Chapter 6

Understanding the Foundations of Training Design

What’s in This Chapter

•  Introducing adult learning theory

•  Exploring multiple intelligences

•  Incorporating whole brain learning

•  Learning how theory enters into practice

Because this book provides a fully designed workshop, you don’t need to know all the details of designing a course—the design has already been done for you. However, understanding some of the principle design and learning theories that underpin this workshop is useful and helpful—especially if you are somewhat new to the field of workplace training and development. To effectively deliver training to learners requires a core understanding of how and why people learn. This gives you the flexibility to adapt a course to the unique learners in the room as needed.

When designing a communication skills workshop, paying attention to content flow is especially important. While there is no one right way to flow communication skills content, you must ensure that the topics build on one another and that you solidly connect the concepts and ideas together so you leverage the most of the learning opportunity. Great communication skills require practice, so always include interactive practice sessions in the design of the workshop. Short but well-designed activities can have significant impact.

Basic Adult Learning Theory

The individual trainee addressed in these workshops is typically an adult with learning needs that differ in many (but not all) ways from children. Much has been documented about how adults learn best. A key figure in adult education is Malcolm Knowles, who is often regarded as the father of adult learning. Knowles made several contributions to the field but is best known for popularizing the term andragogy, which refers to the art and science of teaching adults. Here are six assumptions about adult learners noted in The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species (1984):

•  Adults need to know why learning something is important before they learn it.

•  Adults have a concept of self and do not like others imposing their will on them.

•  Adults have a wealth of knowledge and experience and want that knowledge to be recognized.

•  Adults open up to learning when they think that the learning will help them with real problems.

•  Adults want to know how the learning will help them in their personal lives.

•  Adults respond to external motivations, such as the prospect of a promotion or an increase in salary.

Given these principles of adult learning, designing sessions that are highly interactive and engaging is critical (see sidebar on page 79 for more tips). Forcing anyone to learn anything is impossible, so the goal of effective training design is to provide every opportunity and encouragement to the potential learner. Involvement of the learner is the key. As an old Chinese proverb says, “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.” The designs in this book use several methods to convey information and engage participants. By incorporating varied training media—such as presentation media, discussion sessions, small-group work, structured exercises, and self-assessments—these designs maximize active participant involvement and offer something for every learning style.

In addition to engaging the interest of the learner, interactive training allows you to tap into another source of learning content: the participants themselves. In a group-learning situation, a good learning environment encourages participants to share with others in the group so the entire group’s cumulative knowledge can be used.

Tips for Adult Learning

To reach adult learners, incorporate these ideas into your next training session:

•  Incorporate self-directed learning activities in the session design.

•  Avoid overuse of lectures and “talking to.” Emphasize discussion.

•  Use interactive methods such as case studies, role playing, and so forth.

•  Make the content and materials closely fit assessed needs.

•  Allow plenty of time to “process” the learning activities.

•  Include applications planning in each learning activity.

•  Promote inquiry into problems and affirm the experience of participants.

•  Give participants a rationale for becoming involved and provide opportunities for success.

•  Promote getting acquainted and interpersonal linkages.

•  Diagnose and prioritize learning needs and preferences before and during the session.

•  Use learning groups as “home bases” for participants.

•  Include interpersonal feedback exercises and opportunities to experiment.

•  Use subgroups to provide safety and readiness to engage in open interchange.

•  Make all learner assessment self-directed.

•  Provide activities that focus on cognitive, affective, and behavioral change.

Designing for Accessibility

Talent development professionals are not new to assessing needs in learning and development, however our industry has traditionally focused on topical or competency focused needs and designing relevant content that engages the learners. Designing with accessibility in mind adds another layer of complexity to our needs assessment and instructional design considerations.

Four main access needs cover most disability considerations—auditory, visual, physical, and cognitive and psychological. Many instructional design strategies accommodate more than one access need. For example, while auditory access—such as closed captioning and written video scripts—is necessary for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, it is also beneficial for those who have learning disabilities with an auditory processing component. Similarly, visual accommodations—such as audio descriptions or auditory text to voice resources—are beneficial not only to someone who is blind or has limited vision, but also those with learning disabilities that have a visual processing component (such as dyslexia).

As you design the content for your programs, it is crucial to incorporate inclusive design strategies.

Theory Into Practice

These theories (and more that are not addressed here) affect the way the content of the workshop is put together. Some examples of training features that derive from these theories include handouts, research references, and presentation media to read; quiet time to write notes and reflect; opportunities for listening and talking; and exercises for practicing skills. The workshop activities and materials for the programs in this book have taken these theories to heart in their design, providing content, activities, and tools that will appeal to and engage many learning and thinking styles. Additional ways to translate learning and design theory into practice include the following.

