Learning businesses often rely on subject matter experts (SMEs) to develop and deliver learning products. But those SMEs—although highly regarded experts in their particular field—likely don’t know how to develop and deliver products in ways that align with brain science and adult learning principles.
In this episode, we focus on the importance of going beyond telling presenters what they need to do to be effective to playing an active role in showing them how. We discuss the tremendous opportunity for learning businesses in helping SMEs understand and apply learning science, key reasons this can be a challenge, and solutions, including resources, such as our new video-based online course offering, “Presenting for Impact,” to help make it happen.
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[00:00] – Intro
SMEs Don’t Necessarily Know the Science of Adult Learning
[00:47] – We’re using expert and SME as umbrella terms that encompass the subject matter experts, presenters, and faculty that your learning business likely relies on.
Not all learning businesses rely on external experts, but, in our experience, most do rely on them at least some. These are the people who develop and/or deliver some of the learning experiences that you offer to learners. Often to develop or deliver learning, a learning business needs to involve and enlist people beyond its internal team because it needs the authority, knowledge, and skills that these outside experts bring to the specific domains addressed in learning experiences.
The knowledge and skills those subject matter experts bring are rarely in the field of andragogy, andragogy being the theory of adult learning popularized by Malcolm Knowles. These SMEs know some topic or topics of importance to the field, profession, or industry your learning business serves, but that doesn’t mean they’re experts in the science of adult learning.Celisa Steele
In fact, your SMEs may not even have heard of andragogy or be familiar with the science of adult learning because, odds are, that’s not why you sought them out. You sought them out for their expertise and experience in their domain of specialty. For example, if you serve radiologists, you might engage SMEs that help develop content around lung cancer screening using computed tomography of the chest. But it’s unlikely that those SMEs will know both about chest CTs and andragogy. Most providers of learning haven’t thought enough about the implications of this.
One of the dangers of assuming that because someone knows something they know how to teach it is that many of us have had subpar learning experiences. There’s been some progress recently to make learning more experiential and personalized with the use of tech tools and project-based learning, for example, but there’s still a lot of lecture-based learning, and we know pure lecture usually isn’t as effective as more targeted and more interactive experiences.
Getting Beyond Lectures and Our Own Subpar Experiences to Application and Effectiveness
[06:24] – Admittedly, there are good lectures and bad lectures, and we throw the baby out with the bath water if we condemn all lectures. But, on the whole, we know that more learner engagement means more retention, and retention is essential if the learner’s going to apply what she’s learned and make something happen with it. Too often, this just isn’t what happens with a lot of the continuing education and professional development experiences that we see the average subject matter expert put together.
There are businesses built around good lectures. For example, we spoke with Steven Schragis of One Day University, which has built a business around good lectures. Just because projects and activities may be more engaging than pure lecture, it doesn’t necessarily mean that activity- or project-driven learning experiences will be more effective. That’s because, just as there are good and bad lectures, there are good and bad activities.
An example of this is the traditional “discuss among yourselves” group activity, where a presenter lobs out a topic and says, “Have some discussion about this at your table.” But there’s no real clear purpose or guidance as to how the learners might take the topic at hand and apply it to their lives.
The result is people twiddling their thumbs and staring at the ceiling. Or one person dominates the conversation. But it’s doubtful any actual learning comes out of that type of activity—mostly people just learn to hate that type of activity.
That type of activity also happens in the virtual realm with poorly scaffolded breakouts. If it’s not structured, if you don’t give people thought-provoking questions, and then time to reflect and engage, the activity can fall absolutely flat and be no more effective than pure lecture.
To summarize, not only do subject matter experts likely not have training in adult learning theory, they’re likely to draw on their own experience in school and learning when they’re trying to develop or deliver their own content, and those examples from their own experience may not be worth copying.
