When More Isn’t Better: During instruction, comprehension tops volume

When More Isn’t Better: During instruction, comprehension tops volume
By Kurt Glosser

Think back to your last fire-related class. Was it filled with tons of information, lots of content? How many pages were in the student manual? How many slides flashed before your glazed eyes?

How have so many instructors come to believe that they must tell students everything they know about a particular topic? In many cases, that mindset has led to the use of just lectures for training. But in the fire service, more information is not necessarily better.

It’s as if we’re satisfied with students just being present in a class that exposes them to a lot of technical information, vs. making sure they comprehend the critical points. And I’m not talking about awareness-level training, where we introduce new recruits to hidden hazards, or dealing with the affective domain, where we attempt to change attitudes. In the fire service, we see this kind of over-loading done in many aspects of our training programs.

Here’s a tip: It’s not what you tell the students that counts; it’s what they take away and are able to implement on the scene that really matters.

Classroom instruction must strike a balance between presentations that impart lots of knowledge via PowerPoint presentations, and sessions that hone in on a few things but engage students in such a way that they actually retain the learning. Photo Glen Ellman

Here’s a little self-check for all presenters: Do your course evaluations only speak praises about how much the instructor knew, or do they also reflect the students’ confidence in themselves and their capabilities?. Photo Glen Ellman

The Limits of Short-Term Memory
If you remember your Instructor I training,1 you know that learning plateaus are real. Our short-term memory can’t hold much; at some point you just hit a saturation level.

Learning and performance experts Harold D. Stolavitc and Erica J. Keeps note that, “Information is examined and either dropped, or passed on to long-term memory. Information in short-term memory begins to disappear almost immediately and is gone in 10 to 15 seconds. Short-term memory is like a buffer zone. It fills up rapidly and then quickly empties.”2

What does this mean for us as fire service instructors? Maybe it requires us to review our lesson plans and PowerPoint slides and ask what information doesn’t directly relate back to the objectives. Rather than trying to cover everything about a given topic, be selective and cover the “need to know” information first. Concentrate on those essential points that learners can build off of later. Training programs that promote active learning have a lean curriculum.3

Of course we want students to be knowledgeable about the job, but if performance hasn’t changed, we haven’t succeeded as instructors. Let’s be real: The folks who dial 911 don’t care how many classes we’ve sat through to get another piece of paper; they care that we can help their loved ones.

Perform a Self-Check
I wonder about those instructors whose presentations spew out endless information. Do they do that with the hope of improving their student’s performance—or with the hope that these impressionable students will leave the class saying, “Wow, that guy really knows his stuff!” Put another way: Is this learner-centered, performance-based training or is this an instructor-centered, ego-based training?

Here’s a little self-check that might help: Do your course evaluations only speak praises about how much the instructor knew, or do they also reflect the students’ confidence in themselves and their capabilities?

Obtain Feedback
Don’t forget about checking for understanding. This informal evaluation step is a critical one because it helps you determine if your firefighters are “getting it.” Include this step before moving on to the next topic or concluding a training session. When you discover your message isn’t sinking in, it might be because you’re covering too much material.

Following are a few examples of how an instructor can obtain some feedback to ensure their students have “got it”:
· Ask your learners, what was the “muddiest point,” or what was unclear in today’s training?
· Provide your learners with a short quiz.
· Conduct a student-led review session: Each student asks at least one question related to the material that they don’t understand and tries to answer a question raised by another student.
· Have learners complete a workbook assignment that includes short-answer, fill-in-the-blank, matching and/or multiple-choice questions.
· If you’re not using a workbook, many texts have companion websites that have quizzes, fill-in-the-blank questions, test questions, etc.—and most are free.

Note: Many students don’t like being evaluated, but we have an obligation to them, to the other members of the department and to the community to ensure they met the objectives. If you set the right atmosphere—try having them evaluate you first—your firefighters will want the opportunity to show and prove their competence.

Providing this opportunity to succeed will increase the individual’s confidence, but more importantly, the team’s confidence in each other. Then, when faced with a challenge on scene, they will say, “I know how to solve this problem,” or “We can accomplish this—we’ve done it in training!”

Kurt Glosser is an education specialist with the Illinois Fire Service Institute. He is a third-generation firefighter who has been in the fire service for 13 years and serves as an engineer with the Savoy (Ill.) Fire Department. Glosser has a master’s degree in Human Resource Development and holds various fire and EMS certifications. He also instructs for Southern Illinois University’s Fire Science Management Program.

1. Fire and Emergency Services Instructor, 7th Edition (2006). Fire Protection Publications: Stillwater, OK.
2. Stolavitc, Harold D. and Keeps, Erica J. Telling Ain’t Training (2002). American Society for Training & Development, Baltimore.
3. Silberman, Melvin L. (1998). Active Training: A handbook of techniques, 2nd Edition. Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer: San Francisco.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE

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Comment by Rick Powell on December 1, 2010 at 1:47pm
Damn good article, Kurt!! Thank you.

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