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Why is Hands-On learning most effective for technical trades?

Ask nearly any technician or maintenance person (or pretty much anyone) how they learn best, and they will affirmatively tell you they learn best with real-world, practical experiences (i.e. through hands-on experiences).
There are several reasons that hands-on learning typically outperforms other training methods. When we learn, our brains automatically catalog and store information and tie that information to other concepts and topics based on how we learn and how we use the material.
So – for many people, the learning value of being packed in a room watching a slide show, or sitting at a desk clicking the ‘next’ button on an online course, just doesn’t produce strong results.
Training offerings that are merely a compilation of factoids and slides, presented with little or no discussion, observation, questioning, or analysis don’t produce the type of learning that results in the information being useful back in the field. I see way too many training courses offered with slide after slide with little or not discussion, questions, observations, or experimentation by the students. And even
if there is a ton of material covered in the course, the amount of actual LEARNING is minimal.
Good training should factor in how people actually LEARN (i.e. how the brain actually works!). I’ll forego a discussion of how new dendrites are formed between neurons and so forth, and just explain that learning happens best when we are ‘wondering’, asking questions, performing observations, and solving problems. So – it makes sense that training should be structured to cause those things to happen along the way.
Note – Many courses/lessons include periodic factoid-based quizzes as a mimic of reinforcement. But those factoid (or even conceptual) questions aren’t going to work as well as if someone is literally applying the concepts to solve problems similar to those they’d confront when using the material being presented in real world work. Put simply, the concepts and learning needs to be structured in a way that relates to how that material will be used in the field – and that typically means it needs to include real world tasks and equipment.
Hands-on exercises should induce thought, questions, and curiosity, and as those questions are answered, students should effectively  formulate associations between various concepts as well as associating it all to the actual work and tasks where the skills will apply.

When people are curious, or observing something and trying to make sense of what they are seeing they are truly LEARNING! That is when the brain is forming new connections that will expand the usability of the knowledge/skills that will lead to improved abilities in the field.

For example:
In my training classes: In my PLC training classes, I have numerous minor details/issues/snafu’s, that students will notice during the various lab exercises, which are intended to lead to questions, experimentation, discussion, and ultimately the correct answer/explanation. Here’s an example of one of many issues I purposefully introduce in each PLC course:
While performing a hands-on lab related to a generic timer instruction, one of the PLC outputs is ON - but it does not appear anywhere in the program logic…?? This issue is unrelated to PLC timers, but is related to the concept that I had typically covered earlier about how the PLC
processor scans and executes operations.
Either a student notices the output being on after we discuss the timer logic, and asks the question that I’m hoping for, or I pretend to notice it and ask if others see the same thing and have the students see if they can figure out why it is happening.
Either way we approach it, a genuine question (or a ‘curiosity’) is formed. When we find that answer, it is stored with that ‘experience’ along with the thought process to make sense of it – which is where it should be stored because that way it will be available when they run into that issue or something related to it.

Opening the Learning Box:
In my training methodology, I call this method “Opening the Box”. Once someone has a question or curiosity about something, they have ‘opened the box’ and they are ready to learn and make sense of the concept or topic in a long-term, useful way. I have found that too much training (especially in the business / industrial world) is simply a broadcast of factoid material via slideshows or presentations that cover numerous ‘factoids’ but cause little real learning.
In the fields that I teach in, memorizing facts and details is not as helpful as understanding the foundational concepts and being able to go find and make sense of the detailed info / factoids that are readily available in references and manuals when needed.
Sadly, even courses with supposed hands-on labs are often merely having students follow rigid procedural steps or having them perform time consuming mundane manual tasks that provide little to
no actual learning value. In addition to helping the students to ‘open the box’ and properly catalog the material being learned in their minds in a way that is truly useful in their job, this curiosity formulating approach helps individuals practice and enhance their problem-solving skills and critical thinking processes (which are also very
important to develop).