Part of the issue may be the curse of knowledge. If you are the expert in front of the classroom, you tend to think that other people know more than they do. You don’t realize how much you know, how far back you have to go, and how basic you have to get to teach. You have to have a beginner’s mind if you really want to teach.
The fact that SMEs probably don’t know how to develop and deliver products in ways that align with brain science and adult learning principles is a big problem for learning businesses, whose existence depends on providing effective learning.
You have to offer the essential content your learners need and desire. But that’s just table stakes. Content alone is not enough to stand out from competitors or to ensure you’ll be effective. To ensure your offerings are effective, you have to up your game. And one obvious way to do that is by helping your subject matter experts be better teachers and presenters.Jeff Cobb
Sponsor: Web Courseworks
[12:33] – Good learning technology is also important in ensuring your offerings are effective.
Web Courseworks is a learning technologies company with an ever-evolving learning management system, CourseStage. CourseStage LMS is leveraged by organizations of all sizes to build a learning business and track education outcomes for proven success. Download the Web Courseworks guide “Four Ways an LMS Can Help Build a Revenue-Generating Learning Business,” and learn how your organization can leverage a learning management system to generate revenue for your learning practice.
The SME Excellence Opportunity for Learning Businesses
[13:34] – We just explained the situation and the problem. But, of course, where there are problems, there are very often opportunities. And there is an opportunity here, and it’s one that we’ve been talking about for a number of years now.
Going back more than a decade with our consulting practice, one of the initiatives we’ve typically recommended to organizations, particularly those that are delivering learning as part of events, online or off, is to institute what we’ve characterized as a SME excellence initiative. This kind of initiative would focus on offering tips, guidelines, and/or brief training around best practices in instructional design and adult learning then on getting the SMEs to apply those to the presentations they’re creating.
If you take that into account how essential it is for a learning business to know that its learning products are effective—because its reputation is staked on the effectiveness of those learning products—then it makes perfect sense to invest in support, education, or both for subject matter experts. If you’re going to use them in developing and delivering your products and services, you want to make sure that what they’re putting out there is backed by the science of adult learning.
Depending on the situation, support may work as well or even better than education or training. If you’re developing a self-paced e-learning course, for example, then pairing an instructional designer with a subject matter expert can work well. But if you need the subject matter expert to be solo or center stage during the design and/or delivery of the learning experience—for example, in the case of the typical conference session or Webinar—then you need to teach them to fish and teach them effective, science-backed approaches to apply. Along with that, you also should point out some of the debunked approaches to avoid.
We still hear far too much about learning styles, this idea that there are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. What the science shows is that people might have preferences, but there aren’t strict styles. Your presenters don’t need to present content one way for “visual learners” and another way for “kinesthetic learners.” People might have preferences, but most learners benefit from experiencing content, skills, or knowledge in multiple models—e.g., seeing something as a visual and hearing it talked about.
Another place where presenters may need to do some debunking is around strategies offered to learners to help them learn. Strategies like rereading and highlighting are not nearly as effective as encouraging learners to engage in active recall by having them quiz themselves or asking them to elaborate by writing about a topic and how it applies to their work or their life.
Subject matter experts often reinforce poor strategies like rereading and highlighting. SMEs don’t think enough about the role they can play in providing practice opportunities, about structuring learning so it’s spaced out over time, and about putting in the effort, as they create their presentations, to think through gaining and sustaining learners’ attention. How will the SMEs maintain relevance? How will they promote the participation that is so important to making the learning ultimately effective?
We’ve identified the problem around subject matter experts often being inexperienced as educators and pointed to the opportunity to help them be better. So why aren’t more learning businesses getting in on the opportunity to help their subject matter experts be better educators?
Objections to the Opportunity
[18:36] – There are a few issues.
One is that many learning businesses feel that they are addressing this issue because they tell their presenters to include interactivity and engagement opportunities in their presentations. It’s not surprising, though, that we hear from many organizations that their presenters aren’t listening to this advice. But, to borrow the words of Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps, “telling ain’t training.”
