During training, do you want to show how to do it wrong as well as how to do it right?

It depends on the trainees. Training that uses negative examples can be effective if the trainees are already on somewhat firm ground as far as the
material. If they’re not, showing them the “wrong way” to do something will just make them more confused.

The research
That’s the take-home from a recent doctoral dissertation by a Vanderbilt math professor. The prof designed lesson plans showing both “right way” and “wrong way” solutions to math problems.

The researcher found that students who’d started out with with a more solid grasp of the material strengthened their understanding further.

Incorrect examples helped them see what happens if you go down the wrong path, and why the “right way” is right.

But for those who had misconceptions about the material to begin with, incorrect examples didn’t improve their performance. In fact, the negative
examples tended to confuse these learners.

Implications for trainers
These findings suggest that “wrong way” examples may be better for experienced learners than for newbies.

That makes intuitive sense: For veterans, a “bad” example often resonates with their own experience.

So, for example, if you’re training seasoned customer-service people on how to respond to an irate customer, it helps to show what happens if they try to debate the customer’s version of events. “Yep, that’s what happened when I tried it,” the learner thinks.

But inexperienced learners don’t have that frame of reference, so it’s harder to remember which examples were “right” and which were “wrong.” It’s better to teach them just one way to do it.

Here are some specific ways to use bad examples to train experienced workers:

1. Assessment. Use wrong examples to diagnose learners’ knowledge. The examples can highlight misconceptions and forgotten knowledge, helping you focus your training.

You can use them in formal assessments before the training begins. You can also use them informally as you go along, to confirm understanding. For example, you might simply present a flawed scenario and ask for comments.

2. Exploring gray areas. Egregiously bad examples are fun, but don’t teach much. The most useful ones involve gray areas – for example, plausible, common or subtle mistakes that could trip up even the most experienced workers, or exceptions to a general rule.

Gray-area examples also boost your credibility as a trainer. They show that you understand the job and what the learners are likely to face.

3. Building confidence and morale. Ironically, bad examples can make learners feel good. They signal to learners: “This stuff is hard; expect some mistakes.”

Also, learners will be more confident if they understand not only what to do, but what not to do. If they see a bad example, they’ll know how to avoid it.

Source: Durkin, K., (2012). The Effectiveness of Incorrect Examples and Comparison When Learning About Decimal Magnitude. Dissertation submitted to Vanderbilt University graduate school.

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