volunteer training How to Design a Volunteer Training Program that Boosts Learning

When designing a volunteer training program, the biggest challenge is how to create a training process that doesn’t scare volunteers away.

Often, the programs I work with have daunting amounts of information volunteers must learn in order to perform with confidence.

Programs must be assured that volunteers know their role so that they can manage risk. Volunteers want to learn new things, have fun, and deliver on their missions with pride.

So, how can volunteer and program needs be balanced? By developing training that works with our brains, not against them. The good news is that we now know more than ever about how the brain learns.

A Little Background on How Learning Happens

Learning is a physiological process that actually changes our bodies. As we learn, tiny dendrites (or fibers) grow on our brain’s neurons. They can only grow from what is already in place, biologically speaking (which also happens to be the previous knowledge we have developed).

When dendrites grow near each other, they form a small contact point called a synapse. Chemicals called neurotransmitters carry electrical signals that travel across synapses transmitting messages and information that is learned.

By practicing a skill, synapses become wider as more neurotransmitters are stored there. Also, dendrites grow thicker and are less subject to interference. With enough practice, dendrites build a double connection that lasts, and we can then remember what we have learned.

It takes time and practice spent performing a task for dendrites to grow. The practice is what strengthens the architecture of our brains and thus our ability to remember.

Consider these statistics:

  • If you learn something new and do it only once or twice, the dendrite connection is very fragile and can disappear within hours;
  • Within 20 minutes, you remember only 60%;
  • Within 24 hours, you remember only 30%;
  • But if you practice within 24 hours, and then practice again later, you remember 80%.

Four Practical Strategies to Design a Volunteer Training Program

Based on how our brains learn, try these strategies to help volunteers navigate your training program without being overwhelmed by it.

1) Integrate Practice Into Training
If we practice the wrong thing for too long, we form ”bad habits” that become ingrained. So, it is very important to get timely feedback before those dendrites solidify.

The “stair step” structure is the most effective architecture for the transfer of learning for novices and is a great way to integrate the timely practice into learning. With this approach, the instructor explains the concept, illustrates how to do the skill, invites learners to try it, and finally gives supportive feedback.

Interactivity is the key, not conforming to individual “learning styles” (a long-held training myth that has been debunked by research). The goal of training is to generate knowledge and change, not just to file away info that can somehow be pulled out when needed.

Case studies and scenarios lend themselves to this type of architecture and give volunteers the chance to practice before they try their new skills out in the real world.

2) Feed the Right Emotions
Learning is also an emotional process that is fueled by hormones, three in particular.

  • Adrenaline, fueled by anxiety and our “fight or flight” response, makes it hard for the neurotransmitters to carry messages across the synapses in your brain; this causes learners to “blank out” on tests.
  • Endorphins are produced when we relax, exercise, laugh, or learn new things. If we produce calming hormones, they can counteract the limiting effects of stress.
  • Dopamine is released in the brain when something is perceived as new, exciting, or rewarding. Dopamine also helps regulate movement and emotional responses; it enables us not only to see rewards but to also take action to move toward them. For many volunteers, learning new things is very rewarding; so, the training itself can help them retain new information. On the other hand, if dopamine levels are low new information goes in one ear and out the other.

With this in mind, build activities into your volunteer training program that help volunteers relax and have fun, and be sure to reward them for achievements with praise as well as new information that piques their interest.

3) Reduce Cognitive Overload
When we are encoding knowledge, our working memory is used first. But, its capacity is limited. If we flood it with too much information, mental overload occurs. Research estimates that only 3-5 pieces of information can be stored in the working memory at a time.

If our working memory is corrupted by cognitive overload, we are unable to transfer knowledge into our long-term memory, which has a much greater capacity for information storage. To improve how this process works, do everything you can to simplify work for the brain upfront:

  • Remove any content that is not absolutely “need to know” (give learners links to additional optional info they can read on their own)
  • Relate new information to existing knowledge learners may have (icebreakers are great ways for learners to share their own personal experiences with the topic at hand)
  • Maintain a consistent look and feel to the training materials (fonts, colors, graphics, etc.)
  • Use simple, flat graphics and visuals versus those that are complex and overly detailed (cartoons are great, if they are done well)
  • To extend the capacity of the working memory, explain visuals with audio (versus text, which uses too much “brain bandwidth”)

4) Support Metacognitive Skill Building
Metacognitive skills make us aware of our own knowledge, the ability to understand, control and manipulate our own cognitive process. In short, they are what we learn in order to be able to learn.

Volunteers, like many of us, are often overwhelmed because they have not developed sufficient metacognitive skills. To help volunteers learn how to learn better use tactics to build metacognitive skills such as:

  • Categorized, chunked, and highlighted text
  • Gradually increased complexity of topics
  • Sequenced content for frequent practice
  • Both confirming (“yes, that’s correct because…”) and corrective feedback (“no, that’s incorrect because…”)
  • Opportunities for self-reflection that focus on how and why volunteers arrived at an answer
  • Planning tools that help volunteers put together a personal training and study plan
  • Tip sheets, worksheets, and observation checklists that help volunteers transfer classroom learning to the real world
  • Answer keys for learning activities so that volunteers can check their work and make corrections

Want to Learn More?

If you want to read state-of-the art info about evidence-based training methods, check out these three excellent books on the topic:

What are your favorite tricks and tips for volunteer training and learning?  Share them in the comments link!