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Should Trainers be Subject Matter Experts?

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Should Trainers be Subject Matter Experts?


Do trainers need to be experts in the subject matter they are teaching, or do they simply need to be good at facilitation and presentation?

Learning and development professionals believe that expertise in subject matter is essential for providing a successful learning experience. They believe that having experience and knowledge will better a trainer’s facilitation, allowing them to answer questions, share stories, and provide examples to the learners. On the flip side, some believe that the primary role of a trainer is to facilitate the learning process rather than rely on their knowledge and experience to deliver the course content.

Some trainers can develop their own material while others receive content from detailed facilitator guides. In many cases, the time spent between receiving the training manual and the delivery date are short.

But what should trainers do if they don’t have vast knowledge in the subject matter they have been asked to deliver to learners? Should they refuse the offer or can they rely on preparation and facilitator guides?

Content Mastery and Training Delivery

L&D Partners recently did a study with a group of 4 Learning and Development professional consultants and assessed the performance of 116 trainers from a variety of organisations. Each trainer was asked to deliver a 30-minute session that covered a topic of their choice. Most trainers chose management and interpersonal topics, others chose technical and data related topics. After this demo session, the L&D professional consultants evaluated the trainer’s performance. One of the skills evaluated was “content mastery.”

Content mastery was measured based on a variety of aspects such as how confident the trainer was in presenting information, sharing stories and examples, answering questions, responding to hard or challenging questions, and understanding the flow of the content. The consultants studied the impact of content mastery in relation to the delivery skills of the trainer. They then ranked the trainers based on their delivery score and then converted and grouped them into percentiles. The consultants found that there was a high correlation between overall training delivery and content mastery.

The biggest difference in content mastery was between the highest two percentile groups; the average content mastery score of the trainers in the 90th to 100th percentile was 20 percent higher than that of the trainers in the 80th to 89th percentile (see Figure 1). There was an exponential increase in this competency for the top 10 percent of trainers.

Figure 1

When comparing the impact of content mastery to that of presentation skills and facilitation skills, content mastery had the greater contribution to overall training delivery from the 51st percentile and higher and the biggest negative impact from the 50th percentile and lower (see Figure 2).

Figure 2

A trainer may have great facilitation and presentation skills, but the above research indicates that they need to master the content they are delivering.

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