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To Deliver Effective Training, Test Learners’ Prior Knowledge

Brent Daviau /
Risk Analysis & Loss Control

Everyone’s an expert in something. How about you? Take a moment and think of something you have deep experience in—that subject you know really, really well. Maybe it’s a skill like mountain climbing, makeup application, photography, playing guitar, or coding. Or maybe it’s a topic you’re intimately familiar with—something like baking, World War II, art history, or your favorite baseball team.

Now imagine you’re about to teach a class about that thing. You have two students: one who knows practically as much as you do, and one who knows next to nothing about the subject.

Which student do you focus on? Which approach will provide more value to both learners: a basic course (that could bore the first student), or an advanced course (that could alienate the other student)?

Trick question. In the most effective learning systems, you don’t have to choose.

Effective Training Accounts for Learners of All Experience Levels

One of the biggest challenges of workforce training is designing education for people of different experience levels. A course about forklifts, for instance, needs to be engaging to a long-time forklift driver as well as someone who’s never operated a vehicle. If one category of learner is left out, the organization could inadvertently create a compliance gap or injury risk. 

The same is true for mandatory topics such as harassment prevention. Everyone may think they know how to identify and stop harassment, but you can’t just take employees at their word.

Effective training accounts for all kinds of learners by assessing prior knowledge. It doesn’t make assumptions about an individual’s experience. Instead, it gives people an opportunity to demonstrate what they know (or don’t know) about a topic, so they’re beginning at the place that makes sense to them.

Training Best Practice #3: Assess Prior Knowledge

There are several benefits to assessing prior knowledge:

1. Assessing prior knowledge empowers learners. It frames the topic in their unique perspectives, so each person can immediately start participating in the conversation. Experienced learners can show off what they know. New learners can make educated guesses and engage with the content without experiencing an hour-long lecture first.

2. It challenges novice learners. Rather than subjecting your workforce to a long, dry, or overly simplified presentation, you can pique their interest and emotional investment in their own learning. When people directly come up against what they don’t know, they’re more inclined to figure it out.

3. It acknowledges prior experience. People who know a subject well tend to tune out when they’re treated like beginners. Give your experienced employees the recognition they deserve, and let them set the pace for their learning.

4. It naturally increases engagement. Essentially, we’re talking about starting a course with a test. It isn’t a graded test, of course, but it does center the individual and raise the stakes from the first moment. If someone has close to zero knowledge, they’ll be interested in learning and improving. If someone has a great deal of knowledge, they’ll be well-positioned to demonstrate their knowledge and become a guide for others.

How Can You Assess Prior Knowledge?

Let’s look at an example of how KPA’s training solution assesses learners’ prior knowledge.

Here’s a screenshot from our “Slips, Trips, and Falls” training course. Learners are instructed to look at an image and click every detail that indicates a slip, trip, or fall hazard. Once a hazard has been identified, the learner can decide how to fix it. 

Above, you can see an illustration of an automotive service bay. Some of the hazards are obvious, even to a novice. We can see an oil spill, a coiled cord on the floor, and an open lube pit. A training course could simply point each of these hazards out. But by asking learners to do it themselves, we’re allowing people to explore and show their knowledge—and maximizing engagement from the start.

After they’ve picked out every hazard they can identify and clicked “Got ‘em all,” the learner sees a screen like the one above. 

In this case, the learner found every item but one: the worn-out stair treads. This is an opportunity to provide real, contextual education. We can drill down on a single thing an individual doesn’t know, while not skipping over any content for others.

(By the way, this approach doesn’t require an online learning management system or tech platform. You can do the same thing with printouts, or even conduct an interactive discussion as people walk around a staged environment.)

So far, we’ve explored 3 best practices of effective training: 1. knowing your audience, 2. using real-life examples, and 3. assessing prior knowledge. In the final installment of this series, we’ll look at best practice #4: using repetition to promote behavioral change.

Want to improve your organization’s training program as quickly and cost-effectively as possible? You’ve come to the right place. KPA offers award-winning training courses that are… 

  • available online and on-site,
  • led by our safety Risk Management Consultants,
  • designed to help employees improve their performance on the job and improve compliance,
  • based on real-world stories and examples.

Learn more.

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