Every trainer encounters problems and challenges, no matter how long that trainer has been doing this work. Even today, even with fast-paced change, pandemics, and the need for thoughtful dialogue, there are more of the eternal, never-changing conundrums than there are new problems. Sophie Oberstein has collected 45 of these old chestnuts, identified alternative ways to handle each of them, and bundled the lot into another of those books with life-time value propositions, along with the classics by Mager, Cross, Gilbert, and with the modern approaches to learning that deal with design, technology, and learning strategy.

A whole lotta misery distilled

Does that sound like too much praise from a reviewer? Consider this: the book is over 360 pages, organized into seven sections, for that total of 45 challenges identified and met, and credibly supported. Over the past 54 years, I have led training organizations in large government and enterprise settings, and how I wish I’d had a collection like this when I was doing “train-the-trainer” sessions. Actually, I wish I’d had it on a shelf on bad days when I wasn’t quite up to the fight.

I’ll say it again: the challenges that Oberstein has a response for are ones that every trainer experiences at one time or another, whether they are brand-new or experienced, teaching in a physical classroom, teaching in a virtual classroom, developing training materials, or developing asynchronous learning apps. The author, now at the Center for Leadership & Organizational Change at the University of Maryland, has over 20 years of experience as a trainer, in all of those settings.

Breaking it down

Each section begins with some quotes that represent the situation and summarize the problem in a way that most trainers can identify with. Each challenge starts with a short description, followed by one or more solutions that are backed by research and models. These end with a "bottom line"statement and some reference materials from experts. Sophie suggests solutions based on her own experience, supplemented by literature in the field and discussions with her colleagues. The seven sections are organized by challenges that share a similar nature:

  • Lack of credibility
  • Training isn't well-regarded
  • Lack of resources
  • Limited learning design experience
  • Uncertain around measurement
  • Live training surprises
  • Challenging participants

Here are some of the 45 challenges that the text addresses:

  • I'm a ______ , not a trainer.
  • I've never managed a training project before.
  • I don't know how to showcase the successes of our training.
  • I'm a one-person department.
  • I've been asked to convert training from classroom to eLearning and I don't know where to begin.
  • I don't know how to produce asynchronous eLearning.
  • I'm not sure how to design informal learning.
  • The technology isn't working.

And then there’s the awkward moments

Ground rules help but there’s only so much you, the trainer, can do: When nobody will speak up. When there are people in the session who try to dominate the discussions. When more people are updating their social media pages than are taking notes. When people (sometimes senior executives) show up late and leave early. Bravely, Oberstein shows you what you can do, even if it’s not comfortable to do it.

In her conclusion, Oberstein offers what she refers to as a “non-scientific list of the top 10 mistakes new trainers make.” She asked colleagues and experts for their best ideas, searched through articles and blog posts, and then filtered the list through her own experience. Here are the top 10, from less common to most serious. You’ll have to read the book to get the wisdom.

10. Failing to rehearse synchronous training

9. Not varying your learning activities

8. Holding training when it’s convenient

7. Having unclear objectives or outcomes

6. Leaving on-the-job-learning to chance

5. Leaving evaluation as an afterthought

4. Not getting management on board

3. Putting too much content into your training

2. Teaching the way you learn best, or the way you were taught

1. Providing training when the problem can’t be solved with training.

The only thing I would add is in the case of number 10: when doing online synchronous training, it's not wise to do it without an assistant to handle the questions, technology failures, and help the learners who will (inevitably) get lost or come unprepared. On number 1, that should never happen, and as trainers we really need to learn how to say “no.” Get the book, friends. If you are the Secret Holiday Gift-giver for a trainer who needs this book, get an extra copy, put it in a plain brown wrapper, and deliver it anonymously to the recipient in a private setting where nobody else will see what they were gifted.

Bibliographic details

Oberstein, Sophie (2020). Troubleshooting for Trainers. ATD.