Effective Staff Training

by Terry Ferebee Eckmann, PhD on Feb 01, 2004

Optimize learning opportunities in meetings.

Brain-based research is revolutionizing teaching and learning. We have learned more about the brain in the past two decades than in all recorded history. However, all that knowledge is useless unless you know how to apply it. Learn how to implement brain-based theory in your own staff training and watch comprehension and follow-through improve.

Primacy-Recency Theory

Primacy-recency theory states that the brain remembers best what is first, least what’s in the middle and second best what is last. The brain downshifts after about 15 to 20 minutes, takes 5 to 10 minutes to recover and is ready to tune in again for another 15 to 20 minutes. This phenomenon is also called “beginning-middle-end” and implies that you want to present the most important information at the beginning of a session.

Maximize your time by covering key concepts first, then have staff “pair and share” to process what they have learned. This technique enables them to put the data into their working memories. Pairing and sharing works just as it sounds. Ask staff to find someone with the same color eyes, same size feet, same color clothing or other matching aspect. Each person summarizes what he or she has learned or shares one key concept. Our brain learns 70 percent of what we discuss with others and 95 percent of what we teach others, making this an effective strategy.

Take primacy-recency a step further with the “good preacher concept.” Tell your staff what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them. Focus on a few main ideas and continue to reinforce these. Less is more when it comes to learning—if you present too much information at once, people are not as likely to retain it.

Lesson Design

Madeline Hunter, a nationally renowned educator, created a lesson design concept that teachers around the world have used for several decades. You may already be using one or more of the following elements in your own training:

  1. The anticipatory set is the activity or introduction that focuses learners or gets their attention. For example, right before a staff meeting, hand out a sheet with a list of objectives. Write key elements of lesson design on a flipchart or white board and announce, “Today’s session will focus on how you can effectively use lesson design to improve your group fitness classes.” You now have staff members’ attention, and they are interested in what comes next.

    If your session is on customer service, give out blank pieces of paper and ask the staff to write three things they believe are critical in providing exceptional service. This exercise focuses attention and sets the tone for the rest of the session.

  2. The purpose or objective explains why staff members need to learn the material, what they will be able to do with it and how you will know learning has occurred. For example, tell staff that lesson design has been used by the most effective classroom teachers around the world for decades and that they can use the same elements to make their own classes superior.

    If the focus of your training is customer service, share a statistic: “Every customer who has a problem with your service tells 9 or 10 other people.” This drives home the message that exceptional customer service is crucial for client satisfaction and retention.

  3. Instructional input is the training itself and the concepts you impart. Apply the primacy-recency theory and the preacher concept when delivering the content. If you are training instructors on effective cuing, identify the main points. Play a video of a staff member’s yoga class and point out specific examples. Summarize as a group what made the cuing effective and brainstorm other useful cues. Write notes on a flipchart throughout the training, and review these at the end.

  4. Modeling takes place with demonstration, role playing, video clip examples or a finished product. Point out good form and technique from a videotaped class. In a customer service training session, demonstrate different responses to an angry customer and identify which one is best.

  5. Guided practice is a follow-the-leader exercise. In a group fitness class this may involve the instructor demonstrating how to do a squat, while giving verbal cues. Use guided practice in customer service training by asking staff to play out a variety of angry-customer scenarios while you model or prompt effective conflict resolution techniques.

  6. Checks for understanding determine whether your audience is “getting it.” Ask specific questions about a key concept or observe role-playing activities. Personal trainers do checks for understanding when they observe body alignment and technique or ask a client to repeat an instruction.

  7. Closure is a review or wrap-up of the training session. Always close on a positive note. Summarize the session, or answer questions from staff. Energize the closure by using the ball toss game. Ask a question and toss the ball to a person who then answers the question. That person throws the ball to someone else, who answers the next question; and so on.

