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feedbackMany trainers find the topic of providing feedback confusing, and some colleagues only look at regulatory implications of the trainers'/assessors' feedback, so I thought it might be a good topic for review.

To better understand feedback, let's define what it is and what it should do. The kind of feedback I'm talking about is written or verbal responses to answers or performance on questions or activities.

The main purpose of feedback is to reduce gaps between current competencies (skills, knowledge and performance) and desired competencies (skills, knowledge and performance).

Feedback has been shown to help learners most when it specifically addresses forgotten information or strategies, difficult aspects of performance, or a faulty interpretation (misunderstanding), explains Hattie and Timperley in their article on Review of Educational Research, "The Power of Feedback."

Feedback doesn't help nearly as much when it addresses a lack of understanding, as this implies that the training didn't meet its goals or has one or more of the following problems:

  • Training didn't consider the prior knowledge levels of participants (for example, we assumed they knew more than they did)
  • The delivery of training is problematic (for example, participants were unable to find or review parts they sought to review)
  • Content, practice, or assessment elements are problematic (for example, there is inadequate practice to help remember or apply training on the job).

Trying to fix a lack of understanding in training is generally beyond the scope of feedback. Even well-written feedback, given in the right circumstances, cannot always help because participants don't always understand or use it.

Feedback Types and Conditions
Hattie and Timperley reviewed training feedback meta-analyses (a statistical approach to combine results from multiple studies), to show what types of feedback are likely to help the most and the least. The most powerful outcomes came from feedback about tasks and how to do them more effectively. Goal-oriented feedback and cues (hints) could also be effective. The least powerful outcomes came from praise, rewards and punishment (extrinsic rewards).

They also looked at how to make effective types of feedback work well. Remember at the beginning of this article I said the main purpose of feedback is reducing gaps between current competencies and desired competencies. Hattie and Timperley explain that to reduce this gap, feedback must answer three questions:

  • What are the goals?
  • What progress am I making towards these goals?
  • What do I need to do to make better progress?

Clear goals along with knowing where you are and how to progress, target the right places to focus effort to reduce gaps between current knowledge and actual performance and desired knowledge and performance. Some feedback strategies work opposite to this and include non-specific or fuzzy goals, accepting poor performance, and not offering enough information. Research shows that when people don't know what to do, feedback can be demotivating.

Goals must supply actions and outcomes for a specific task or performance. They must also include success criteria that allow for consistent performance when facing common obstacles. In other words, goals are defined in the units of competence. Feedback cannot lead to a reduction in the "gap" if the goal and the criterion aren't clear. Otherwise, people may rely on any method that works (for them), and their methods may have undesirable consequences.

Telling people how they are doing shouldn't wait for summative assessment. People need specific feedback against specific goals (with success criteria) while learning so they can learn to self-correct. Feedback is required also in formative assessment activities, even if those activities are not used to make a competency judgement.

I hope you can see that feedback is complex, and we shouldn't write it only as an add-on response to assessments, or to meet compliance requirements. We need to better integrate feedback into the design of instruction to support learning.

Reference:

  • Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research.
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learning groupsThe effectiveness and even the integrity of the TAE40110 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment has been the centre of public discussions for a few years now. A lot of people ask me to describe how this qualification can help RTOs improve their performance. Can it help graduates know how to unpack units of competency better? Be better presenters? Use PowerPoint slides in some magical way? Or prepare more structured sessions? Do they need to gather more assessment evidence from learners? There's a lot we could talk about. But if I were to start somewhere, I'd say a person who holds TAE40110 Certificate IV in Training and Assessment is someone who should be able to practice a learner-focused approach to learning, and provide industry relevant training.

