by Jennie Ruby
So I am in the middle of keystroking (reviewing) my way through training materials I'm going to teach on Microsoft Excel. The directions tell me to select January through April values to create a quarterly total. Later, the same materials tell me to select January through March to create a "tritotal." Now, I'm from out of town, but I think that the tradition for a quarterly total is that it covers three months, or one quarter of the year, not four months. And in 14 years working as a publications manager and setting production budgets for technical journals, I was never asked to create a "tritotal."
As soon as I saw this example, I knew that an IT person wrote the training example, not an accountant. The question of the day is this: to what extent do training examples need to be real-life examples? The lesson still taught how to select multiple values and create a total. Did it matter whether it resembled what one would do on a real-world spreadsheet?
For part of the answer, we have to go back to the objectives of the lesson. If the objective is that the learner will be able to create totals by selecting multiple values, then the objective probably was reached. But is that good enough?
Consider this anecdote: When teaching children to solve word problems in the United States, we are typically working with kids who understand that they are supposed to do math on the problem to solve it. But without the learner's knowledge of that objective, the learning can move off of the objective. Here is a math word problem:
"There are 12 crows sitting in a tree. If you throw a rock and knock one crow out of the tree, how many crows are left?"
When given this word problem, U.S. children get the intended answer, 11. Kids in a rural area in another area of the world, however, could get this answer: 0. Why? Rural kids who are not familiar with this type of math question may think about real experience rather than the math problem, and when you throw a rock into a tree full of crows, whether you hit one or not, they all fly away. Zero crows are left in the tree.
This does not happen only with kids. When teaching the difference between which and that just this past week, I wrote this sentence on the board:
"The brown leather chair which/that is in the middle of the room is broken."
A student asked "Why don't you just delete which/that is?" In truth, the example would be a better sentence without those words. All I could answer was "Because I am using it to illustrate the difference between which and that!"
In sum, I do consider it a best practice to use examples that very closely mimic or exemplify the real-world problems that learners need to be able to solve after the training. Otherwise, extraneous problems and distractions can arise. On the other hand, constant use of serious and realistic examples can make our materials dry or even intimidating.
We would love to hear from you if you have experiences of examples gone wrong, or right! Or if you have opinions about how realistic training examples need to be.
Are you an eLearning developer who has been tasked with creating an effective voiceover script? I'm teaching a new online class in May called Writing Effective eLearning Voiceover Scripts. During the class I'll be teaching you how to define the appropriate voice and tone for a narrative text. You will learn how to take specific steps to create the engaging and personable writing style that voice-over narratives require. I hope you can join me. Click here to learn more. I also teach the Writing Training Documents and eLearning Scripts class. You can learn about that here.