The Techniques of Instruction: a review

Review by Mike Unwalla, 2002-11-27.

Roger James, 1995. The Techniques of Instruction. Gower Publishing Ltd. 153 pages, figures, tables. ISBN 0-566-07550-4

A better title for this book is 'The techniques of instructor-led instruction', because that is what the book is about. The first line of the preface states, "This book is aimed at instructors everywhere". Later, the author states that his intention is to help people who want to become instructors. The aim of the book is to present instructors with techniques on how to improve their instructional methods.

Dr Roger James is the author of many books and reports about industrial training. When The Techniques of Instruction was published he was Principal Occupational Psychologist with the Employment Service. The techniques that he gives are based on research, instead of being based on anecdotal evidence.

The book's preface states that an instructor is a "person responsible for helping a trainee develop skilled performance at some form of activity". The author discusses the differences between classroom teaching, coaching and training. The focus of the book is training in an industrial environment.

A primary principle of the book is that "instructors are part of the training process, and without instructors training does not happen". Other forms of instruction such as simulation, "see and do" videos and computer-based training (CBT) are not discussed. The first four chapters of the book are about the role of instructors, the structure of training programmes, the effect that a trainer has on a learner's development, and the process of instruction.

Chapter five gives a model of how people learn, and the following chapter shows how people develop skills.

The relation between closed skills and open skills is discussed in chapter seven. Closed skills are small operations that can be done in isolation, without much reference to the external environment. Open skills are done in a changing world, and typically rely on decision making. Some tasks use only closed skills, and some require both open skills and closed skills.

In chapter eight, the author dispels the myth that trainees first learn accuracy, and only then focus on speed. He explains that rhythm is important, and therefore, frequently, it is necessary to learn both speed and accuracy at the same time.

Chapter nine deals with the stages of skill development. The author shows that it is important for a trainee to continue to practise, even when he or she can do a task relatively easily. The design of exercises and the preparation for instruction are dealt with in the next two chapters. The following chapter explains how to deliver instruction well.

Chapter thirteen deals with speaking to trainees. It compares good and bad instructors.

Chapter fourteen shows how important it is to prevent trainees making errors, because errors can become learned habits. Ideally, the instructor gives on-the-job verbal guidance, both before a trainee does a task, and also during the task.

Trainees will make errors; chapter fifteen deals with their correction using feedback. Four styles of feedback are compared: objective and subjective, positive and negative. The author shows how easy it is to unintentionally erode a trainee's confidence by using subjective comments. For example, "That's good" is positive, but it is also subjective. It does not specify what is good. After a while trainees begin to discount this type of comment. Conversely, "That's not right" is negative and it is subjective. The trainee needs to know what is not right. The instructor must use objective comments (ideally positive), which give factual information to the trainee. For example, "Over the last two weeks you've gained fourteen sales out of twenty"

Chapter sixteen summarises the instruction process. It assumes that an instructor will be present and can intervene when a trainee is practising.

Sometimes, the instructor cannot be with the trainee (for example, when a trainee is visiting a customer) or cannot intervene (perhaps the trainee is dealing with a customer). Chapter seventeen shows how to prepare a trainee and how to correct errors in this case.

The final chapter of the book is an instructor's toolkit. This is a useful summary of the skills, techniques and activities that are in the book.

Although the book is based on research, it is easy to read. Each chapter contains a bibliography. The bibliographies could be improved by including clear references from the text to the applicable source.

Terms such as instructor are used with a very specific meaning in the text. Therefore, a glossary would be a useful addition to the book.

The author's intention is to help people who instruct (or who want to instruct). Practising instructors will find useful insights, techniques and ideas. However, much material is is basic, and possibly, it detracts from the more meaty parts of the book. For example, chapter three deals with the usefulness of instructors. The summary of the research states what is obvious to anyone who has trained:

Possibly, it is unfair to shoot the messenger. However, this sort of information is probably self-evident to anyone who has instructed.

Another example of overkill for the experienced instructor appears in chapter five, where the author takes almost a page to show that a trainee's academic knowledge and his or her ability to do an action are different.

Although this book is likely to help both people who are very new to instruction and people who have more experience of instruction, possibly, the latter group will be irritated by the elementary content of some sections and by the author's labouring of some points.

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