Philosophically, being learner-focused means you trust the learner to learn. Practically, it means the learning does not take place at the front of the classroom. Too often, we're told a class is learner-focused when only elements of it are. Being truly learner-focused takes practice, experience, reflection and a good and effective trainer and assessor who feels comfortable being in a position to trust the learning to the learner.
Some people prefer to trust their expertise and the way they deliver content, but in vocational education and training (VET) it's not about content, it's about learners developing skills and knowledge that will give them the ability to achieve certain outcomes under industry standard conditions and expectations. It's about learners performing tasks in a workplace relevant context.

Learner-focused trainers don't just waltz in and deliver content. They set up discussions and exercises for learners to practice skills and explore concepts. And, they watch and listen to them, adjusting the instruction to make the most of the time the trainer has with them.
Much of what we know about learner-focused learning comes from thought leaders like Malcolm Knowles. Knowles talked about the intrinsic motivation for adults when they learn. He suggested it's important to have interactive experiences in a collaborative context where learners can direct their own learning. Knowles understood that learning does not take place in front of a classroom of learners, but within the minds of each learner. They are the ones who do the heavy lifting. Put in today's context, it's not about how good your PowerPoint slides are, it's whether the learner processes the information. Learner-focused techniques are about encouraging cognition.

A lot of trainers approach training as if the learning happens out front. They focus much of their energy on presentation skills, slide decks, how time is managed and getting through the content. They use phrases like "topics I'll cover", "control the classroom" or "I'm giving this presentation". They often refer to participants as "the audience". And, they judge the success of a training session by how closely they follow their session plan.
But a good trainer and assessor is less concerned about following the session plan religiously than he is about making sure the learning objectives are achieved. He's less concerned about delivering a great presentation than making sure learners have everything they need to learn skills they can use back on the job, whether they are cognitive, psychomotor or effective.

Bottom line: Many trainers present training; good trainers facilitate learning.

Good Trainers Use Traditional Skills to Go Deeper
Yes, good trainers are good presenters, but they don't use their skills to present. They use them to lead discussions and ask questions that encourage participants to think deeply.

They're masters of developing rapport with learners, but they use these skills to help learners develop rapport with one another as well, to create a collaborative community of learning. And, rather than just deliver knowledge content, they help learners draw on existing experiences to build new knowledge that they can use back on the job.

Many trainers talk about what they'll cover in a class. Good trainers discuss skills the learners will be able to use after the class and how they are related to the learner's job and the needs of the business.

Learning is Physiological
Knowles and Rogers were right about learning taking place within the mind of the learner. It is here the master trainer focuses her attention. She wants to know that the learner is actively engaging the working and long-term memory. Learning is a physiological process in which the brain fires neurons.
It's hard work and often not supported by good presentations alone. Techniques such as rehearsal and reflection are much more effective. Rehearsal includes activities like games, exercises, role-plays, simulations and other active techniques that require learners to apply their new knowledge. Reflection includes activities like discussions, questions, observations and techniques requiring learners to analyse a situation.

What do we expect of trainers and assessors?
Our VET sector is responsible for providing learning solutions to individuals and industry. Trainers are the critical factor of success for training organisations. We expect trainers and assessors to hold vocational competencies, industry experience and currency, knowledge about learning and development, skills in using training packages to solve industry performance issues, and to understand our VET system.

We expect that our trainers and assessors understand and are able to use the broad range of learning technology available, and find effective ways to communicate with current learners. When our trainers and assessors are in front of our learners, we expect them to ask more questions and listen to their answers, rather than merely delivering content and telling the answers. We expect them to create more opportunities for learners to draw on their own experiences, rather than sharing only the trainer's stories, and using questions to redirect and assist them construct good practices as they learn new skills. We expect practical training and the use of more exercises that provide concrete opportunities to reflect and discuss things like soft skills

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improving-professional-developmentWhen was the last time you were in a room with a truly exceptional facilitator—where the group was engaged, progress was being made, and issues were raised and then resolved? For me, a great facilitator makes it look like magic; however, we all know it's not that easy.

