Learn One Thing At a Time

As you’ll know if you’ve read some of my other articles, I always caution against diving into training without first carrying out a proper analysis of training needs. I can never say it too many times so I’ll say it again:

The only reason to train anybody in anything is that they can’t actually do what they should be able to do.

If they can do it but they don’t do it, you have a problem that training won’t solve, and you need some other intervention.

But let’s suppose you have identified a genuine need for training (i.e. shortage of skills) amongst some of your drivers. Now how are you going to go about it?

The common approach

What usually happens is that a driver trainer is engaged to work with a driver for a period of time—typically a day or half a day. This is what I call “buying training by the yard.” During that time the trainer highlights a number of points in need of improvement and the driver tries to perform as recommended by the trainer.

The output from this training session is typically a written report for the driver and the customer. This may describe what happened during the session, it may indicate “before and after” standards of performance, and it may provide recommendations for the driver’s future development (what he should practise, in other words). It’s possible that the points in need of further work are prioritised but it’s very unlikely that their relative importance is made clear, as in “Putting X right is ten times more important than correcting Y.”

So our driver (let’s assume he’s a conscientious fellow) tries to follow the advice he’s been given. Every time he drives, he’s doing his best to be aware of a number of aspects of his driving and trying to override his old habits with the better techniques he learned from the trainer. Trouble is, this is damned hard work. It’s like one of those old juggling acts with dinner plates spinning on the tops of bendy poles. It’s only a matter of time before our driver gets tired of all this effort and lapses back into his old habits.

The other big weakness with this common approach is that, after the initial injection of training, the driver is left to his own devices. He gets no feedback on the effectiveness of his efforts to improve. When this is combined with the diffused nature of the practice (trying to do too many things at the same time) we end up with a very ineffective model of training.

If learning is defined as change in behaviour, not much learning is taking place.

A better way to do it

So what would work better?

The simple answer is: learn one thing at a time.

And, by that, I don’t just mean deliver training on single topics. The skill in need of improvement must be consolidated and integrated into the driver’s normal behaviour. Only then has it been truly learned, and only then is the next topic introduced.

Prioritise the training needs

To make this work, the analysis of training needs has to do more than just identify the specific skills or practices in which the driver needs to be trained. It must also categorise and prioritise those needs.

Needs that fall into the category of safety take priority over everything else, such as vehicle sympathy or efficient fuel-use. Within each category, training needs (i.e. current shortcomings in competence) are prioritised by reference to empirical evidence of such deficiencies’ contribution to risk or wastefulness. The driver and the business now know what the driver’s training needs are in order of priority.

Start with the highest priority

Training is arranged to address the highest-priority need only. For example, it might be to attain the skill of safe and accurate parking (in many fleets, the most common cause of damage is incompetent parking). During this highly-focused training session, the trainer demonstrates the desired behaviour and assists the driver to replicate it. No other training needs are covered; the training has a single focus.

Consequently, this training session may be quite short. No time is taken up at the beginning to assess the driver’s performance and to establish some training objectives (as happens in typical driver training). The single training objective has already been established and the driver knows in advance exactly what he’s there to learn. Similarly, no time is required at the end of the session to discuss “things to work on.” The one new behaviour that must be integrated into the driver’s overall behaviour is self-evident.

Note: My description of the training session above presupposes that it takes the form of practical, in-vehicle training. With some skills this will be the best method but there are many training needs that may be just as effectively addressed in an alternative environment. It could be in a training room with a group of trainees, or self-paced instruction such as on-line training. Thus, concentrating on learning one thing at a time could have considerable cost advantages over the common approach.


After being given clear guidance on how to practise the new skill or procedure and how to replace the old unproductive or ineffective habit (i.e. how to self-coach), the driver is left on his own for a couple of weeks or so. Unlike our recipient of typical training who got worn out trying to keep a dozen plates spinning, this driver only has to focus on changing one key element in his driving.


At the end of this period of practice, the driver has an appointment to demonstrate the degree to which he has developed and integrated the skill in question, under the watchful eye of a trainer. It is important that the trainer gives specific feedback so the driver knows exactly what progress he has made, and where there may be remaining shortcomings.

Comments like “That’s pretty good” are useless as feedback. The driver needs to know specifics, such as (if we suppose the issue is safe following distance), “You’ll be pleased to know that you’re now judging and maintaining a safe following distance in most traffic conditions. Where you still need more space is at speeds of 60mph or more. You’re increasing the gap over what you allow at lower speeds but not enough to accommodate the increase in your stopping distance at the higher speed. Remember that stopping distance increases in proportion to the square of the speed; it’s not a linear relationship.” The feedback is thus describing the driver’s performance and also reiterating the initial training.

If the driver demonstrates that the new skill has been fully integrated then he can be congratulated and encouraged to keep it up. If other training needs remain, training in the next highest priority can be scheduled. If the driver hasn’t fully integrated the new skill, further coaching can be given in any areas that are weak or that the driver finds difficult. After a further period of self-coached practice, his performance can be checked again.

How do we know this is a better approach?

One could actually write a book about why this single-need, focused and verified approach to training works so much better than the “buy training by the yard” approach. As this is merely an article, I’ll necessarily be brief and give just two good reasons.

Firstly, if we examine the methods employed by the most successful teachers and trainers, especially those who teach skills, we find that this is what they do. They are obsessive about checking that students have really learned each skill by getting them to demonstrate it at the required level of competency. If students can’t do it, they haven’t learned it, which means the teacher hasn’t taught it. When students haven’t learned, the best teachers take it personally!

Secondly, this approach is outcome-focused, whereas what I have described as the common approach is means-focused.

What do you actually want when you purchase training? Most buyers would say that they want the end result, the outcome: the attainment of competency. But what they usually buy is the means: so many units of training.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, buying “training by the yard” reduces the likelihood that competency will be achieved and, by putting all the emphasis on delivery of training and none on the verification of its efficacy, you’ll never know that it’s happening.

Until the next incident caused by the driver’s incompetence.

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