Improve Skills Mastery Using Effective Design Strategies

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As an instructional designer, your learning experience design (LXD) approach must motivate learners and support performance by embedding information in the most beneficial places. Sometimes this is a classroom or online training effort, but it may include strategies such as performance support, social learning, and embedded resources.

That is why employing gap analysis to help break down learning challenges is a valuable way to identify the best and most effective learning design strategies.

In this edition of Insider TrainingJulie Dirksen, author of Design for How People Learn, and learning strategy consultant at Usable Learning, focuses on skills analysis, one of six categories outlined in her Gap Analysis Model.

Through relatable examples, personal stories, and scientific studies, Julie explains how to analyze skills gaps to determine a learner's needs when mastering new skills or managing changes related to previously learned skills.

The episode wraps up by looking at the strategy of skills practice. Julie contemplates the issue of "How much practice is too much practice?" and its correlation to skills proficiency by learners.

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Speaker: Julie Dirksen, author and Learning Strategy Consultant at Useable Learning

The Process of Analyzing Skills Gaps

Let’s take a look at skills a little bit. The process – there are a few different versions of this. I happen to like this one. It’s from Gloria Gery.

The process for learning to do something that you need to practice and become skilled at is that you get familiar with what it is you're doing; you comprehend it.

Conscious effort is defined as sort of trying to do it but not necessarily being 100% successful. Conscious action is you can do the thing, but you really have to think hard. You’re paying attention to every step.

Proficiency, you're starting to get pretty good at it. Then unconscious competence is you do the right thing without even thinking about it.

Analyzing a Learner's Skills

If we think about learning to drive, since that's the theme today, familiarization is just learning what all the controls are in the car. Comprehension is understanding what all the steps are for driving.

Conscious effort is like my dad, when I was learning, took me to a parking lot away from any other car on a Sunday afternoon. I wasn't necessarily doing it right, but I wasn't going to run into anything.

Conscious action was about the point where he'd actually let me go on a street, and I could drive around the block or something. Proficiency is about the point where you're pretty good, and you can probably take the driver's test.

Then, unconscious competence is…most of us have probably been driving for a long time. Has anybody ever had that experience where you drive home from work or someplace, and you get home, and you realize you totally don't remember the drive home at all? Anybody had that one?

That is what unconscious competence feels like.

Has anybody ever done the thing where you were supposed to stop on the way home and pick up dinner, or dry cleaning, or whatever, and you totally forgot and found yourself in your driveway?

Anyway, the benefit of unconscious competence is that it's great. You don't have to allocate a lot of time or attention, or memory to do it. The difficulty with it is that it's sometimes hard to undo.

Getting Scientific: Your Brain on Tetris

This is one of my favorite studies. This is your brain on Tetris. Has anybody played Tetris, the game where we have the little falling pieces? Any mobile game will kind of act as a stand-in for this or any kind of little game like that.

This is a PET scan, which measures glucose metabolic rate; it's positron emissions tomography. What they did is, on the left, the colors are loosely a proxy for how much glucose is being learned.

So, it's kind of how effortful it is, and I’m simplifying things, but that's a decent explanation for what the colors mean. When it's more colorful, it's more effortful for somebody to do.

The brain on the left is somebody playing Tetris for the very first time. The Brain on the right is that same person after they've been playing Tetris for several weeks.

This person is probably much better at Tetris after they've been playing it for several weeks. I think they certainly are. They've gotten practice. They don't have to think about it as hard.

So, it's not only that their performance goes up, but the actual level of effort for doing a thing goes down.

Making Skills Automatic

Now, the interesting place for this with skills is how much practice do we need to have people get to in order to get to that feeling of ease? It's probably not realistic to get everybody to that place in a training class. But the question is, how far along that path are we getting people?

It does factor into muscle memory, absolutely. Muscle memory is a little bit of a misnomer in that you can have a kind of cognitive muscle memory if it makes sense.

It's not just psychomotor reactions. It's that level of automaticity, your automaticness of a thing, so you can do it without thinking about it.

Understanding Memory

They've done research with chimpanzees where they find that the place in your brain where that memory is stored gets moved. So, if you were learning something in martial arts for the first time, it gets stored in a more active place in your memory.

You've got more of the sort of red fiery thing around learning it, but once you've practiced it a thousand times or whatever it is, the location of storage changes. It runs without you having to allocate a lot of your conscious attention to it.

This is a good thing because otherwise, if we had to pay as much attention to driving a car the thousandth time as we did the first time, we'd never be able to do anything. It would all be too hard. We need this kind of facility and ease.

Overcoming Changes in Skills with Practice

What do you think happens when you're used to feeling like the person on the right, and then we change something?

Has anybody done the thing where you have to try to drive in a country where they drive on the other side of the road? Has anybody done that?

I can't do it. Every time we make a left turn, I think we're going to die. The difficulty of doing that is you're going from this very practiced feeling of driving on the right back over to the left.

In some ways, it's worse because you're having to fight all of these automatic impulses. That happens a lot in organizations and workplaces where they change a thing.

Here's the process you've been using for literally years, and we're going to update the system, and we're going to change this process.

How do you think people feel about it, to go from being the person on the right to being the person on the left? What's going to make it better for them?

What's the thing that's going to make them start to feel a little bit more comfortable because we've now made them feel uncomfortable?

Yeah, practice mapping the old to the new, but really, they're going to have to practice it a few times in order to get back to that comfortable point. We're not going to get them all the way back, but if you can at least leave them on an upward trajectory of it feeling a little bit better...

Skills Practice Makes Perfect, How Much is Enough?

One of the things I think is a really common problem in skills practice is that we just don't spend enough time. People practice stuff once in the training class and get sent out into the world.

That doesn't always happen, but I've seen it a lot. So, the question is, how much practice does somebody need in order to feel comfortable with something?

Julie Dirksen

Julie Dirksen

Recognized as a Learning Guild Guildmaster for her contributions to the learning and development (L&D) community, Julie Dirksen is the author of Design For How People Learn and a learning strategy consultant at Usable Learning. With a focus on incorporating behavioral science into learning interventions, Julie loves brains, games, and evidence-based practice.
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