We recently convened a group of experienced and exceptional facilitators to help us paint the picture of excellent facilitation in action. These facilitators were subject matter experts (SMEs) with at least 20 years of experience. Our intent was to leverage their insights and experiences to capture the critical skills that effective facilitators use.

We started this discussion by exploring the spectrum of facilitation—from a competent facilitator to an effective one to those few amazing instructors who can wow the room with their exceptional skills. Together, the SME team validated this spectrum of facilitation:

Competent Facilitator

  • Foundational Awareness
  • Knows the fundamental concepts

Effective Facilitator

  • Proficient
  • Uses facilitation skills and tools in practice

Exceptional Facilitator

  • Mastery
  • Role models when and how to use right skills and tools at the right time

You have most likely seen many competent facilitators at work. They have experience facilitating meetings; a comfort level with participants across multiple levels; and knowledge of meeting management techniques such as establishing ground rules, creating and managing meeting agendas, and managing discussions and decisions. Competent facilitators actively listen, and have the communication skills to successfully lead a meeting.

But what moves a facilitator to the next level—from competent to effective and beyond?

Effective facilitators practice active listening and ask probing questions that create clarity. A group achieves more and works more collaboratively as a result of their work with an effective facilitator. A truly exceptional facilitator always brings the right tools and facilitation strategies to the table, empowering the group even beyond the stated expectations. As a result, the exceptional facilitator creates immediate and observable progress and a long-term impact for the group.

The group of SMEs identified a variety of skills needed for effective facilitation and, after some discussion, determined which six facilitation skills are the most critical. When practiced and used over time, these six skills will make you an effective facilitator.

  1. Define the desired outcomes for the facilitated session. Before an effective facilitator enters the room, he has taken the time to work with key stakeholders to establish clear outcomes for the meeting. Those outcomes are discussed early in the meeting and become a point of reference throughout. The facilitator seamlessly provides a focus and the path toward that desired outcome.
  2. Recognize the group dynamics and behavioral styles. Have you ever been blindsided by someone in a group who pulls everyone off-course, or who disrupts productive conversations? Or have you ever had a quiet participant who just doesn't seem engaged, but whose insights are important? An effective facilitator guides the group through the discussion by staying tuned into the different personalities, levels of engagement, and behavioral styles in the room. Many effective facilitators find it useful to use a behavioral profile (such as Myers Briggs or DISC) to identify styles in advance. Effective facilitators also ensure that everyone with a seat at the table is heard and included in the discussion.
  3. Gain credibility through a manner that commands attention and portrays confidence. This is a difficult skill to master. An effective facilitator grabs the room, commands attention, and exudes a purposeful and confident presence. The SMEs we worked with identified several best practices to gain and keep credibility as a facilitator, including being prepared in advance with a strong agenda and an understanding of the desired outcomes, paying attention to posture and tone of voice, and thinking of the participants as peers.
  4. Ask appropriate probing and thought-provoking questions. Asking great questions can move a group forward when they are stuck, uncover the real issue, and open the door to an unspoken conflict that needs to be resolved. Effective facilitators don't arrive with assumptions or a point of view; the questions they ask serve as a catalyst to facilitate dialogue and results.
  5. Apply idea-generating and decision-making tools and methods. The skill of helping a group to think outside the box and determine the right course of action is probably the most fundamental to facilitation. There are thousands of tools and techniques that can be applied in a facilitated meeting. The key for effective facilitation is to bring the right tool to the table that helps the group stay on track, evaluate competing options, and prioritize next steps.
  6. Apply conflict or difficult dialogue strategies. How many times have you been in a meeting where there was an obvious but unspoken conflict? You could see the group disengaging—arms crossed, heads down, eyes darting around. The best facilitators can surface the unspoken conflict, provide the time and space to discuss the difficulty, and give the right structure to address and resolve the group's conflict.

By Robyn Rickenbach, president of Springboard International. She is an innovative, strategic thinker and an exceptional facilitator.

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