Teaching tips: Part 2

The veterinarian is in a good position to identify teachable moments when employees are most receptive to learning new concepts. ( John Maday )

Read Part 1 of this series here.

Bob Milligan. PhD, Senior Consultant, Dairy Strategies, LLC and Professor Emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, acknowledges that individual employees can have different learning styles and might benefit from one-on-one training customized to their needs. That level of training often is impractical though, so he recommends using a variety of teaching methods including verbal and visual instruction with a heavy emphasis on hands-on practice for critical skills.

People learn by doing, he says, and by being exposed to concepts in sequence. It also works best to break training up into short, manageable lessons. Teaching should have structure, with clear goals for what to accomplish at each stage.

Phil Durst is a senior educator with Michigan State University who works with beef and dairy operations on personnel and other management issues. He agrees that learning needs to be progressive and sequential, building in complexity as employees gain understanding of new skills and concepts. It also should be somewhat repetitive, as people often need to hear something up to three times before they truly retain it.

There are two primary goals in on-the-job training, Milligan says. The first is to develop a particular skill, and the second is to gain the self-confidence to perform that skill correctly. He uses a football analogy to explain this concept, saying a field-goal kicker stepping in for a game-saving kick does not suddenly forget how to execute the play. However, he needs a high level of self-confidence, developed through extensive practice, to make the kick under pressure.

Give your students time and opportunity to practice new skills. This is where most of the learning takes place, Milligan says, but managers and trainers often leave the practice step out. Give crew members a chance to practice specific skills during the work day, evaluate their progress and move to the next step once they have demonstrated sufficient competence.

Remember that “practice makes perfect,” but only if the practice is done properly Milligan says. Keep in mind that some farm workers probably did not perform well in school and might have unfavorable memories of the educational process. They might resist training they perceive as simply memorizing facts or processes. They need to see they can put the lessons into practice on the job.

As for feedback, Milligan says trainers and managers can provide three kinds employees: Positive, negative and redirection. When an employee receives a reprimand, or negative feedback for performing a task incorrectly, they can lose confidence and begin to resist further training efforts. With redirection, the manager or trainer recognizes the employee might not fully understand how to do the task correctly, and invests time to explain, further train and practice the skill.

Ongoing evaluation is critical in maintaining an effective training program, Milligan says. He outlines four levels of evaluation for measuring progress in employee training.

  • Immediate feedback: Milligan describes this as the “smile survey.” Do employees appear to respond favorably to the training?
  • Evaluate retention: What did the employees learn, and is it what you intended or them to learn?
  • Evaluate behavior: Did employees favorably change their behavior as a result of the training?
  • Evaluate outcomes: Did the training and changes in employee behavior result in positive outcomes for the business, such as improvements in animal health, lower treatment costs or greater productivity?

The veterinarian’s role

Terry Smith, PhD, founder and CEO of Dairy Strategies LLC, and former faculty member at Cornell, Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin, points out that many larger dairies now have in-house staff conducting several of the tasks formerly done by veterinarians. In others, the veterinarian’s role is mostly limited to managing reproduction and mastitis control in the herd. He sees significant opportunities for veterinarians to make a transition from service providers to the go-to consultants for developing, maintaining and monitoring procedures and protocols on farms. That transition requires they become effective in communicating with crew members who carry out the protocols and collect records.

Milligan stresses that trainers should plan a structured curriculum, with specific training goals and timelines. On many farms, he sees managers or veterinarians engaged in more reactionary, short-term, day-to-day training with employees.

Also, by developing a long-term training plan with specific goals and outcomes, veterinarians can build a strong case in marketing these value-added services to clients. Labor issues, he stresses, represent a major challenge for dairy and beef producers. If veterinarians can demonstrate that a well-planned ongoing training program can help improve employee recruitment, morale, productivity and retention, they can justify their billable hours in providing the service.

Durst points out that while veterinarians can provide excellent on-farm training, they often do not have time to serve as the primary trainer. He says in many cases, the veterinarian can identify training priorities and work with the farm owner or manager to develop a curriculum and lesson plans, and farm managers can execute most of the training.

Durst stresses though, that that the veterinarian should become familiar with the operation’s crews and the work they do. That interaction, he says, strengthens the veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR), as those employees execute the protocols the veterinarian prescribes.

Training should be ongoing, and during the veterinarian’s visits, he or she can observe, evaluate progress and reinforce key concepts with employees, and work with managers to adjust training programs as needed.

Smith adds that in addition to their abilities in treating cattle, veterinarians often have good analytical skills, putting them in good position to collaborate with clients to implement benchmarking and monitoring systems for health, milk production and reproduction, including action plans for early intervention when problems arise. They also are in a good position to identify “teachable moments,” when employees are most receptive to new ideas based on a need to solve a problem.

Smith notes that naturally some veterinarians are better teachers than others, and in a multi-veterinarian practice, it could be beneficial to identify one or two individuals who are best suited for training employees.

With a high percentage of Hispanic employees in dairies and feedyards, Smith says that ideally, the veterinarian or primary trainer should have some Spanish language skills. If not though, they probably can find someone within the operation to serve as translator for verbal and written instruction.

Once a veterinarian has a foot in the door providing traditional services, Smith says, he or she can begin a sales process for additional services, demonstrating to the management how analytical services, benchmarking and outcome-based training for employees can benefit the operation.

Read Part 1 of this series on BoniveVetOnline.com