Create Training Activities That Work (part 1)

Writing clear performance objectives and presenting content in small amounts are just two tips to ensure that your firm educates its employees in a meaningful way.

August 23, 2016

Training is how we take inexperienced new hires and turn them into competent pest management professionals. Training enables us to survive employee turnover while still providing uninterrupted, consistent service to our clients. Training ensures that our work in pest management is safe, effective, and done in a legal manner, and that our PMPs stay current with the latest in technology and research into pest biology, behavior and control.

The quality of training we provide our employees can make the difference between pretty-good service and excellent service; between lukewarm clients and loyal clients who would never consider switching.

What is training? Maybe we should start with, “What isn’t training?” Training is not talking, showing or demonstrating, although talking, showing and demonstrating can be part of training. A great deal of what we sometimes call “training” consists of someone talking about a subject or demonstrating a skill. This by itself is not training, though it is certainly of great value as a contribution to one’s knowledge base, which can be a prerequisite for training.

If you listen to a lecture or watch a televised demonstration on how to fly a helicopter, you are not yet a trained helicopter pilot. Only when you can safely take off and land a helicopter can you make that assertion. Similarly, a technician who knows all the parts of a sprayer may be smart, but is not trained until she successfully dismantles, repairs, cleans and re-assembles the sprayer.

Education or training? Education (the acquisition of knowledge, facts, attitudes and values) is often an important prerequisite to training, but it is not, in itself, training. My brother Ted once summed up the difference between education and training like this: If your teenage daughter came home from school and said that she was starting a sex education unit in her health class the next day, you’d be okay with that, right? However, if your daughter came home and said, “Tomorrow we’re starting sex training,” you’d blow a gasket.

Favorite Games

Believe it or not, adults love to play games, and games are an effective way of cementing new knowledge and skills and fostering long-term learning. Here are brief descriptions of a few of my favorites.

Jeopardy!: Choose four, five or more categories of knowledge within the context of your training, and print them on placards that are arranged horizontally across the top of the wall. (Tape them in place with tape that won’t destroy your wall or harm the paint!) Beneath each category placard, tape a column of sheets labeled “100”, “200,” “300”, “400”, and “500,” like on the TV “Jeopardy!” game. Write a set of five quiz questions for each category, making the questions less or more difficult, depending on the point value to which they’ll be assigned. Alternating teams can choose a category and point value, and they get the dollar amount if they answer the quiz question correctly. You can insert “Daily Doubles,” which involve demonstrating a particular skill correctly. And you can do “Final Jeopardy” at the end, where competing teams can wager none, some or all of their accrued winnings on one final question.

Scavenger Hunt: Give a reading assignment (your company’s chosen reference manual, Truman’s Scientific Guide, Smith and Whitman’s NPMA Field Guide, or some other technical material, and hand out cards with information to be found. The team that successfully acquires the answers to the most questions wins. To maximize the value of this game, the activity leader should reinforce correct answers verbally, and encourage discussion of the information.

Pictionary: Prepare a set of cards naming various pest management concepts: sanitation, exclusion, label, personal protective equipment, FIFRA, and so on. Then, have the group play a version of Pictionary in which alternating teams must send forth a person to draw a representation of the concept on a flip chart.

Pest Pursuit: Played like Trivial Pursuit, this involves arranging the material being taught into categories as for Jeopardy!, above. Teams roll a die and advance on a board mounted on the wall, trying to collect a correct answer from each category (perhaps green for Safety, blue for Biology, red for Pest ID, orange for Equipment, brown for Control Strategies).

Poker: I’ve used this one to practice with inspection criteria of the various third-party audit agencies, such as AIB, ASI, Silliker, SQF, etc. The group studies the criteria of the differing agencies as they pertain to multiple categories: importance of having a written pest management program; spacing of internal rodent traps; spacing of external rodent devices; frequency of service for internal and external devices; and any other inspection criteria you care to highlight in your training activity. Then, distribute cards you have made, on which are listed the inspection criteria of each of the agencies whose standards you want your people to know. Assign a specific audit agency to each of several teams (there will be as many teams as there are audit agencies to be studied.) Deal each team a number of cards equal to the number of criteria they will have to collect. Starting from the “hand” they were dealt, teams must discard, and pick up from the deck, the correct cards they need in order to accumulate a hand that includes all of the correct criteria for the audit agency assigned to them.

Admittedly, this game fails almost as often as it succeeds. It tends to either annoy people, or it turns into a complete riot.

Bottom line: Adult learners learn best when they are having fun. The more fun we’re having while learning, the more effectively we learn. People learn more when they get to interact with the material they are trying to learn.

So get out there and have fun with learning and training!

The outcome of education is knowing facts, understanding concepts and acquiring values. The outcome of training is doing something correctly.

By now you’ve figured out that many of the events we refer to as “training meetings” are really educational meetings, where training may or may not take place.

Let’s start with two important precepts:

Training has occurred when behavior has been transformed; and

The more people are required to do as part of training (interaction), the more effective the training is.

