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Dealing with students failing your training program

April 2, 2010

After days, weeks and sometimes months of preparation, the student steps up to the assessor’s plate, takes a valiant swing and … misses.

In some cases they get a second chance, possibly a third, but like all previous attempts, success proves to be beyond their reach. The student has, dare I say it, FAILED.

With that simple statement, the blame has been lifted from the workplace and unfortunately with it, responsibility for any past or future actions relating to this iteration of the training program.

I’m not (completely) serious of course. A failure in the workplace is quite a serious occurrence. Resources are lost, futures are on the line and there is a sense of loss (occasionally relief) that sweeps through the team. Not everybody feels responsible as such, but we all can’t help wondering if things could have been done a little better.

So who do we blame? If it is a single occurrence, it is easy to point an accusing finger at the student – the program worked last time didn’t it?. If it is a chain of failures, we start looking for a common denominator. Of course one of these recurring factors is a ‘failing student’ and with the help of a misguided loyalty to our training program, we end up dragging them back into the equation, albeit with a little more compassion or justification for their lack of success e.g. recruiting can’t get the right people, they needed more life experience, this job isn’t for everyone etc.

I’m not saying that everyone is this near-sighted about an opportunity for improvement, but in my experience, this is an alarmingly frequent response. It’s almost like pinning the blame on a single point of failure allows the team to move on and get back to work, comfortable that the mystery has been solved.

The best advice I can give to training managers is something that was said to me by a four year old (who was suffering a vigorous lecturing at the time); “you know, when you point at me, three fingers are pointing back at you”.

So what do those disarming words mean to a training manager?

Well, it means that we should take a long hard look at the the entire process and not just the poor sod facing the unemployment line. They are rarely the only cause and in all likelihood, would have been successful under different circumstances. This is a opportunity to make your training program better, more effective and less demanding on the student (not to mention the trainers and the rest of the workplace).

Start with changing your view. The student hasn’t actually failed, it is the training program that failed.

Your student is in fact only part of the training program. Don’t get me wrong, they are a significant component and may in fact be the major contributing factor to the outcome. However, a failure is typically the result of many smaller constituents (usually insignificant in isolation and often present throughout previous iterations of the training program) combining with some new element/s (weaker student, inexperienced trainer, lack of resources, new material, evolving workplace etc).

The key point is to examine the training program in its entirety to identify the areas that need improvement and avoid a recurrence of this resource wastage. There are four main areas that you should assess to achieve this.

  • The Student
  • The Trainers
  • The Environment
  • The Program

You probably notice that it forms a nice little acronym ‘STEP’. The order of these isn’t particularly important with the exception of the last one. By tackling that particular area with the information obtained from the other three, you you can better determine exactly where things became ‘unstuck’ and identify the necessary changes to remedy the problem next time around.

I’ll examine each area over the next few posts and finish with an action plan for dealing with multiple student failures.

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