See our related episode “Telling Ain’t Training (Still) with Harold Stolovitch.”
The second issue is there are multiple actual or perceived barriers to doing anything more than telling:
- Learning businesses aren’t sure how to help their subject matter experts at a deeper, beyond-telling level.
- You can’t expect a subject matter expert to devote years to studying learning science. Andragogy and learning science are big broad fields, so there’s a question of how much is enough to make a difference and which principles and guidelines to focus on.
- Some learning businesses don’t think it will work for their particular type of training or their field or industry.
- Learning science is evolving. Neuroscience is relatively new, and it has enabled brain scans that offer more, richer, and faster information about what’s happening physically, mentally and emotionally when we learn.
There’s also the evolving role of technology in the brain and therefore in learning. In 2021 a computer connected to a brain-implant system discerned brain signals for handwriting in a paralyzed man that allowed him to type up to 90 characters per minute with an accuracy above 90 percent.
[21:45] – Brain-computer interfaces give us more information about how people learn and what might be possible as we rely more on technology.
Even if a learning business boils andragogy down to what is essential and true for its subject matter experts, that will based on current knowledge, findings, and technology. Someone has to keep up with new findings and theories and the implications for how subject matter experts do their work.
The complexity and ever-evolving nature of learning science has given risen to a cadre of translators, people who make it part of their life’s work to look at the new studies and findings and translate that into practical how-tos for subject matter experts. These are people like Ruth Colvin-Clark, Julie Dirksen, Will Thalheimer, Connie Malamed, Clark Quinn, and many others.
Serving as translator is also something that we do at Leading Learning through this podcast and other resources, including those listed below:
- An Essential Guide to Andragogy for Learning Businesses
- On Learning Well: A Practical Look at Metalearning for Learning Businesses
- Learning Science for Learning Businesses (Series 4)
Presenting for Impact
[23:29] – We’ve recently added a video-based online course to our offerings called “Presenting for Impact.” It’s not free, but it’s very affordable, especially compared to trying to develop something from scratch. It addresses some of the barriers we’ve outline by homing in on the most essential principles of adult learning and how they play out in a presentation that a subject matter expert might develop.
We’ve tried to make it light on theory—although there’s a lot of theory underlying it—but we don’t make that explicit in the actual course. Rather, we focus on showing rather than telling, on trying to model those best practices throughout the content of the course, and on providing opportunities for the learner to take ownership and apply the ideas that are presented.
Another barrier is that you have to convince subject matter experts to carve out the time to learn more about andragogy. But we believe that SMEs would prefer to develop and deliver something that will have an impact and make a difference rather than just phoning it in.
If you can tell [the SMEs] the story of how whatever training or support you’re offering them will improve what they produce and thereby the learning outcomes, most subject matter experts are going to jump at that. They’re going to want to do it. It’s about helping them understand what’s at stake so they engage. And then making sure that what you provide them is truly practical and helpful and hopefully compelling.Jeff Cobb
Learning businesses need to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Do more than tell. Don’t just say, “You should be engaging. You should be participatory.” Instead, show them how. For a learning business, sound, science-backed approaches to learning really are essential. Subject matter experts need to see and hear from the learning business that it takes proven methods and proven approaches seriously.
A less appreciated side of all of this is that providing subject matter expert enrichment opportunities can also help attract and retain subject matter expert talent in what’s an increasingly competitive landscape. It can help make them loyal to your learning business, and it’s something you can use as a thank-you to show that you really appreciate these people who are taking the time to create learning experiences for your learners.
Learning businesses usually face competition. Investing in subject matter excellence and enrichment helps to combat competition in two ways. First, it makes the learning products you offer better. Second, it keeps subject matter experts loyal to and connected to your learning business. The people on your team and the people in your network are almost always a differentiator and an asset in a competitive environment.
[28:16] – Wrap-up
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