have been discussed and recent research added. Clark basically pooled research together to explain best instructional practices along with busting common instructional myths in a very readable tone. Her book reflected the lessons she shared throughout the book. This is another book that will hold a key place in my reference library.

In the education world, we have often provided instruction based on how we were taught. This is not necessarily the best way. As educators, we are in the position to improve learning and that begins by not only providing the best content possible but also using the best practices possible.

Evidence-Based Training Methods provided a wealth of guidance in 268 pages. The book began with a quick chapter on training fads and fiction. However, it primarily focused on five major sections:

  • Learning and the Elements of Instruction
  • Evidence-based Use of Visuals and Words
  • Evidence-based Use of Examples and Practice
  • Leveraging Learning Architectures
  • What’s Next?

Fourteen chapters help to add context to these five sections. Each chapter provided ample examples and research to explain each concept. The author weaved in questions to get you to think about what is going to be presented. Each concept is summarized with a guideline. These guidelines are quick takeaways that will help you develop better instruction. They are memory joggers. Chapters are often summarized with a review of the opening questions with the “right” answers as explanations. Some chapters are summarized with a quick checklist that you can turn into a job aid.

Learning and Elements of Instruction

In this section, Clark focused on how the brain works. This section was supported by three chapters:

  • Grounded Brain-based Teaching
  • Content Covered is not Content Learned
  • Architectures for Learning

What Clark covered in these chapters was not necessarily new: working memory, long term memory, and dual channels. In my Improving PowerPoint Presentations presentation, I addressed these items in my first section. These were also key concepts stressed in Cliff Atkinson’s book, Beyond Bullet Points*, which I had previously read. If you want to know more, watch the first section of my presentation:

Content covered is not content learned.

Content covered is not content learned is the title of chapter 3, and it adequately sums up much of what is claimed as training… I am certainly guilty. In this chapter, Clark outlined “three main learning goals: acquire knowledge, build procedural skills, and build strategic skills” (Clark, 2010, p. 43). She also outlined three instructional architectures: show-and-tell, stair-step, and immersive (Clark, 2010, p. 45). It is essential to partner the correct architecture with the correct goal. In many cases, we just rely on show-and-tell, which is not suited to procedural development or critical thinking. She provided a great overview of the different instructional architectures as well as different ways to leverage them in an instructional setting. She believes these architectures are important because she devoted a chapter to each one.

Evidence-based Use of Visuals and Words

For me, this was an important section. In it Clark drove home the point that we do not adequately use visuals in our instruction. In four chapters, she explained why we need to use more (many more) visuals in our training materials from presentations to handouts, how to adequately explain visuals (note: text and audio are overkill…choose audio), why it is important to personalize content, and why it is important to not over do it.

Simple is more. What is fascinating in this section is the research that she provided. She brought up study after study to demonstrate the importance of imagery especially for novice learners and procedural tasks. She layered on studies that showed the importance of adding a narrative to images. Most importantly, she explained why just having bullet points often hampers learning… except perhaps with experts.

One important note: throughout the book, Clark wrote in first and second person. This is obviously intentional because she explained that the research shows personalizing instruction increases learning.

Evidence-based Use of Examples and Practice

This section focused on how to better weave together examples and practice sessions. I walked away from this chapter with a better idea of how to more efficiently and effectively provide instruction and practice to get more learning with less effort. Once again, the importance of imagery played into this section.

One specific takeaway was the increased use of worked examples over practice problems with specific questions tied to the examples directly (see page 158 for an example).

Clark also addressed the research behind assigning practice. It seems too much practice yields diminishing returns. She provided some ideas for setting a practice schedule that adequately attends to learning needs. She also explained the importance of feedback; specifically, what to include and when to include it.

Leveraging Learning Architectures

Finally, Clark provided more details about the three instructional architectures she introduced earlier in her book: show-and-tell, stair-step, and immersive. She began by covering the show-and-tell architecture, basically, the presentation method. One set of references she included stood out to me:

“In conference rooms, lecture halls, training centers, and hotel meeting rooms, approximately 1.25 million PowerPoint presentations are being given every hour (Levasseru & Sawyer, 2006)! Presentation experts estimate a waste of $250 million per day from bad PowerPoints (Paradi 2005)” (Clark, 2010, p. 183).

Both Clark and I do not expect that PowerPoints will go away anytime soon, however, she provided lots of great research and ideas for improving what we are doing. Again, it includes the addition of more imagery, increase use of interactive tools such as audience response systems, and better handouts.

Clark also provided thorough discussion about the stair-step and immersive instruction methods. I have used the stair-step method quite a bit, especially while teaching computer skills. I need to craft more lessons around scenarios, problems, and other immersive strategies.

Conclusion

Much of what Clark wrote in this book was not necessary new to me. However, it was great to see all this research pulled into one place. As educators, we talk about the importance of research in our work. I know in Extension, it is a core value of the entire program. Yet, we could do a better job of incorporating instructional design research into our own practice.

If you incorporated the research in this book into your course development, you would significantly enhance learning. At least for Jamestown Community College, I will be exploring this book in detail as I help faculty raise their instructional game.

This book should be on your desk as you develop instruction.

References

Clark, R. C. (2010). Evidence-Based Training Methods: A Guide for Training Professionals. Alexandria, Va: ASTD Press.

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