    Instructors can apply closure to a yoga class by reviewing the benefits of training and offering a thought for the day. For example, “The mind is like a parachute; it only works when it’s open.” In a customer service seminar, ask each staff member to write a professional goal stating how he or she will improve customer service in the upcoming week and seal the goal in a self-addressed envelope. Return the envelopes at the end of the week and ask staff for examples of how they met their goals. Celebrate at the next meeting.

Learning Styles

The brain is sometimes referred to as a sponge that soaks up information. A sieve is a better metaphor. It is estimated that 99 percent of all sensory information is discarded as soon as it enters the brain (Wolfe 2001). We use auditory, visual, kinesthetic and tactile senses in learning. The more senses we use, the better. We remember 10 percent of what we read, 20 percent of what we hear, 30 percent of what we see and 50 percent of what we see and hear. Take advantage of this knowledge by providing handouts, flipcharts and white boards to meet visual needs. Reinforce the visuals with your spoken message.

Howard Gardner, a professor in cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, revolutionized learning with his research on multiple intelligences. Gardner proposes that there are seven ways of learning: musical/rhythmic, verbal/linguistic, visual/spatial, bodily/ kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, logical/mathematical. The more experiences you provide that incorporate the seven intelligences, the more learning will occur, according to Gardner.

Many in the fitness industry are dominant in bodily/kinesthetic learning, yet many potential clients are weak in this area, so going to a gym may intimidate them. Raising awareness about different learning styles improves staff’s ability to work with a variety of clients. For example, if a personal training client has a logical/mathematical intelligence, the trainer can apply the theory of multiple intelligences by asking the client to calculate his basal metabolic rate, count calories and document consumption. This strategy will keep the client interested and focused.

Emotions and Learning

You communicate your attitude with what you say, how you say it, your body language and what you do. There is no reality, only perception. Only 7 percent of communication is verbal, 38 percent is the inflection of your voice, and 55 percent is body language. Smiling goes a long way and is usually reciprocal. A smile sends the brain a signal to release happy chemicals. The take-home message: Be positive, create a climate of trust, and smile.

Emotions drive attention, create meaning and have their own memory pathways (LeDoux 1996). That is why using personal stories as examples is effective in making a point. For example, personalize age sensitivity for staff in their teens and 20s by asking them what they would want their grandmothers to know if they joined a fitness center. How would they want their grandfathers to be treated?

Involving staff in goal setting empowers them, gives them ownership and creates emotion. Whereas the logical brain sets goals, emotions drive us to care enough to make the goals happen. Harness emotion and motivate your staff by using the following key strategies (Jensen 1998):

  1. Eliminate threat. Focus instead on positives and encourage improvement through challenge.
  2. Set personal and professional goals to create ownership.
  3. Give immediate, specific feedback that is growth oriented and preserves dignity by judging the performance and not the performer.
  4. Model a positive attitude and use creative problem-solving to produce a constructive working climate.

Applying brain-based research and learning theory optimizes the time you have to train and coach staff. The techniques are simple and effective, and as you put them into practice you open the door to new growth opportunities.

Want more from Terry Ferebee Eckmann?


Jensen, E. 1998. Teaching With the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

LeDoux, J. 1996. The Emotional Brain. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Wolfe, P. 2001. Brain Matters: Translating Research Into Classroom Practice. Alexandria, VA: Association for

Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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About the Author

Terry Ferebee Eckmann, PhD

Terry Ferebee Eckmann, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Terry Eckmann, PhD, is a professor at Minot State University and has over 30 years experience in the fitness industry. She authored 101 Brain Boosters in May 2013 Terry contributed chapters for the ACSM personal training manual and health fitness management text. In addition, Terry is the recipient of theNDAPHERD 2008 Honors Award, NDAHPERD 2007 University Teacher of the Year Award and the 2007 Minot State University Regents Award for Scholarship and Research. Terry has been recognized by IDEA with the Make Fitness Happen Award. She was awarded Industry Enhancement Award by Club Industry. Terry was featured on ACSM's Industry Leader's series in 2011.