How to Design Volunteer Training & Orientation
That Helps (Not Hurts) Learning
When designing volunteer training, your biggest challenge may be how to create a complete program that doesn’t scare volunteers away.
Often, organizations 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 the brain, not against it. The good news is that we now know more than ever about how the brain learns.
Four Practical Strategies for Volunteer Training
Based on how our brains learn, try these strategies to help volunteers learn without being overwhelmed.
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 habits solidify.
The “stair step” structure is the most effective learning architecture for novices and is a great way to integrate 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. It’s not about designing for individual “learning styles” (a long-held training myth that has been debunked by research).
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 some people 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. If dopamine levels are low, new information goes in one ear and out the other.
With these hormones in mind, build activities into your training 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
If we flood learners with too much information, mental overload occurs. In fact, 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 store knowledge into our long-term memory.
To improve the learning process, simplify work for the brain up front by doing the following:
- 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)
- 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, it is how we learn to learn.
People are often overwhelmed because they have not developed sufficient metacognitive skills. To help volunteers learn how to learn better, do the following:
- Categorize, chunk, and highlight text
- Gradually increase the complexity of topics
- Sequence content for frequent practice
- Use both confirming (“yes, that’s correct because…”) and corrective feedback (“no, that’s incorrect because…”)
- Give opportunities for self-reflection that focus on how and why volunteers arrived at an answer
- Provide planning tools that help volunteers put together a personal training and study plan
- Develop tip sheets, worksheets, and observation checklists that help volunteers transfer classroom learning to the real world
- Offer answer keys for learning activities so that volunteers can check their work and make corrections
Free [Tool] Volunteer Training Feedback Form
Wondering what your volunteers think about your current training and the future improvements you make?
Use our free, ready-to-use form to get candid feedback from volunteers about how to improve your orientation and training courses.
This two-page form assesses learners confidence, the instructor, facilities, methods and media, and general satisfaction and includes fields for gathering open-ended comments.