Tuesday 10 November 2009

Tips for trainers - Icebreakers

Training know-how applied to laboratory science

Previously in Learning at Work we looked at the training cycle and how to set learning objectives. In this issue we are going to take a quick look at the use of icebreakers. Love them or hate them, if done well they can get your training session off to a great start. The main purposes of an icebreaker are to get your audience’s attention and to familiarise the training delegates with each other, thereby creating a relaxed learning environment. It may also be used as an opportunity to introduce the content of the training.

The interaction of the members of a group may be an integral part of training. Soft skills training courses, such as management training, often involve role playing exercises. Delegates can find these types of exercises quite challenging and a good rapport with the other members in the group will make them more successful. In technical training, such as using a piece of laboratory instrumentation, the group interaction is less critical but this does not mean that it is unimportant. Group learning situations where the learners can discuss the topic of the training and contribute questions are often preferred to learning as an individual. It can be both a good learning experience and fun.

In my experience the games beloved of some training events involving balloons, juggling balls and singing songs, to give just a few examples, do not go down well in a laboratory training environment. Much preferred is something short and fun, and if it touches on the purpose of the training, it must be relevant. Taking people out of their comfort zone so that you can then give them information relating to laboratory science is not usually productive, the best results for this type of training are obtained when the delegates are relaxed, comfortable and ready to learn.

So what should you use as an icebreaker? One of the factors to be considered is whether you already know the people you are training and if they know each other. Knowing people’s names is one method of providing a relaxed environment. If you do not know your training groups names or they do not know each other I suggest that your icebreaker should be some sort of naming exercise. This can be as simple as getting your group to introduce themselves individually, or putting them into pairs where they first have to find out about their partner and then introduce each other.

I have found that if you ask your learners to include a quick interesting fact about themselves it can lighten the mood and help you to remember who is who. You should always go first to make sure that they know it does not have to be a very personal piece of information. Quick facts that have come up in my training sessions include: It’s my birthday; I play in a band and we have our first gig tonight; I am getting married this summer; my favourite pastime is shopping. As a facilitator you should try to encourage some chat around the response given by each learner.

If you and your group all already know each other then you might want to use an icebreaker which introduces the content of the training in some way. This may involve a discussion of your delegates learning expectations. If you capture these on a flip chart you can revisit it at the end of the training. This activity also has the benefit of making the learners think about what they want and why, thus shifting the emphasis from your responsibility of telling them about the topic to their responsibility of learning about the topic. This can help get their buy in to the training.

Another icebreaker that I sometimes use for a group where we all know each other is to see if they can draw an ampersand. I show the group a printed ampersand, ‘&’, and ask if they know what it is. Everyone usually gets it straightaway. Having hidden the printed ampersand from view I then ask the members of the group to have a go at drawing it. In general, most people find it difficult especially since they are not allowed to look at an example. This activity usually goes down quite well and stimulates discussion among the group. The point that you can make relating to training is that even if you think you know about something it doesn’t always mean you can do it.

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