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Procedures. A series of steps we take to complete a task. Something we do “step-by-step. Make coffee. Assemble a widget. File a report. For this post we’ll look at well-defined procedures: those where the steps are well known. For more ambiguous procedures, we’ll use problem-solving methods (in a post that’s yet to come).
Making It Clear, Step-by-Step
Why Procedural Learning Matters
Following procedures efficiently gets us through the day. Without procedures, we’d have to re-invent how to do ordinary things all day long. Brush our teeth, make the bed, start the car, open a document, deposit a check, record a sale.
How to Teach a Procedure
Here is a straightforward way to teach a well-defined procedure to students who can be with you as you’re teaching them.
- Show the Beginning and Ending. You want your learners to recognize when to start doing the procedure and when the procedure has been completed.
For example, an empty coffee pot (beginning) and a steaming cup of coffee (ending).
- Show Step One. Explain and demonstrate how to do the first step or the first few steps, if they are short and easy to follow. (If there are a number of things that can be done in parallel, then start with a logical first step.)
Measure and pour beans into grinder, cover grinder, push button to grind the beans. Stop when the sound tells you that the beans are ground.
- Practice Step One. Have the learners try the first step (or the first few). Offer assistance and encouragement.
Answer questions, offer correcting and confirming feedback. Make sure everyone can do this first step.
- Continue Through All Steps. Continue with the steps until the end of the procedure. Make sure to give practice and to provide feedback throughout.
Stop to discuss sticking points or potential pitfalls with the learners along the way. Solicit their questions, input, and tips as you go. They may have experience that will enrich the learning for everyone.
- Review the End State. Discuss how you can tell if you’ve done the procedure correctly. Make connections with how they’ll follow this procedure in the future (assists with transfer).
Enjoy (we hope) the coffee.
- Give a Test. Test the learners’ ability to follow the procedure by having them execute it from beginning to end without your help.
The learners make coffee on their own.
- Communicate Results. Grade the results of the test and let your learners know how they’ve done.
Evaluate and communicate how they did once the test coffee is made.
- Concepts. If the learners must acquire specific concepts to learn a procedure, then teach the concepts as they are needed. The more difficult or essential the concepts, the more time you should devote to teaching the concepts separately.
- Multiple Ways to Do the Same Thing. If there are multiple ways to do something, pick one that will work most of the time and teach that. Don’t provide three different ways to do the same thing unless there’s a good reason. You’ll avoid confusion this way. Your learners can learn alternate methods after they’re comfortable with the first way.
- Decision Points & Multiple Paths. If there are decision points in the procedure that cause branching paths, teach the main path first, then add the branches.
- Fluency. When teaching procedures, be sure to decide whether your learners should learn them by memory or if they can follow a job aid (at least for a while). Also decide how automatically the task must be completed. Where there are safety issues associated with executing a task quickly and/or flawlessly, then you’ll want to include ample time to practice.
- Distance Learning. Figure out how to explain or demonstrate at a distance (for example, video, online, in print). Also, determine how the learners will obtain feedback. How will they know whether they did the steps correctly or not?
- Snowballing. Teach one step; the learners practice. Teach the second step; the learners practice. Now have the learners practice steps one and two together. Continue this way, having the learners learn and practice one step and then practice all the steps they’ve learned so far, until you reach the last step of the procedure. This can be helpful when the learners must memorize the steps.
- Backward Chaining. Learn and practice the steps of a procedure in reverse order. Start with the last step; teach and they practice. Then the next-to-last step and so forth until you reach the first step. This works great for kids learning to tie their shoes.
Without procedures, we’d be lost. Imagine if you had to read and follow instructions every time you wanted to do something with steps: take a shower, pull a weed, balance your checkbook. In fact, once we know how to do a procedure well then doing it becomes automatic. We call this “knowing something by heart.” You don’t have to think about it, you just do it.
A great thing about teaching procedures is that it is relatively easy to design the instruction. What must they do? Where do they start? What are the steps? How well or quickly must they do this? Once we can answer those questions, we can list the steps in order and get ready to teach.
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