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  • Tom Brooksher

The Art of Teaching Steps

Often we’re called on to develop curriculum that teaches how to perform a task. It’s fundamental “how-to” training that can apply to everything from technical skills to soft skills. And it can range from a very simple two- or three-step process to a very complicated activity that may require a dozen or more activities.

In many ways, teaching someone to perform a task is like developing assembly instructions, those often-vexing directions that come with your latest purchase of a retail product. However, IKEA, the retail giant founded in Sweden, re-imagined these instructions with a word-free, simply illustrated approach to assembly and installation. The first illustration below is for installing a magnetic knife holder. There are no words, only line drawings. The instructions keep it exceedingly simple—just two steps in the case of this product—and avoid the obvious. And they anticipate problems, such as the second illustration that shows how to avoid pinching your fingers.

Tips for developing instructions

Inspired by IKEA, here are four tips for developing better task instruction.

1. Perform a task analysis, then simplify: You need to know what has to be done and in what sequence before you can teach someone how to do it; that’s the role of task analysis. First, observe the task being performed multiple times, ideally by several different people who are experienced doing it, then break it down into steps. But don’t stop there: Practice doing the task multiple times yourself. When you feel competent, stop and look for ways to simplify the process. For example, do steps 3 and 4 need to be separate, or is it really just a two-part step? Do you need step 5 at all, or is it self-evident? If the latter, it's only noise that will slow down learning.

After you have a complete list of the steps and are sure they're all necessary and in the right order, look for ways to organize them. This is critical if you have more than four steps. A 10-step process is much more difficult to follow and remember than a four-step process that includes all the same tasks. By challenging yourself to break 10 steps into four groups of steps, you organize the process for the learner.

2. Illustrate more, tell less: As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words—and a video or a live demonstration is probably worth a million. It’s not a bad idea to write out the steps first, but challenge yourself to convert as many of the instructions as possible to images. You might not get to IKEA’s graphic-only directions; a few words with a good illustration can be extremely powerful. But if you strive to show everything possible and use just enough words to complement the visual instructions, you’ll likely end up with very efficient learning.

Also, visual instruction bridges language differences. In the product instruction business, that’s extremely important. International sellers typically have to translate their product directions into several languages. The result is an instruction sheet that slows down the user because they have to find the directions in their own language before they can use them. It’s also expensive for the manufacturer. IKEA minimizes the cost while making the instruction more efficient by using very few words to teach the process. As we train an increasingly diverse workforce, this becomes more and more important to effective curriculum design.

3. Anticipate mistakes and misinformation: During the task analysis, actively look for places someone could make a mistake. Then either show them how to avoid it with a separate illustration (like step 2 in the IKEA directions), or develop the process for that step to make it virtually impossible to make the mistake.

While you're anticipating mistakes, also anticipate misinformation. Adults come to training with decades of life experience. And while they may not have performed the task previously, they’ve probably done things that they think are similar and that may influence their expectations for how to perform the task you’re teaching them. Stop and think about what misinformation students may bring to the learning. Also, ask your subject matter experts for examples of mistakes and misinformation they’ve seen. Sometimes, it’s as important to correct misinformation as it is to teach the correct process.

4. Don’t forget to tell, show, do and apply: Or you may have learned it as "tell, demonstrate, practice." It doesn’t matter what you call the steps; just make sure to build them into the curriculum. They’re fundamental to teaching a multi-step task. (We see training all the time that stops at the “tell” step.)

Performing the task analysis and building curriculum to communicate it to students are critical, but you’re just getting started. The real art of this kind of learning design is to create a complete learning experience that explains what needs to be done, then creates a structured experience that lets students do it themselves in a safe, supportive learning environment. And it gives them the opportunity to practice the task as many times as they need, until they are ready to perform it real-time with competence and confidence.

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