Online / PC based training challenges

Online and PC-based training can be tricky for numerous reasons including: A lack of direct interaction with instructor (no eye-contact or ability of instructor to read body language; inability to flex and adapt answers and coverage to help answer a question or make sense of a concept), along with the problems noted earlier in this article. There are certainly times and situations where online or remote options make sense and can be effective – but they are often applied in cases where they shouldn’t be, simply because they sometimes appear cheaper. But paying for training that yields no actual results is a total waste of money – so you’d be better off to just save up until you can spend the money for training that produces real results.
My company has toyed with developing online training courses over the years, but we found that without including a substantial hands-on component and some way to incorporate 1:1 time with an Instructor (which would be prohibitively expensive for the customer), we just didn’t’ feel the online or PC-based training met our training quality standards. So we have chosen to focus on the hands-on, instructor-led training that our customers have grown to expect and appreciate.

Where Online / PC based Training Helps
In some topic areas (especially where it is not as hard to conceptualize material, or AFTER the initial concepts are well understood) many of the available online and PC based training options can be a great, economical option as a follow-up or reinforcement, and/or for continuation of technical development. In fact, I have often successfully used online or PC-based courses, simulations, and even textbook style question/answer review sessions, and other ‘online / pc based / remote’ approaches as a follow up AFTER initial hands-on, instructor led training, to help efficiently and economically get students from point B-Z - but I find that the all-important part of getting from A-B is typically most effective with good-old, instructor led training with a heavy hands-on emphasis.

Try each method and weigh results
If you are curious about the value of well organized, instructor-led, hands-on training in the Electrical, Instrumentation, Controls, Automation, or PLC areas – give us a chance to show what we can do! You’ll like the results! Let half your personnel attempt a cheap online option and then let us train the other half on the same topics and simply compare the results.
I have found that the managers who send personnel to our hands-on, instructor led courses usually send new people to each course we offer because they see the impact where it matters most. We certainly pay attention to student feedback after each course – but we also find that the managers who are paying for the training, and striving to improve the performance of their teams’ are the most important customers and where we get the most crucial feedback.

We offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee on all of our public training sessions, because we are confident in the results our hands-on training produces. I highly doubt you’d find a guarantee like that with any online, remote, or pc-based training… You probably won’t find  it with many other training providers for that matter…


I’m highly biased because my company focuses on hands-on training – but also because I’ve tried all delivery methods over the years, and have overseen parts of development programs for larger organizations for many years at various parts of my career, and the results have me very convinced of the supremacy of in person, hands-on training. I know it is the case for the I&E or I&C craft areas that I teach and am credentialed in, and I feel it’s probably true in nearly any technical role that requires some in-depth fundamental knowledge. If you want to boost the skills of your workforce (in electrical, automation, instrumentation areas) send someone to one of our public courses and gauge for yourself when they return to work. We feel confident you’ll become another loyal customer once you try our services. But even if you don’t use us, I highly recommend making use of training with a heavy, applied, hands-on component in your training efforts. We will be running our hands-on courses in the Electrical, Instrumentation, Controls, and Automation/PLC’s at locations across the USA. Along with our publicly scheduled courses across the USA, we can also customize and deliver any of our courses directly to your site. We can tweak any of our standard courses to fit your exact needs; your personnel; your schedule; and your team goals. Onsite training can be a very cost-effective and well-targeted solution for organizations with at least 4 or more individuals needing training in a technical topic. We can also work with you to incorporate the helpful online and pc-based tools to supplement and follow up on our hands-on, in-person training in a way that is economical and effective and that continues the forward progress.

Mike Glass

About the author

Mike Glass

Mike Glass is an ISA Certified Automation Professional (CAP) and a Master Certified Control System Technician (CCST III). Mike has 38 years of experience in the I&C industry performing a mix of startups, field service and troubleshooting, controls integration and programming, tuning & optimization services, and general I&C consulting, as well as providing technical training and a variety of skills-related solutions to customers across North America.

Mike can be reached directly via [email protected] or by phone at (208) 715-1590.