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Four Steps to Help Your Users Effectively Learn New Software

Prior to my role as Director of the Solution Delivery team, I spent time in the field as an Implementation Specialist where I trained new users.   In this blog, I wanted to share my observations on the importance of planning to remove barriers to learning.

learning-priorities-DevelopmentLearning new things has been a passion for me.  I enjoy distilling complex systems and finding the 80/20 ratio that gives me the best reward for time spent.  From Josh Waitzkin to Pavel Tsatsouline to Tim Ferriss, there are many books and blogs that illustrate the process of breaking down complexity into simple steps that produce repeatable results. 

It’s also important to understand what things waste time or are totally counter-productive to learning.  The reasons why some users struggle and fail can be elusive, as other users may not struggle and fail for the same reasons.

This becomes the basis for creating repeatable process that effectively trains users on new software.

1.  Get your feet wet, with your own personal lifeguard!

While there are rare people that would prefer to devour a 100 page manual, most of us learn most effectively by doing.  Here at Voicebrook, we strongly believe in one to one user training as a method to ensure that we spend the needed time with each user for them to become self-sufficient.  Class training or web presentations often work for the strongest, but fail the average person, and downright punish those that struggle with technology.  As they begin to fall behind, doubt and frustration set in, and the very people that are the most vulnerable are the least helped by those methods. iStock_000016198123Small

On the other hand, personalized sessions work with each person at their own pace, building on their achievements and letting them gain confidence.  A seasoned instructor knows how rapidly to push each new student, as they get a sense for their comprehension.  Having an instructor over your shoulder gives you the confidence to continue to push yourself and try things, in the same way that her flotation vest gives my six year old daughter unlimited confidence in the swimming pool.

The effect of confidence isn’t something I can overstate.  Whether it’s my daughter or a student learning new software, the benefit of providing a safe environment without fear of failure is a powerful boost.  

This extends much beyond software learning, and is something I feel strongly about (and will likely be a future blog).  We will always make mistakes.  It’s the freedom from our own egos to acknowledge those mistakes and learn from them that make us stronger.    

2. Give people time to learn

One of the next anxieties that act as a barrier to learning is a fear of inefficiency and a long learning curve.  In a professional environment, there’s an expectation of productivity.  For our users, this translates to number of cases that they process in a given day.  While this will vary with industry, there’s some metric of productivity that we’re all judged against.

When we talk about a training and roll out plan with new clients, one of the important points is making a plan to give people time to learn.  When a person isn’t given any space in their “day job”, they often resist new software, because it will take time away from the big workload they perceive they’re responsible for. In turn, they come to dread not only the initial investment in learning new software, but also the slowdown that the learning curve will bring.

bigstock-Time-To-Learn-430568291When preparing for a new roll out, we emphasize  lowering expectations for initial productivity in exchange for long-term gains.  Give people the space they need to learn, without introducing pressure and stress that can cause them to avoid change and learning new things.  Learning new things involves mistakes, which can be stressful.  When there’s no exemption in productivity expectations, this just adds more stress on the top.  When you consider the users that will most struggle to learn new things, this additive stress will compound with their existing anxiety around learning, and trap them in a self-fulfilling prophecy of struggle.

One of the other big barriers to learning is interruptions.  When a user is going to learn new software, they need uninterrupted time to learn, and the clear expectation and permission to keep that time unencumbered.  This most commonly takes the form of emails, phone calls, and people unexpectedly dropping by.  This is destructive to the flow of keeping one’s mind focused on learning. 

In Pathology, one of the dreaded interruptions is a Frozen Section call.    We understand this always means the patient must be prioritized, and that the pathologist we were training has to go immediately and deal with the case.  However, with advance planning on the part of the department, this can be completely avoided.   We always emphasize that pathologists shouldn’t be scheduled for training time and also be on call for frozen sections.

When barriers to learning are removed, the value gained during focused training becomes amplified.

3. Condensed cycles of repetition lead to the quickest learning

When considering how to apply what you’ve learned (or how to teach), repetition is king.  This is what transforms all of us into the professionals we are.  Our experience (repetitions) allows us to use memory and instinct to perform the best.  Beneath this is pattern recognition.  Our minds get reinforcement of patterns as we see and repeat them often.quote-Muhammad-Ali-its-the-repetition-of-affirmations-that-leads-89727

Translated into learning pathology reporting software, there’s a huge difference between the first case you dictate with your new software being a basic biopsy and a prostate.  The difference comes down to how many cases you can do in a given time frame (your training session) to reinforce the patterns you’re learning.   If you spend one minute doing a basic biopsy, you can easily do five to ten other cases in that same training session, condensed into a very short time period.   This reinforces the patterns needed to learn, helps you commit them to memory, and recognize the visual cues.  When you take 30-40 minutes or longer to do your first case with the new software, it means you only see the pattern once or twice during your training session.   This puts a new learner, no matter how technically savvy, at a disadvantage.

We leverage these cycles of repetition through carefully structured and selected workflow documented, to emphasize the key points, and give users a physical place to return to for reinforcement of the most important patterns they need for their job.

The second element here is to put your learning to immediate use.  Training of any sort will begin to erode without use.  It’s especially critical for training of new skills to be reinforced quickly.  With regard to new software, once you’ve been trained, you should keep using it.  Going back to an old method creates a crutch that inhibits learning, and gives you a psychological barrier to overcome.  After all, why push through the frustration and effort of learning, when you can give up and go back to your old method?

This is a critical area for department managers to influence.  In pathology, this comes down to making sure that each person trained on the software has enough representative cases to work on that will allow rapid cycles of repetition.

It’s also important to mandate usage of a new system.  Once you’ve been trained, you’re cut over.  This gives the quickest possible road to efficiency with the new software.  Of course, this isn’t possible to do successfully without appropriate support.   This support must be present in layers.  Some of this will come from your software vendor’s training staff.  Other support must come from establishing super users at your site who often enjoy helping others.  The final tier of support comes from the vendor support staff.

4. Layer information

Another very important point to consider is that there’s always more information to be learned (or skills to be perfected) than the human brain can absorb in a single session of learning.   In the same way that I can watch the same movie multiple times (much to the annoyance of my wife) and pick up new details each time, this is true of learning as well.  The nuances only become apparent with time, and not on initial exposure.

This necessitates macro cycles for learning to compliment the micro cycles of rapid learning.  When we plan new user training sessions, we plan to work with each user at least three times.  We have an initial two hour training session.  Following this, we circle back a day or two later for an additional hour of training with each user.  Once the user has been trained and is using the software for a day or more, they will have different questions than they would have had during the initial session.

We also come back onsite four to six weeks after the Go Live for an additional session with each user.  Again, this is because different questions arise with experience.   It’s always been a frustration of mine when I buy a car, and I get a survey one to two days later asking me how I like the car.  The honeymoon period isn’t over yet.  If you gave me one to three months, I could give significantly more constructive and useful feedback.

The other important reason for these touch points is to layer information and try to teach more advanced and complex features.  We’ve seen that if we try to cram everything there is to know in one session it will result in less overall retention.  This will jeopardize the core skills the student must know in exchange for the hope of teaching them much more obscure skills they might rarely need.

This is why we layer the learning, waiting for the mind to have command of the basics, so we can then build upon that foundation.

Final Word:  A very big part of teaching and learning is taking the blame out of the equation, focusing on eliminating predictable barriers, and using proven techniques to reinforce the material being taught.  Everyone wants to learn and wants to be successful.  The burden is on the teachers  and organizers to provide that opportunity and environment for learners to flourish.

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