Two Days a Learner

It’s the design of education, not its delivery mode, that causes learning

Most people who work in adult education are also non-stop learners ourselves—taking classes, workshops, and online webinars. When we’re sitting in the learner’s seat we can’t help but bring our own experiences as adult learning professionals into the room, inwardly critiquing the quality of the learning we’re receiving.

I recently spent two days as a learner at two completely different events. First, I attended a conference offered to a local public health organization for which I volunteer. With great expectations, I attended a “How to Suture” class, so that I’d be prepared to sew up deep cuts in an emergency scenario. The large classroom was full; each learner had a prepackaged suturing kit and a frozen pig’s foot cut with a few deep slashes that we would be suturing for practice. (I’d rather have practiced on something less…dead, but that’s how they do this training.)

The instructor played a 15-minute video from start to finish—a full-of-lingo, rapidly paced “how to” video whose target audience was medical students. It presented all of the steps (and several finer points) to master suture stitching.

“Now, you try it!” our instructor chirped encouragingly after clicking off the video.

Uh…OK. Now, what did they do first in that long video…? I struggled to recall the very first thing I should do.

Within a mere 30 seconds I had broken my curved suture needle clean off with my first tentative jab into the dead pig’s foot. I was instantly hosed up, unable to continue learning or practicing, as I only had the one needle.

The charitable person to my right (who had done suturing before) helped me out, demonstrating how to perform the stitching part, then the knotting-up part, so that the thread would hold. I observed her needle technique, how she held her hands, the motion of the needle moving in and out, and how she knotted-off. I appreciated her demonstration, but I did not get the hands-on practice necessary to learn the skill.

I left the class disappointed, and worse yet—knowing that I had not learned the requisite skill and would be useless in an emergency where this basic skill could help someone in need.

The following day, I attended the Chicago Genealogy Society‘s conference on legal genealogy. The format was a series of lectures presented by the “Legal Genealogist” Judy G. Russell. I sat in one rather hard plastic chair all day long, listening to the lectures. And I was absolutely enthralled—all day long! (And I was not alone. The packed room with easily 200 people was still buzzed and energized at the end of the day.)

Why did the lecture succeed and the hands-on instruction fail?

The design of the education. Judy structured her content skillfully and supported it artfully. Her lectures were:

  • loaded with amazing (and highly relevant) stories and examples;
  • accompanied by fantastic, often tongue-in-cheek graphics that supported the concept being presented;
  • paced to keep the room energy high; and
  • delivered with an infectious passion by a knowledgeable expert who clearly loved her subject.

Thanks to the stories and examples (and some great handouts), I left that conference ready to apply so many new ideas to my family history research right away.

But if faced with a gaping wound in an emergency situation, there is no way I’d be able to suture it closed. Ninety minutes—the length of the suturing skills session—is actually plenty of time to practice suturing a small gash closed, not with the skill of a surgeon of course, but with enough competency to be useful in a large-scale emergency scenario such as a tornado striking my county.

The difference was that no thoughtful design process went into developing the suturing class.

This is not to say that a video is a bad learning tool—no! I love instructional videos when I can control them, pausing and rewinding as needed.

For a multi-step, fine-motor process such as suturing a small wound closed, the 15-minute video should have been paused after each discrete step, so that the learners could practice that single step.

I would have appreciated the opportunity to practice just the in-and-out motion of the curved suture needle before I actually had to use it. It would have prevented me breaking my needle on the first try.

I would have liked the stitching practice to be separated from the “knotting off” process. I would have loved to hear some stories from the instructor on how these skills come into play in real life situations.

Design of instruction—regardless of its delivery mode—is a key to learner success.