The Leadership Development Center (LDC) of the United States Coast Guard works to improve the leadership ability of all Coast Guard members. As its members increase in rank and responsibility, the LDC must fill the performance gap by helping them to better lead themselves, others and the Coast Guard. Ideally, students will correctly implement appropriate leadership theories, strategies or tactics from their training experience when a leadership challenge occurs on the job. The resultant return on investment is a type of Benefits-Based Management (BBM).
Components of Experience
BBM is a production process model which proposes benefits as the outcome of experiences, and experiences are based on several inputs, including what and where one is doing something. In the realm of education and training, the what and where are often considered the lesson to be learned, or teaching intervention (what) and classroom environment (where). The expected outcome is understanding why something is (education), or how to do something (training). Similar to learning outcomes and task proficiency afforded from an intervention in the classroom (the why or how), the composition of positive experiences is influenced by expectations, perceptions and reflection.
When eliciting positive outcomes, the perception part of the event can also be further subdivided into two classes of experiences: tangible and intangible. Tangible classroom experiences are things one can touch, (e.g., sitting in a seat, and may be considered quantities). Correspondingly, intangible classroom experiences are comprised of qualities, (e.g., attractiveness of a classroom). Teaching should include increases in quality and quantity (tangible and intangible components) of instruction, students and faculty. There is evidence that successful experiences are dependent on the perceptions of these qualities. In other words, the intangible experiences may outweigh the tangible experiences, or, at minimum, are considered essential components when formulating an experience.
The Learning Event
We see the learning experience “unfold” over time, like a travel experience. Therefore, if we consider the learning experience as a product to elicit positive learning outcomes of why or how, we may view the outcome to include: 1) A temporal component including factors pre- and post-classroom experience, and 2) A combination of specific tangible and intangible experiences. We can then begin to view an expanded construct of a learning event.
Assessing Components of the Training Event
To help assess the applicability of the expanded approach to training – accounting for experiences occurring both in and outside the classroom, and focusing on intangible experiences – students present for resident courses of two or more weeks at the LDC were asked what contributed to their learning experience. The following themes emerged:
1. Presentation Format Matters
“Cut back slightly on the level of PowerPoint presentations and allow for/push more class discussion.”
Educators should focus on learning exercises that provide students opportunities to engage and interact. Keep slide-based presentations to a minimum. If they are still needed, focus on developing more visually stimulating, graphical slides that augment the information covered. Minimizing slide-based lectures maximizes opportunities to enhance social capital, social cohesion and interaction.
2. Effective Instructors
“I really appreciated the positive attitudes expressed by the full-time staff. [They] did a great job creating a positive learning environment. Truly felt like they were committed to my success as a student.”
Instructors are like waiters. A bad waiter can make the overall impression of an otherwise great meal less favorable. Conversely, they can make a bad meal better with a positive attitude. In the classroom, instructors can help make the dullest of material exciting, and keep students engaged. Part of being an effective instructor is understanding the needs of the audience.
3. A Student’s Basic Needs
“The showers were not hot. They were freezing in the morning. Along with the bed situation, this caused for uncomfortable living situations.”
No higher-level learning can take place unless basic needs are met. Students need to have their basic needs accounted for to set the stage for optimal learning. This includes the provision of adequate sleeping areas, computer access and food. Remember, if basic needs aren’t met, how can students focus their full attention on learning?
4. The Training Environment
“The uniform shop was open! The food was excellent. I didn’t have to make my bed. The exchange is great. Drydock has Starbucks! The classroom was high tech. Easy computer access in Munro. Lower field and the new annex look great.”
The “identity” of the learning experience can be established by the environment in which learning exists. This is important for classes taking place at learning or training centers when the experience extends beyond the classroom. To ensure an optimal learning environment, training centers must provide positive experiences in all aspects of training.
5. Learning Outside of the Classroom
“I have never been to [the training site location] before. [I’ve enjoyed] the rental car and being able to get out and see the area.”
Leaving the classroom enables two beneficial facets: offsite field trips and recreational exploration. Field trips can support classroom learning through opportunities for practical application of new skills. Learners experience by interacting with their environment, and observing and understanding relationships within their environment. Only through interaction and immersion can all senses be fully utilized.
In addition to interacting with the environment, students can interact as a group, garnering a sense of togetherness and reinforcing social cohesion without the boundaries of a classroom. The physical state of “being away” allows opportunities for psychological restoration, which can increase student reception and improve information recall. Students should also be encouraged to venture into the community surrounding the training site after normal training hours to experience the local culture, geography and events. Such experiences can make the overall training experience more vivid and afford opportunities for mental recovery.
6. Time Management
“Please be respectful of our time. Holding us over during lunch periods and after the scheduled end time was not well-received.”
The best classes provide students training guidelines for breaks and seek consensus if running late. Student comments reinforce the impact of unexpected long training days on overall engagement, and therefore retention of material. Students have outside lives and needs that need to be considered to ensure optimal learning in the classroom or returning on time from out-of-class excursions.
When we think of a learning event, we must consider the multitude of tangible and intangible experiences that go into developing a positive experience. Of particular importance are the intangible experiences which add quality (or lack thereof) to the overall experience and learning outcomes. Only by taking a holistic approach to training can we assess and manage the out-of-class factors, which demonstrably influence the overall learning experience. The class does not end upon graduation, but continues through on-the-job performance, reflection and word-of-mouth. Before your next training session, remember there is more to the learning than just the classroom experience. If you treat your students as guests and promote your training as an experience, you may be amazed at the positive outcomes and ROI.