I have designed training for a variety of audiences: technical skills training for hourly employees, soft skills training for management employees, business training for business owners, and everything in between. For me, the key to successfully adapting learning across these audiences has been to capitalize on learning through peer trainers.

Learning is Social

The psychologist Dr. Vygotsky, whose ideas have shaped a lot of thinking in the field of education and learning, argued that learning is a social process. He argued that learning occurs through interactions with others, especially in guided interactions with a more knowledgeable other. I agree for several reasons. First, it creates curiosity; second, it provides motivation; and third, it provides a model from someone doing what I need to do.

We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

When speaking with someone who has more knowledge or experience, we realize how little we truly know. I was once building a cedar closet in my basement and my coworkers asked whether I was spacing the upright members on 16” centers. After answering with a blank stare, I shared I was paneling with cedar, which started a discussion of drywall, followed by more blanks stares and some research on construction on my part.

Psychologists such as Malone and Lepper argue the effect of such discussions is to spark our curiosity to find more information. By talking with an expert peer trainer, we find the gaps in our knowledge and seek to fill them. Malone and Lepper argue that this motivates us to learn.

Sometimes We Need Focus

I like self-directed learning. It aligns well with the ideas of adult learning and putting the learner in control of the learning experience. I have a stack of unread books with all the great topics I want to learn. Then there’s the online courses that never seem to be completed before the subscription auto-renews. My willpower does not apply the consistent accountability I need.

A good trainer, like a good coach, provides that accountability most of us need. Instead of letting life get in the way, they become part of what moves us forward. A good trainer can help us set goals and performance standards for learning that challenge us. They can get us back on track when we get distracted, such as a friend who asks us how the online course is going.

Sometimes We Need a Start (or Restart)

Peer trainers serve as role models for a desired behavior. As a new classroom instructor, I was told to make my instruction activity-based. The problem is, there are only so many times you can play Jeopardy in the classroom. Then I started talking about delivery methods with a peer who had recently been named faculty of the year. She shared ideas and books (still sitting on my shelf) about her approach to activity-based learning.

I applied those techniques in my classroom and demonstrated them when I led faculty orientation sessions. I am happy to say, I too was eventually named faculty of the year in large part by following my peer’s model.

The reason this aspect works is the learner sees someone like them performing the task or applying the knowledge on the job. By observing and modeling the behavior, we hope to achieve the same results as our model. Dr. Bandura argued that is often enough to get us started.

In summary, a good peer trainer is what Dr. Vygotsky called a scaffold. The peer trainer acts as a resource and sounding board for the learner that understands the situation and speaks the language. It’s important to provide peer trainers with development and training to enable them to be successful, and the rewards are many. A good peer trainer can ensure the learner gets the customized program needed to be successful.