Whether we need our people to acquire technical skills or manual skills, fill out paperwork correctly, or relate effectively to their clients, we transform behavior — we train. Training might consist of imparting one skill on a one-on-one basis, or in front of a group; or it might involve an entire day of training in one or a variety of topics. For new employees or for employees being trained in specialized skills such as food-processing pest management, training might take place over multiple days — or even many weeks. Whichever is the case, training is done by following certain steps. Here are those steps.

1. Is there a need for training? By way of illustrating this, let’s say that your best technician, Joe, has received six speeding tickets and a reckless-driving citation in the past three years, and his poor driving record has started to raise havoc with your auto insurance rates. So you decide to enroll him in a driver training school to “fix” his problem. The course starts with a behind-the-wheel evaluation of each student’s driving skills, and Joe passes easily. He knows how to drive; he doesn’t need driving training. He needs a disciplinary plan involving consequences for making poor decisions behind the wheel. In this case, there’s a problem, for sure; but training is not the answer.

Here’s another example: Benny services some food plants, and one of them flunked an inspection recently because the inspector found traps that had not been serviced in several months. So you go to the account with Benny and ask him to show you how he services a rodent trap. He does so flawlessly. Also in this case, the problem is not a lack of training; Benny needs help in deciding to apply the skills he already has.

One more example: Alex is driving a full-sized weed-control truck with a 100-gallon spray tank, 300-gallon nurse tank, pump and two hose reels, and the truck is fully stocked with 500 pounds of chemical. Approaching a curve in the road while traveling too fast for conditions, she loses control of the truck, rolls it and spills most of its contents in the ditch. The only driver training Alex ever had was back in high school, in a compact Saturn sedan. In this case, at least part of the problem is that there is a lack of training. Alex has not had an opportunity to acquire and practice the necessary skills for driving a large weed rig.

You can fix inexperience and unfamiliarity with training, but you can’t fix stubbornness, or indifference, or laziness, with training. If the problem you are thinking of addressing through training isn’t due to lack of skills, training isn’t the issue. Find another solution: discipline, choosing different tools or materials, or re-assigning the employee to a job in which they’re more interested.

2. Business need. One way to prove to yourself that there is a need for a training activity is to write a business need statement, sometimes called a rationale. A business need statement describes the problem or deficiency you hope to fix through training. It states your current situation, describes what you’d like the situation to be, and concludes that training is necessary in order to get from where you are to where you’d like to be.

Here’s a quick example of a business need, or rationale statement, that might prove a need for you to design a training activity: “Our company has decided to offer a bioremediation service to our food service clients. Specialized equipment and techniques are required in order for this service to be successful, and our technicians also need to know how to explain this new service to our clients. Currently, our technicians are unfamiliar with the principles behind bioremediation, so they cannot explain it adequately to our clients; and they are not able to use and maintain the specialized equipment associated with this service. Therefore, a combination of some study and some hands-on practice would ensure that our workforce understands the principles of bioremediation and properly uses the equipment towards excellent results for our clients.”

Armed with a well written business need statement, you’re ready to take the next step: Writing performance objectives.

3. Objectives. In addition to determining whether or not there is a real need for training, and then writing a business need to demonstrate to yourself the need for training, there is another step that you must take in order to create effective training. You must, repeat must, say again MUST, write a small number of performance objectives. If you do, your training activity will be focused, relatively easy to create and will have a satisfactory outcome. If you don’t, you’ll spend hours of unnecessary time writing down anything that comes to mind; you’ll forget to include some important content; you’ll put stuff in that you don’t need; and the training activity will wander all over the place. No one will know what you’re trying to accomplish, least of all yourself.

At its very simplest, a performance objective is a statement of what the learner will do or say as a result of having taken part in the training activity. For example: “The learner will define bioremediation as the use of microbial agents to eliminate the grease, grime and other material in which small flies breed.”

You can get a little fancier, if you like. Robert F. Mager, in his little book, “Preparing Instructional Objectives,” defined the process of writing a performance objective as describing what the learner will do or say as a result of taking part in the training activity, under a given set of circumstances. According to Mager, you should also define the criterion for successful performance of the trained task. A properly phrased performance objective, according to Mager, would look like this: “Given a Foamer Simpson foam applicator, a quart bottle of Bio Foam concentrate, a supply of water and a food service account with scummy drains and grimy surfaces, the learner will assess the problem, mix a solution of Bio Foam in the applicator sprayer, and apply it correctly, according to instructions given by the manufacturer.”

When writing performance objectives, avoid words like “understand,” “know,” “comprehend” and other words that don’t translate to a person actually doing or saying something. Instead, performance objectives should contain an action verb:

  • The learner will apply Bio Foam according to label directions.
  • The learner will list the characteristics that distinguish an insect from other arthropods.
  • The learner will show where to find storage and disposal instructions on a pesticide label.
  • The learner will disassemble a sprayer and demonstrate how to inspect and clean the filter screen.

