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Training Professors to be Trainers (and vice-versa)

It happens all the time to department chairs in a college. You have an extra class to cover, no one to teach it, and a colleague suggests an individual for the job who “teaches that in industry.” You have a short deadline, so after meeting the person and guiding her or him through the hoops of your institution’s adjunct hiring process, you turn the individual loose in the classroom.

Or, as chair, you receive a call from a local business: “Our company needs some training in [fill in the blank], and we wonder if you or one of your faculty can help us out?”

Sometimes these stories have happy endings, sometimes not, but most often we are not really sure. Colleges and businesses operate in two quite different environments, and it takes a Janus-like quality to succeed in both.

This article begins with an overview of organizational training today, then covers some of the major differences between the college and business or industry learning environments, and finally makes some suggestions for moving between the two.

How large is the training industry?

United States business and industry surpassed $164 billion in direct cost spending on formal employee training in 2012. Of this amount, $18 billion was for tuition reimbursement and $46 billion was for external services, of which colleges or their faculty can claim a significant portion. Companies in the United States spent, on average, over 3.5% of payroll on training, a number which has almost doubled in a decade.

External training may be provided by consultants, colleges, trade schools, vendors, suppliers, industry associations, and a host of other sources. The problem for the organization becomes one of finding and selecting from among viable options. It is a growing market for our schools and our faculty! So, there is no question that colleges and individual professors have many opportunities to provide training to organizations. The main question is, how prepared are they to provide a quality learning experience focused on the needs of the business as well as the trainees?

How is training different from education?

Training requires providing information and direction in a planned and structured manner to an organization’s employees, customers, or clients. It teaches how to accomplish specific tasks related to organizational needs and objectives by focusing on facts and procedures, but seldom on concepts unless they are essential to applying the facts and procedures. Training should lead to permanent behavioral change and measurable improvement in job performance.

Education is a far more general category. It includes the offerings by public and private schools at all levels. Education is essential to functioning in society at large. It encompasses both general concepts and specific facts, and leads to improved understanding and sometimes to improved skills, as well as a different way of thinking about and approaching issues. Figure 1 compares some of the key differences between learning in an academic setting and receiving training in an organization.

Figure 1 compares some of the key differences between learning in an academic setting and receiving training in an organization.

How is training delivered within the organization?

Most organizational training still happens on the job and informally. For off-the-job training, just over half is still provided in stand-up, instructor-led sessions. Classroom trainers need presentation and delivery skills; though exactly how they present and deliver will vary from one situation to another. Technology-based delivery is the fastest growing category, with significant increases in recent years. It now accounts for almost 40% of all training done in organizations. Trainers who are involved with distance learning or technology-based training obviously need a different set of skills from those who meet in person with the trainees.

How can an academic fit into an organizational training program?

Professors who teach in business for the first time often make a number of mistakes. Here are three major areas of caution: trying to educate instead of train, not adequately identifying with the trainees, and overdoing the inductive rather than deductive teaching styles.

You are being paid to train the class, not educate it. You probably know much more about your subject than your trainees need to know. The confusion in his area partly arises because in business you will often need to choose and design your content from scratch. You will not have an approved curriculum guide or textbooks to help you. The company which hired you to come in needs their employees (or customers, perhaps) to understand how to do a portion of their job to a satisfactory level to meet organizational needs and objectives. You may know the names of the theorists and the origins of the material, but your class only needs to know how to apply it to their job. Keep it simple.

Connect with your class, probably more so than you do in college. You need to know and use the jargon of the organization where your trainees work. If they hear you using too many textbook terms or speaking in the abstract, you will lose credibility. When the subject is not unique to a specific company’s environment – statistics, for example – this may be less important, but you should at least know some basic facts about the company’s product, competitors, management, and other key information. Just because you are in front of a class in a company does not grant you the more-or-less automatic credibility that you may receive as a college professor. I once did a supervisory program at a division of TRW where the training director introduced me like this: “This is Professor Vaughn. He’s going to teach you how to be a supervisor.” Most of the class had already been supervisors for years, and many were older than I was. Every one there was on edge. Before I completely lost them, I explained a bit about myself. “I’ve been a supervisor in a union environment with as many as 50 subordinates. I’m an industrial engineer and even if I can’t run your machines, I understand what they do.” The atmosphere lightened measurably and they were more willing to participate after that.

Ask frequent questions of the trainees. You need to find out how your trainees are doing as the program progresses. You have only hours or days, not an entire term to meet the training objectives. Frequent questioning will involve trainees in the process much more actively. The questions must require the learner to respond to specific points showing that they have heard, accepted, understood, and can apply what they have just learned. To involve the learners and tap into group dynamics even more, have the learners do something or create something. Learning needs to be used in order to be retained. A number of people working together with common interests can learn faster than the same persons working alone. Adults do not necessarily need the input or feedback of the trainer – they can learn from peers. The trainer’s role may be simply to ensure that this learning occurs and is accurate. How will a trainer and training be evaluated?As indicated in Figure 1, much training is not evaluated at all – at least formally. ASTD studies indicate that well over 80% of training uses a “smile sheet,” but these have notoriously low validity and relate almost exclusively to the trainer and the conditions of the training, not the learning which was accomplished. When it comes down to actually seeing if employees learned what they were supposed to, the level of measurement drops well below 40%, and into single digit percentages regarding whether they use the training on the job to make a difference for the organization. The training field is showing a greater concern for better measures of the return on investment, but evaluation is often so informal that the trainer’s only feedback may be whether or not they are invited to return.

