Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Trainer Insights

Step-by-Step Instructions Help Learners Succeed

We’ve all been in that class. The trainer quickly gives instructions, and the “What are we supposed to do?” whispers begin among the tables. More time is spent trying to figure out what to do rather than engaging in the learning activity itself.

One of the most powerful skills I’ve learned in my training career is how to set up an activity. This may seem like a relatively easy task, but if not done well, it can leave learners confused and frustrated, which in turn leaves them feeling less than inspired to participate.

I learned long ago how to avoid the pitfalls that can happen when participants don’t understand both the what and how of an activity, thanks to a challenging life experience for which I’m very grateful.

My youngest son was diagnosed with severe dyslexia when he was in first grade. I quickly learned there are multiple kinds of dyslexia, each with its own unique characteristics. My son’s particular variety had to do with sequencing. If you can’t put things in order, reading is nearly impossible, as are other sequential functions like telling time or identifying days of the week.

This inability to sequence also had implications when I gave him instructions. For example, I could not say, “Get your socks and shoes on, get your jacket, and get in the car.” That was way too many steps in a sequence! And so because he could not figure out where to begin, he simply did nothing.

As I began my career in an adult learning environment, I experienced some of the same challenges in sequencing I’d experienced with my son. High-impact activities help learners connect the dots, but those big ah-ha moments can be lost when learners aren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing during an activity… so they do nothing.

Until my son was about 13, I learned that I could only give him one instruction at a time. This was exceptional practice for being an effective trainer!

If an in-person class activity requires people to work in groups of two, my experience has been simply telling participants to get in groups of two may prompt them to look at the instructor like they have suddenly begun speaking an unknown language and simply freeze.

The reason for this varies—it could be anxiety about choosing a partner, feeling left out, or simply being an introvert. If we want participants to perform a task (choosing a partner) we not only need to tell them what to do but also how we want them to do it.

As I learned with my son, activities are more fun, have higher impact, and land much more effectively when participants are given one instruction at a time.

So what does this look like in practice?

Let’s use the example of the “Share Your Good Intent” exercise from Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue’s Start With Heart module. Here’s how those instructions might sound:

Everyone stand up.

Now, go stand next to someone you do not know well.

Decide very quickly who will be Person A and who will be Person B.

Person A, raise your hand.

You will prepare a statement of good intent for Situation #1 and will share it with your partner.

Person B, raise your hand.

When Person A is finished, you will prepare a statement of good intent for Situation #2 and will share it with your partner.

Are there any questions?

By telling your participants not only what you want them to do but also giving them a clear instruction on how you want them to accomplish that task, you create direction and structure in your training that not only eliminates confusion but also gives you credibility as an exceptional facilitator.

My son has long since moved beyond the need for one instruction at a time, but that lesson continues to resonate with me. I count the value of that skill among my most successful facilitation best practices.

7 thoughts on “Step-by-Step Instructions Help Learners Succeed”

  1. melaniegao

    This is great advice. Setting up activities is indeed one of the hardest parts of facilitation. So glad you addressed it using your personal experience. That’s so Reta Clyde!

    1. Lynn Williams

      Great example. We always watch the clock and tend to not want to take a lot of set up time. Excellent reminder and will apply next week

  2. Darrell Harmon

    I echo melaniegao’s kudos. I’ve learn this crucial skill myself both by doing it wrong and doing it right.

    Otherwise intelligent adults get lost quickly in a barrage of activity instructions. Exercises are deceptively complex, so breaking the process down into single steps clears things up and lets them focus on running the activity and learning from it.

    This might seem like a simplistic tip, but I’ve learned by (hard) experience that it’s a vital skill for effective facilitation.

  3. Amy Daly-Donovan

    Agree on all of the above! I would also suggest if they have to move to get themselves into smaller groups, take care of all of that first. Let them get settled, THEN give the instructions (like Reta shares above, but is true for all activities, especially if you are counting off or other more complicated mixing strategies). Great tips are also in the book “Teach Like a Champion” which is designed for K-12 teachers but has lots of transferable tips. One helpful learning I had – when giving instructions in an in-person workshop, make sure you stand in one spot and don’t move around while talking. It commands presence and helps participants focus on you, and they will better retain the tasks you’re outlining.

  4. Rita Ormiston

    I think you have shared something simple, but I may not have thought of prior to engaging and realizing it probably didn’t work that well. Thank you! It really can sometimes be “the little things”!

  5. Gary Butterworth

    Excellent idea, Rita! Thank you. One thing that has helped me, particularly if the instructions are fairly complex, is to make sure I reinforce the oral instructions on the PPT screen (with “focused learning” technique–one point at a time), and let participants know they can refer back to the screen if they get lost. Thanks again for your tip!

  6. Deb Steele

    Thank you for this. I’ll be facilitating my 2nd class next month and this will really help!

Leave a Reply