Using the more detailed method taught by Mager, you’d write objectives like this:

  • “Given the ant identification key found in Smith and Whitman’s NPMA Field Guide to Structural Pests, the learner will examine an unknown ant specimen and identify it correctly to species.”
  • “Given a B&G or similar compressed-air sprayer and a set of tools, the learner will disassemble the sprayer and show the pump, the check valve, the tank seal gasket, the filter screen, the valve stem, valve seat and gasket, and the nozzle, to the satisfaction of the instructor.”

Limit the number of performance objectives to a realistic number for any single activity. Six or seven is probably a reasonable number of objectives for training in a single skill. More than that and things get too busy; you lose focus; and your learners get overwhelmed. Break things up into manageable chunks. If you find yourself writing too many objectives, that probably means you need to create multiple training activities or modules.

Writing clear, concise learning objectives will provide a laser focus to your training activity and will ensure that you only put content into it that needs to be there. Your training events will be shorter, content more relevant and work will be easier.

If I may, I’d like to get a little pushy for just a moment: If you want to get good at training, get yourself a copy of Mager’s book. It’s available on for as little as eight bucks (used), and it’s short (sorry, not available for Kindle). You can read it in an afternoon. I read this book back in teaching college in the ’70s, but it didn’t really sing to me until I used it to create training for PMPs.

4. Preparation. Having said that acquiring knowledge and values (education) is not the same thing as acquiring skills (training), it’s likely that you will need your trainees to come to the training experience with some prerequisite knowledge, or that you might need to start a training exercise with a little lecture — sort of like “laying the foundation” on which you’ll build your training. It’s OK to require learners to do homework first, or to start the training series with a little chalk-talk (or whiteboard presentation), slide show or demonstration.

For example, we start our termite-training seminars with an evening’s worth of PowerPoint lectures on termite identification and biology; principles of building construction; pesticide modes of action; safety; and some study and a quiz on the label directions of the termiticide we plan to use. Similarly, participants in our food-processing pest management seminars are required to read several instructional pieces, including the chapter of Truman’s Scientific Guide to Pest Management Operations that pertains to pest management in food plants, as well as AIB’s Consolidated Standards for Food Safety, and a few other preparatory items. They must then complete a written quiz on the reading assignments prior to coming to the training event. In this way, time is saved during the actual training activity, because learners come prepared with the facts and values they need in order to successfully take part in the training.

5. Types of training. Whether you’re training on a single skill, or putting together an entire day of training, or a multi-week course of initial job training, all training can be broken into smaller pieces in which objectives are defined, content is chosen or created, and opportunities are provided for individuals or groups to practice with the new information or skills. Some typical types of training are described below.

Formal Classroom Training: There is a great deal of information pest control technicians must know in order to be able to prevent and control pests. As you design your initial classroom training, sit down and ask yourself, “What things does a first-year technician need to be able to do and say?” Write these things on one column of a page of paper. In a second column, list some available resources you could use to train on those skills: reading assignments with corresponding worksheet exercises; video presentations with quizzes afterward (or a pre- and post-quiz); training materials supplied by pesticide manufacturers; available online learning content; demonstrations by a supervisor or more experienced technician; and so on. Make sure to include all of the kinds of things you want new technicians to be good at in your initial training outline: safety, people skills, pest identification and control, and the inevitable paperwork which, if performed poorly, will get your technicians in trouble.

On-the-job training goes hand-in-hand with classroom training. As you did for classroom subjects, list all of the skills you want a new technician to do for the first time under the guidance of someone more experienced, and list them in a checklist. This way you ensure everything you want your people to be able to do is combined with a hands-on training event.

Training Meetings: For instructor-led short sessions or day-long training meetings, include a variety of types of training: technical topics, safety, people skills, and those administrative and paperwork topics that so often get neglected. Then, for each session, design the training according to the guidelines given above: present a little content and then practice with it, using some kind of evaluation (a quiz, perhaps) to prove to yourself that you accomplished the objectives of your training events.

New Skill: Perhaps you are beginning work with a new type of client, or your company has acquired some new equipment. In this case, bring the people together who need to service the new account or use the new technology, and use whatever presentation material (e.g., lecture, PowerPoint presentation, reading assignment) to get the material in front of them. If a demonstration is in order, do that. Then, guide the group to familiarity with the material by means of hands-on practice or an actual job assignment using the new skills or equipment. For example, a termite training class should involve some lecture-based presentation and some preparatory study; but it should culminate in everybody inspecting, taking appropriate safety precautions, reviewing labels, mixing chemical, trenching, rodding, applying termiticide, and helping with cleanup.

Online Training: For companies whose personnel are far-flung and cannot easily all get together in one place, some training content can be delivered online. Keep in mind the limitations of Web-based learning, namely that successfully clicking on the right buttons does not constitute training. To the extent possible, combine small amounts of content with lots of practice – short “knowledge checks,” case-study scenarios, and other ways for the online learner to explore and practice with new content. When choosing off-the-shelf computer-based training courses or materials, review them and select those that offer the most opportunities for learners to practice with the material.


The author is technical director at Plunkett’s Pest Control, Fridley, Minn. He can be reached at