Employees Come with Prior Knowledge. Use it!

not-clear-why-needed-workplace-ecard-someecardsWhen I applied for my current job, the woman at the staffing agency asked if I had a high school diploma. I told her I was working on my Master’s degree, and she gave me a look.

Interpreting facial expressions can be tricky, and in this instance, I was really stumped. Did she think I was showing off? Was she sending me a silent warning to keep my over qualifications to myself before I ruined her shot at meeting her job placement quota for the month? Or was she deciding whether to eat her ham sandwich or go out for lunch?

I am pretty sure the staffing agency never told my employer about my education, and to this day I am unsure whether my boss even knows I hold a Bachelor’s Degree. While my education in no way makes me smarter or better able to do my job than someone without it, I think that in the course of my schooling, I may have developed a few special metacognitive skills, which could have been very valuable during my training. If I were a manager, I would want to have some understanding of a new employee’s prior knowledge before beginning any training. Ruth C. Clark writes that metacognitive skills help us “set goals, select strategies, monitor results, and adjust based on outcomes.”

Recently, my organization hired a part-time employee, who is a young nursing student. The very fact that she attends college and also took the initiative to work in our office three days a week tells me that she most likely has a strong level of metacognition. In addition, I have observed her strong work ethic and desire to learn and to contribute to the team.

Because we work in different departments, I have had very little opportunity to teach her. Her brief, informal training has been lead by her supervisor, who is an expert at her job but who admits she is a bad teacher. I have noticed instances where our new girl is uncertain of how to do something or why it is done a certain way, and the bewilderment she displays is certainly no indication of stupidity. The tasks required of this bright young lady are so domain-specific and different from the knowledge and skills she uses as a nursing student, it’s no surprise she seems lost at times.

There are a variety of tools available for assessing learners’ study skills, strengths and weaknesses. Such evaluations focus on covert and overt thoughts, behaviors, attitudes and beliefs related to successful learning. While formal evaluations may not be the right fit, I think a little more attention to each employee’s individual skills, strengths and weaknesses would go a long way in training.

In her book Building Expertise, Clark writes about expert performers’ invisible mental processes that are not explicit to learners, who do not have the benefit of seeing the experts’ goal-setting, planning and monitoring techniques. I believe this same situation occurs at my workplace, where our new girl simply observes the end result of her trainer’s work. The trainer, who is an expert at her job, “magically” displays the correct way to perform tasks, just as Clark writes about, without demonstrating the necessary metacognitive approaches. I wish someone would take time to observe our new girl performing tasks and ask for feedback, such as What are you doing now? Why are you using that approach? or What other alternatives have you considered? like Clark suggests. When a student has to answer these questions repeatedly, she starts to anticipate them, and she learns to incorporate metacognitive planning and monitoring into her work.

Unfortunately, nobody seems to have the time to observe or ask such questions, so she is allowed to move ahead without direction. She is a hard worker and wants to do well, but because her expert trainer is always so busy, it seems our little student is sometimes hesitant to ask for explanations if she does not understand something. Without any feedback, her opportunities to grow are limited. She is left alone to accomplish a task, and if nobody is there to challenge or to encourage her to try a more efficient way, she could develop some bad habits through no fault of her own.

I suppose I could take her under my wing. Learn her strengths. Help her to incorporate her wealth of nursing knowledge into a system model of transfer and learning, focusing on the best way to put papers in a file cabinet. But, wow, look at the time. I should be going to lunch. Mentoring can wait.

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