What are the major concerns about an organizational trainer teaching in colleges?

Looking back at Figure 1, some of the differences between the environments are so obvious that they will automatically be handled in the orientation and hiring process. An individual without the academic credentials required by the college or accrediting agency will not be hired. The department chair is probably going to explain to the trainer/adjunct faculty person that the course uses a certain textbook, that chapters such and such should be covered, that the class meets at a certain time for eleven or sixteen weeks, and so on.

As a department chair and former dean of business, most of my problems with new faculty who came from an organizational training background can be summarized into just a few categories: grading, delivery of content, and dealing with student motivation.

Grading. Trainers do not usually have to do this, and many do not know how to create a decent test instrument. If they evaluate at all in business and industry, it is often in a hands-on and company-specific process. Be sure the new adjunct faculty member is aware of such aids as the instructor’s manual and test bank. If possible, assign a mentor who has taught the course and understands basic psychometrics. Trainers who are teaching college for the first time also need to know that true-false and multiple choice tests are not always appropriate. I usually found that trainers are more reluctant than full-time faculty to give low grades, and often do not want to give enough tests to provide an adequate basis for determining the grades they give. Writing and grading tests is uncomfortable (they do not know how), takes a lot of time, and we do not pay them all that well.

Delivery of content. Some frequent issues I have seen here include having trouble coming up with good examples outside of their own organizational experience, or talking too much about their own company. Keeping an appropriate pace is also a problem for many. Most often they get behind and do not finish things by the end of the term, but a few will finish by week five and do not know what else to do. The latter are usually the ones who just read from the book, or at least do not add much from outside. Finally, there are those who do not balance inductive and deductive teaching styles. They may want to just lecture, or, occasionally, they may be much more into the participative mode than is appropriate for the content.

Dealing with students. Organizational trainers I have hired to teach college courses are frequently amazed and frustrated by the students’ lack of attendance and lack of participation when they are there. In the business world, their trainees come to class or get fired. Company trainees are also more likely to have a common basis (the employer or the equipment); whereas college students come to class with very different perceptions and experiences. This is particularly true in the community college. Motivating without alienating can be a challenge.

How do we help organizational trainers adapt to academia?

Different colleges have different policies, but here are five things I suggest. (1) Have a formal job orientation and checklist for every adjunct faculty member you hire. (2) Assign a mentor – yourself or someone else who knows the course material – and keep in frequent contact with the new adjunct faculty member. (3) Review their syllabus before they meet the class the first time. (4) Make sure the new person is aware of any institutional support services. Can someone help them make a test, develop a better lecture, suggest outside resources, tutor students who are having trouble, and so on? (5) Make a copy of Figure 1 from this article and go over some of the key differences with your new hires as part of their orientation. Discuss how these apply in your institution, especially the points about course content, objective levels, and presentation style.

Most colleges could not survive with only the full-time faculty as a teaching base. We need other talented people who can work with our students and successfully support our institutional missions. Likewise, businesses often need the expertise that college faculty can provide. It can be a win-win situation for both when we share human resources and know-how, but only if the person in front of the class understands which role they are playing today.


About the Author: Bob Vaughn is Professor Emeritus of Management and a former department chair and dean at Lakeland Community College in Northeast Ohio. He has done in-house training in over 100 companies and professional organizations, and worked with over 2,500 individuals to help improve their training skills. He has also been a long term board member and three time president of the Greater Cleveland Chapter of ASTD. Bob earned Beta Gamma Sigma recognition during his doctoral studies and was named Lakeland’s outstanding faculty member in 2002. His books include “The Professional Trainer: A Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Delivering and Evaluating Training Programs, 2nd edition,” “Decision Making Training,” and “Decision Making and Problem Solving in Management, 3rd edition.” He is currently working on a fourth book covering the subject of this paper. For further information, see his website:


[1] 2013 State of the Industry Report, American Society for Training and Development, December 2013, p. 7.

[2] Ibid., p. 13.

[3] Vaughn, R. 2005. “The Professional Trainer: A Comprehensive Guide to Planning, Delivering and Evaluating Training Programs.” Second edition. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishing. Modified slightly from pp. 4-5.

[4] 2013 State of the Industry Report, American Society for Training and Development, December 2013, p. 30.

[5] Ibid., p. 30.

[6] ASTD is The American Society for Training and Development. Founded in 1944 with over 70,000 current members internationally, the organization is in the process of renaming itself as “ATD” for “Association for Talent Development.”

[7] Smile sheets are the industry term for measurements at Kirkpatrick’s first level: End-of-course surveys which ask for the trainees’ opinions about the training.

[8] Thompson, C., et. al. 2002 Training for the Next Economy: An ASTD State of the Industry Report on Trends in Employer Provided Training in the United States. Washington DC:ASTD p. 33.

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