Training from the back of the room

SharonBowmanI’ve recently re-read a book by Sharon Bowman entitled Training from the Back of the Room.  If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it as being both practical and also full of interesting and thought provoking theory!  It combines our current understanding of how the brain works with practical exercises designed to make any training course fun and effective!

I thought I’d take the time to summarise some of the main points in the book.  Please note,  this is only a summary.  There are some fantastic games and tools in the book and it is well worth a read!

4Cs of training


Trainees learn more and actually remember more of their training when they can connect their past experiences and their current understanding and knowledge of a subject with what they are learning.

Therefore for the training to be useful, the trainee must be able to connect what they will learn with:

  • What they already know
  • What they think they know
  • What they want to learn
  • What you want them to learn
  • Each other


This includes the global learning objectives, their own learning goals, the other trainees.  Ask questions; get the trainees to participate and ask each other questions; review the objectives and goals.  Ideally the trainees should try things out, make mistakes and express their opinions.  Not only will they be more engaged, but they will connect with each other and with the training material.  Trainees learning from other trainees is a much more effective method than a trainer lecturing from the front of the room.  Ensure the work environment is friendly and cooperative rather than competitive!
Concepts are the important facts that learners need to know in order to demonstrate competency.  Often a trainee knows more than what they think, and the parts they don’t know, others in the course will.

Teach only the need to know information

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of yourself as an expert when you are a trainer.  Instead, try to think of yourself as a facilitator.  Your purpose is merely to help the trainees to get to the information they need.  Instead of spending 2 hours lecturing your class on everything you know about a subject, get the trainees to teach each other.  You can of course, fill in the gaps, but limit the information flow to only what the trainees need to be successful.

Keep it simple, Keep it short

Everyone’s brain gets tired.  In a world of people raised with TV commercials, we’ve become accustomed to breaks every 10 – 15 minutes.  After this we get cranky and start to fidget.  The brain needs to be refreshed and to be re-stimulated in order to keep the training effective.

conceptsUse graphic organisers

Make it visual, and make it organised to appeal to the creative and the logical trainees in the room.  Not only do people learn what they write, but they remember where they write.  We all have a visual spatial memory that remembers how information is set out on the page, it remembers charts, diagrams and pictures.  Get the trainees to make their own notes, it’s more personal and more likely to be remembered.  Since it’s active, it’s more likely to keep the brain stimulated.

Try using concept maps.  Get the trainees to create their own as the training continues.

  • Basic maps (also called cluster or bubble maps).
  • Flow chart maps
  • Burger maps
  • Free Flow maps
  • Timeline maps

Be interactive

Each trainee in a training session is surrounded by an array of sensory information.  Their brains will be working overtime trying to process what is relevant and useful and what is not.  In addition, often in a training session, the training relies on using only the eyes (to read the PowerPoint presentation) and the ears (to listen to the presenter).  This is highly ineffective as there are many other ways that the trainee can learn:

  • Hearing
  • Seeing
  • Discussing
  • Writing
  • Reflecting
  • Imagining
  • Participating
  • Teaching it to others

Personally I learn best when using a combination of drawing and explaining it to someone else – you could argue that I was a born trainer.  But in fact it’s simply how my brain processes information best.  When I am trying to explain it, my brain is sorting and re-organising the information I have, trying to find the best way to explain, that makes sense to me.  As a visual, that is usually in the form of a diagram.  Other people I know like lists and colours.  Some prefer a more practical hands on approach.  The best training covers ALL of these styles to ensure that the information is conveyed and retained.

One-minute reviews

Used to clarify misunderstandings, misconceptions and confusion.  They also work as refreshers for the brain!  Get the trainees to review the learning with each other.  They will correct each others’ mistakes and helps them form more connections!
Concrete Practice
Regardless of your learning style, until you have put the training into practice, or actively reviewed the information, it is not real.  By actively participating, you have a better chance of transferring the information from your short term memory to your long term memory and therefore of retaining and regurgitating it later.

Concrete practice is not watching the trainer perform!  It is not watching a video, or watching one or two trainees do the task.

concrete practiceConcrete practice is physical!

Mistakes ARE PREFERRED!  However, skill building is the objective of concrete practice, not highlighting shortcomings.  Handling the way the trainees make mistakes during the physical practice is very important. They need to know that mistakes are NORMAL and that the trainer will be there to point them in the right direction.  Not to take over, or to use one trainee as an example of how not to do the task!  Concrete practice must include active participation by everyone.  Each learner should have multiple opportunities to demonstrate and practice the skills

Concrete practice is collaborative!

Get the trainees to help each other perform the tasks.  Get them to encourage and build up each other.  Competition in this case can actually be harmful.  Humans are social we exist in networks.  Collaboration (working together) increases the chances of learning and retention.  Competition focusses on the trainees individual performance, so they stop helping each other.  Often it only helps those who thrive on adrenaline fuelled situations and even then, it only helps them hone what they already know.  Instead down play the competitive aspects and focus instead on group learning.

Individual accountability is key!

The trainees need to know what it is they are expected to know and how they can determine their own competency. Individual goals and accountability helps to keep the learners focussed.  Tie the training in to the learning outcomes using practical activities.  Teach back activities ca be really useful here.  It helps to deepen the trainees understanding as well as make them aware of what they have already learned and how much they still need to learn to attain their learning goals.  It also increases the social connection and gives them confidence to continue as they clarify and strengthen their training.

What the learner thinks and says and does is more important than what the instructor thinks and says and does!

In a series of learner focussed closing activities, get the trainees to:

  • action planSummarise what they have learned
  • Evaluate what they have learned
  • Make an action plan
  • Celebrate the learning experience

Conclusions should engage the trainees until they walk out of the room!  They help the trainees to reflect and to make the final connections in their learning.  The action plans help them to cement the training into place with more active practice.
Final Points
Hopefully, you found this summary useful!  Before I read this book for the first time, I was already doing some of the 4Cs, but not all and not systematically or deliberately.  Now years later, I am happy to say that the 4Cs are endemic in my training sessions.  I can proudly say that I teach from the back of the classroom!

+Alesandra Blakeston

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