Good employees are hard to find, and even harder to keep. While this virtue is undeniably true in just about any industry, I find it to be especially true within the engineering industry. Many have heard the timeless question; is the glass half full or half empty? Optimists will respond stating the glass is half full, pessimists half empty. Engineers on the other hand will simply conclude the glass to be twice the size it needs to be. While I mention the parody in jest, its truthfulness can unveil some key insights as to the way engineers learn.

Arguably the most fundamental trait of an engineer is their innate ability to solve problems. Simple or complex, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is a conclusive yes or no answer can be found. This passion for discovering the answers to problems big and small consequently feeds into what could be described as an endless appetite for information. Much like a chef can take seemingly unrelated ingredients and make a celebrated dish, engineers have the ability to take seemingly unrelated pieces of information and assemble it together into a larger concept or idea.

Sometimes the process of assembling fragments of information into a single concept can take seconds, other times it can take days or months. Engineers have the tendency of building a relevancy engine our non-engineer friends are likely to find annoying. So why are we able to remember things our non-engineer friends cannot? In essence it boils down to the way we as engineers commit things to memory.

Most people read a book and commit it to memory in a linear manner. They memorize sequence of events, not necessarily how the events interrelate with one another. Rather than focusing on sequence, engineers focus on relevance. How does topic A relate to topic B, which then loops around and relates to topic B? This woven web of relevance would make most sane people dizzy. But the all important concept here isn’t necessarily the information web itself, but rather how we supplement it with new information over time.

Our appetite for information means we’re seeking new information on a daily basis. Those looking at us from the outside probably wander how in creation we digest such vast quantities of information day in, and day out. The secret is our internal relevancy engine. Harnessing our internal knowledgebase, we categorize all new information into one of our existing categories, or simply discard worthless information altogether. Consequently we really don’t commit any more information to memory than most other people.

Let’s say for example, a typical person reads 3 articles in a day, retaining 90% of each article. On the other hand, an engineer might double that, reading 6 articles a day, but only committing 45% of each article to memory. At the end of the day, both individuals have retained the same amount of information (270 % points). Unlike most that retain more about a small number of topics, engineers tend to retain less about a larger number of topics. In such a scenario, nearly every other word you say as a trainer will be discarded by your students.

I don’t know about you, but that number depresses me. The good news is that engineers have the ability to retain 100% of what you say, but only if they see the information as relevant. A while back I was teaching Land Desktop Fundamentals to a group of new employees. Among our new hires was one individual who had never used Land Desktop, so everything I was teaching was brand new to him. At first it didn’t seem this guy was going to do much, if any road design. Consequently he decided to skip class the day we covered road design. As luck would have it a few months later I get a call from this guy asking if I could walk him through how to design a road in LDT.

To be honest, I was a little peeved at the fact he had skipped my class, and was now calling me to teach him how to design a road. Like most such events, some other variables played into the why of skipping class. Regardless, the lack of immediate relevance certainly played a major role in his decision to skip class. As a trainer it is your job to establish as much relevance as possible in the topic you’re presenting.

Perhaps the most compelling way to create relevance to topics covered during training is to know your audience. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your students will allow you to deemphasize your students’ areas of expertise, and emphasize their weak points. Even without the luxury of knowing such details about your audience, relevance can be added by soliciting your own experiences.

Learning AutoCAD back in high school, most of our classroom exercises used architectural units. Upon entering the civil industry, I still remember overcoming the mental block that 1 foot 6 inches was not 1’6”, but rather 1.5. Based on that experience I am certain to place extra emphasis on units when teaching AutoCAD Fundamentals. Having used AutoCAD for some time now, it’s sometimes hard to remember what topics I had a hard time with when I was a rookie CAD user. For that reason I firmly believe there’s no better teacher that performing end-user support.

Despite teaching classes such as AutoCAD Fundamentals time and time again, I don’t know I have ever taught it the same twice. A major contributing factor to that has been my audience. Each class has new students with different strengths and weaknesses. This time through I may place extra emphasis on units, next time it may be plotting. For that reason I retain absolute and rigid flexibility, doing my best to tailor each class to the students attending it. Doing that will certainly help add relevance for the students you teach.

Donnie Gladfelter
Donnie is author of the book and Autodesk Official Press, AutoCAD and AutoCAD LT: No Experience Required, a columnist for AUGIWorld Magazine, Autodesk University speaker, and former member of the AUGI Board of Directors.
Donnie Gladfelter

10 thoughts on “Secret to Training Engineers

  1. Very well, makes sense… Now what can you do about engineers who are multi-tasking on projects and dealing with project schedules and clients and everything else that goes on at most engineering firms?

    I guess what I’m asking is how do you get engineers to focus on learning when they have so many other things going on? Don’t you find they loose some of the information you taught them? How many actually go right out and use what you taught them right away? Maybe I’m getting off the subject a little but this is the reality as most firms, don’t you think?

  2. Very well, makes sense… Now what can you do about engineers who are multi-tasking on projects and dealing with project schedules and clients and everything else that goes on at most engineering firms?

    I guess what I’m asking is how do you get engineers to focus on learning when they have so many other things going on? Don’t you find they loose some of the information you taught them? How many actually go right out and use what you taught them right away? Maybe I’m getting off the subject a little but this is the reality as most firms, don’t you think?

  3. The secret is quite simply to tailor your presentation to the way engineers think. Engineers commit fragments of information to their memory, and retain it based on its relevancy to other fragments already in their memory. Anyone can read a book and do exercises. So why invest in live training? Simple, because a good trainer can establish links between information that otherwise appears irrelevant to your students.

    So much emphasis is put on trainers to know their material, and know the technical components of XYZ topic. While that is important, a topic so often ignored is the importance in creating rapport with your users; both weak and strong. Doing this will allow you as a trainer to establish an accurate cross section of your users, and consequently afford you the ability to create meaningful relationships between seemingly unrelated topics.

    Being candid about the topic, such an approach is a bit of a double edge sword. As your users harness a stronger understanding about XYZ topic, they often start getting curious about other more advanced features. So the same person you were explaining LTSCALE to yesterday, is now asking for your help on annotative scaling today. Or in other words, the user requiring a 5 minute response yesterday is now asking a question requiring a 30 minute response today.

  4. The secret is quite simply to tailor your presentation to the way engineers think. Engineers commit fragments of information to their memory, and retain it based on its relevancy to other fragments already in their memory. Anyone can read a book and do exercises. So why invest in live training? Simple, because a good trainer can establish links between information that otherwise appears irrelevant to your students.

    So much emphasis is put on trainers to know their material, and know the technical components of XYZ topic. While that is important, a topic so often ignored is the importance in creating rapport with your users; both weak and strong. Doing this will allow you as a trainer to establish an accurate cross section of your users, and consequently afford you the ability to create meaningful relationships between seemingly unrelated topics.

    Being candid about the topic, such an approach is a bit of a double edge sword. As your users harness a stronger understanding about XYZ topic, they often start getting curious about other more advanced features. So the same person you were explaining LTSCALE to yesterday, is now asking for your help on annotative scaling today. Or in other words, the user requiring a 5 minute response yesterday is now asking a question requiring a 30 minute response today.

  5. So what’s the secret? I’m curios to know how you teach engineers to retain the knowledge you provide. Better yet after class how many of them actually apply what you teach. How many resort back the way they did it before. How much time do you spend answering the same questions over and over again.

  6. So what’s the secret? I’m curios to know how you teach engineers to retain the knowledge you provide. Better yet after class how many of them actually apply what you teach. How many resort back the way they did it before. How much time do you spend answering the same questions over and over again.

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