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Testing training: Disturbing behaviors of students

Scott Barber

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Drive-by training. Never heard of it? It is exactly what it sounds like. You drive to a training facility (or an instructor drives to you), for a day or three the instructor delivers the pre-packaged training class, then everyone drives back home. It's not the best training model ever invented. There is generally no student assessment, and the only instructor/course provider accountability is reputation. Even so, many good ideas can be shared and lots of students come away feeling that it was well worth "the drive."

As it turns out, I've been delivering a lot of drive-by training to software testers this fall. That in itself isn't particularly noteworthy -- end-of-the-budget year is a popular time for drive-by training -- but something that is noteworthy is that I have noticed a rise in some disturbing behaviors among the individuals and organizations that select and attend drive-by training.

At first, I thought it was just me. But after an informal poll (and some lively discussions) with my employees and trainer friends in the testing realm, I became increasingly convinced that the behaviors I'm noticing are not exclusive to me and that I'm not the only one who thinks they are on the rise.

I want to share these behaviors with you for two reasons. First, I think most of you will find many of these behavior patterns amusing, and I think that you'll be able to use this column as reference material to help you educate someone about selecting and attending drive-by training courses. Second, I think some of you will recognize and/or identify with one or more of these behavior patterns, and I hope that I can help you (or help you help the person sitting next to you) select the right training course and to get the most out of that training.

If you don't engage with the instructor both before and during training, you won't get as much out it.
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Disturbing behavior #1: Selecting a training course based exclusively on marketing material.

Commentary: I am always shocked when I learn that a company has scheduled a training course for its team without speaking to the instructor first… or when I walk into a room to teach a public course and people say, "Oh, hi Scott. Are you teaching this class? [Insert name of training course reseller here] didn't tell us who our instructor was going to be."

When I've been a manager, I never selected training for my team without talking to the instructor about the course content and how I think it relates to what my people are doing (and frequently adjusting the agenda) as well as getting trustworthy references and recommendations about the instructor.

When I've been the person going to the training, I've always tried to get recommendations on instructors before choosing a course. For public classes through a reseller, I certainly didn't get to call the instructor and ask for a change in the agenda, but I did call first to find out which instructors were teaching on which dates and made my decisions accordingly.

About that marketing material; many (if not most) of the course descriptions in marketing material were not written by the course designer or instructor, which makes them of varying value. (At least, when the course designer or instructor writes the description, you know what they want the course to be primarily about.) Obviously, some descriptions are better than others, but why take the chance? Make a couple of phone calls, send a few emails, do an Internet search or two. Get a recommendation for the course content based on your situation. Get a recommendation about the instructor. Contact the instructor (or at least the instructor who was recommended to you) if you get confused or are not sure. If the course is through a reseller, maybe do a little research on it as well. But if you contact one of the instructors, they tend to be pretty honest about the reseller.

Remember, when it comes time to book the course (or your seat in a course), confirm that the instructor is going to be the instructor you researched and you are comfortable with.

Disturbing behavior #2: Attending class with a closed mind.

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Commentary: This really is as simple as it sounds. It's a waste of your time, the instructor's time, and often your fellow students' time to attend a class when you've decided that you have nothing to learn from it. While it is true that not every idea from every class will be applicable in every situation, I'm fairly confident that at least most training courses have something in them that you can learn from -- even if it's not what the instructor intended for you to learn.

Besides, it's really annoying for everyone if two minutes into a two-hour topic the grumpy person in the back says, with arms folded across his chest seemingly challenging the instructor to prove him wrong, "Yeah, well standard blah-blah says blah. So this will never work for my team!"

I'm always confused by that. If you've already paid for the course, why not hear the instructor out before making that judgment? Believe it or not, many instructors actually have real, recent, relevant experience with what they are teaching, have probably encountered an environment like yours before, and are generally happy to discuss the associated pros and cons, benefits and challenges with you AFTER the rest of the class has grasped the concept well enough to follow the discussion!

Disturbing behavior #3: Refusing to engage in activities and/or exercises.

Commentary: See commentary for disturbing behavior #2. The course designer probably spent hundreds (in some cases thousands) of hours developing, testing, and honing the exercise. Sometimes the activities or exercises fall flat on some students, but neither a course nor an instructor lasts long these days if the activities and/or exercises are so transparent that you know just by listening to the initial assignment that you'll find no value in it. Take my word for it.

As a student I think most activities and exercises are silly and pointless --until I start doing them. Most of the time I learn something I hadn't anticipated or the instructor used "silly and pointless" as a set-up for something later in the course, or some other twist comes up that makes me glad I engaged. I don't think that experience is uncommon. The recent students and current instructors I've talked to all indicate that engaging positively in activities, exercises, and discussions is the most valuable part of a drive-by training course.

Disturbing behavior #4: Blaming the instructor for not customizing the course to the exact challenges that you faced yesterday and happen to be on your mind today.

Commentary: Whatever course you or your boss bought was not custom made exclusively for you. It was designed to help you think about what you do and to give you "tools" to help you face your challenges. If you need more specific help than that, don't buy or attend drive-by training. Hire a consultant or hire the instructor to come to your location and do a week or two of on-the-job mentoring. Most instructors (at least the ones that I know) started as full-time consultants, grew into instructing, still do consulting, and generally love mentoring engagements. Mentoring our peers and later our staff is what attracted most of the instructors I know into instructing in the first place.

At the end of the day, the only way for you to get specific advice from an instructor about how to improve your situation is to bring specifics to the instructor about your situation. I can think of no better way to do that than to bring your instructor into your situation for a little while.

Disturbing behavior #5: Criticizing the instructor because you bought the wrong course.

Commentary: Sometimes students end up in a course that is simply not the right course from the right instructor at the right time for them. Sadly, there is no way to guarantee that every student in every course is a good fit. If you find yourself in that situation, talk to the instructor during the first possible break, there is usually something that can be done to make the situation better.

Sometimes, however, managers buy courses for their entire team based on marketing material, never talk to the instructor, then at the end of the last day tell the instructor how useless the training was because "that's not what we needed."

On top of the fact that this situation should never happen if you follow the advice related to disturbing behavior #1, this situation should never happen because that kind of feedback should be delivered in near real-time, not after the class is over and the instructor can't do anything about it. Most instructors haven't just memorized a bunch of slides to lecture on; they are experienced practitioners who got into instructing because they found they were good at it and they liked doing it. For the most part, they can adjust to meet your needs.

Drive-by training is a great way to get exposed to new ideas, get started on a new skill, and keep up with what's going on in your field. Drive-by training is not the silver bullet. But most important, drive-by training is all about instructor/student/organizational interaction. If you don't engage with the instructor both before and during training, you won't get as much out it. Of course, if you're not going to engage with the content of the course or you're not going to be permitted to use what you learn, engaging with the instructor probably isn't going to make it a worthwhile experience. If you help yourself and help the instructor help you, you're likely to find -- like most students -- that drive-by training can be worth the drive when everyone expects the same thing.

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About the author: Scott Barber is the chief technologist of PerfTestPlus, vice president of operations and executive director of the Association for Software Testing, and co-founder of the Workshop on Performance and Reliability.


This was first published in October 2008

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