Establishing a Framework

For learners to understand the goals of training and how material relates to real work situations, a framework can be helpful. When presenting the training in the context of a framework, trainers should provide an overview of why the organization has decided to undertake the training and why it is important. This explanation should also highlight what the trainer hopes to accomplish and how the skills learned in this training will be useful back on the job.

Objectives and goals of the programs and learning activities are described in this workbook; share those objectives with the learners when discussing the purposes of specific exercises. Handouts will also help provide a framework for participants.

Identifying Behaviors

Within any training goal are many behaviors. For example, listening and giving clear directions are necessary behaviors for good customer service. Customer service does not improve simply because employees are told to do so—participants need to understand the reasons and see the relevant parts of the equation. For these reasons, facilitators should identify and discuss relevant behaviors throughout the program.

Training helps people identify the behaviors that are important, so that those behaviors can be targeted for improvement. Learning activities enable participants to analyze different skills and behaviors and to separate the parts from the whole. The learning activities in this book, with their clearly stated objectives, have been carefully crafted to take these considerations into account.


Practice is crucial for learning because learning takes place by doing and by seeing. In the training designs included in this workbook, practice occurs in written exercises, verbal exercises, and role playing. Role playing helps participants actually practice the behaviors that are being addressed. Role-play exercises bring skills and behaviors to life for those acting out particular roles and for those observing the scenarios.

Learning a new skill takes a lot of practice. Some participants learn skills more quickly than others. Some people’s attitudes might prevent them from being open to trying new behaviors. Your job is to facilitate the session to the best of your ability, taking different learning styles into account. The rest is up to the participants.

Providing Feedback

A key aspect of training is the feedback trainers give to participants. If delivered in a supportive and constructive manner, feedback helps learners develop a deeper understanding of the content you are presenting and the behaviors they are practicing. Feedback in role plays is especially powerful because this is where “the rubber hits the road.” In role plays, observers can see if people are able to practice the behaviors that have been discussed, or whether habitual responses will prevail.

Making It Relevant

Throughout the program you will discuss how to use skills and new behaviors on the job. These discussions will help answer the question “So what?” Exercises and action plans help participants bring new skills back to actual work situations. This is also important in addressing the adult need for relevancy in learning.

The Bare Minimum

•  Model it. Communication is one of those unique topics that require designers to practice what they preach. All correspondence and communications with the participants should be well written and free of typographical errors. Supplemental workshop materials such as slides, handouts, and activities should be clear, concise, complete, correct, and considerate—demonstrating the Five Cs of Effective Communication.

•  Keep the focus on self-reflection. Be purposeful in designing content that encourages participants to analyze their own behaviors instead of what others do wrong.

•  Build practice into the design. As with many skills, communication improves with practice. Provide your participants with hands-on, engaging opportunities to practice the correct skills.

Key Points

•  Adults have specific learning needs that must be addressed in training to make it successful.

•  People also have different intelligences; that is, different areas in which they are more comfortable and competent. Addressing different intelligences in the workshop keeps more people engaged in more ways.

•  People take in new information in different ways; so addressing a variety of different thinking styles can help everyone learn more effectively.

•  Some important ways of bringing theory into practice are creating a framework, identifying behaviors, practicing, providing feedback, and making the learning relevant.

What to Do Next

•  Look through the training materials to identify how they address the learning theories presented in this book. If you make modifications to the material, consider whether those modifications leave out an intelligence or a thinking style. Can you address more intelligences without making the material cumbersome?

•  Read the next chapter to learn ways you can improve your facilitation skills. Many of these skills will also be useful when using learning technologies, especially collaboration tools.

Additional Resources

Biech, E., ed. (2008). ASTD Handbook for Workplace Learning Professionals. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.

Biech, E., ed. (2014). ASTD Handbook: The Definitive Reference for Training & Development, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.

Gardner, H. (2006). Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (2011). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Herrmann, N. (1988). Creative Brain. Lake Lure, NC: Brain Books.

Herrmann, N. (1996). Whole Brain Business Book. San Francisco: McGraw-Hill.

Herrmann-Nehdi, A. (2008). “The Learner: What We Need to Know.” In E. Biech, ed., ASTD Handbook for Workplace Learning Professionals, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press.

Jones, J.E., W.L. Bearley, and D.C. Watsabaugh. (1996). The New Fieldbook for Trainers: Tips, Tools, and Techniques. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.

Knowles, M.S. (1984). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston, TX: Gulf Publishing.

Russell, L. (1999). The Accelerated Learning Fieldbook: Making the Instructional Process Fast, Flexible, and Fun. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

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