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11 Ways to Handle Different Learner Experience Levels

Posted by Paul Sitter on 11/4/13 3:00 AM
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Any trainer who has had newbie’s and expert attendees in the same classroom knows that sinking feeling.

“Yikes! This is going to be a challenging day. The new people may be confused, but if I slow down for them, the more experienced learners may start reaching for their smart phones. What to do, what to do?”

Here are a few suggestions for handling varying experience levels in the classroom (taken from Langevin’s Instructional Design for New Designers workshop):

 Offer multiple versions of the class: structure introductory, intermediate, and advanced versions of a course to narrow the gap between learners. Reinforce the level of content of the different classes with prerequisites and clearly advertised course content.

  • Require pre- or post-course work: by requiring pre-course activities and establishing accountability for their completion, the proficiency level of the participants is levelled out somewhat. Post-course activities provide additional practice for novice learners.
  • Branching within a course: give the experienced participants the option of more sophisticated content or more challenging exercises than the novices.

In addition, you can select methods that involve learners with differing experience levels. All of the instructional techniques shown below provide an opportunity for novices to learn from the experienced participants. Experienced participants will feel engaged because they’ll be able to contribute and share their knowledge, and gain recognition for their experience.

  • Brainstorming: promotes developing content from the sudden inspiration or experience of the participants.
  • Abbreviated lecturette: involves the group listing what they know about the subject before the instructor covers what the learners have not identified.
  • Discussion: gives the more experienced participants an opportunity to “teach” their colleagues.
  • Peer tutoring: involves pairing up the more experienced with the less experienced.
  • Peer review: reinforces content by reviewing it in small groups—again, capitalizing on the more experienced to “teach.”

Finally, when facilitating a class with varying experience levels:

  • Acknowledge experience: an explicit statement in your housekeeping section along the lines of, “Some of you bring tremendous experience with you—please share it!”
  • Encourage questions: questions can bring the less experienced up to speed more quickly if you set a safe environment for them to ask the questions. Also, if you use the “reflection” technique to answer their questions (e.g. “Good question! I have an opinion, but let’s hear from your colleague’s first.”), it gives your pros a chance to shine.
  • Ask many questions: questions tend to “level” the group, with the more experienced able to answer questions and have their expertise acknowledged by the instructor, while also “teaching” their colleagues.

It’s always a challenge for an instructor to have a variety of experience levels in the classroom. Of course, no matter what you do, if you have more than one person in your class, you’ll always have some diversity of experience. These eleven ways of handling varying experience levels are also ways of taking advantage of them.

What other tips or instructional techniques do you recommend for handling varying experience levels in the classroom?

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Paul has been a course leader with Langevin since 2000. He graduated from the University of San Francisco with a Bachelor’s degree in History. Throughout Paul’s career he’s had the pleasure of training for a variety of industries including sports, military, technical, aviation, and academia. Paul firmly believes with the right training and support, people can be competent performers in most positions. The organizational trainer is the key to providing that performance boost. In his spare time, you might catch sight of Paul on the sidelines of a soccer field, biking through Napa Valley, or spending some quality time with his family.

Topics: instructional techniques, tips-for-trainers, instructional design

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Our very own world-class course leaders share their experiences, tips, best practices, and expertise on virtual training, instructional design, needs analysis, e-learning, delivery, evaluation, presentation skills, facilitation, and much more!

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