One of the greatest contributions psychology has made to humanity is its explanation of how people learn — how we come to know what we know, and how we change our knowledge and behavior in response to experience. Decades of psychological research have established what good teachers already know about the most effective ways to reach students and help them master new material. Some of these principles are described below, and they will seem familiar to people with teaching experience. But here’s the catch — even though these methods work in theory, actually figuring out a practical way to use them in your staff training at camp can be very difficult. What follows is a series of learning strategies that have established scientific support — and some ideas about how you can integrate them into your staff training.
Active Learning Is Better Than Passive Learning
Did you have professors in college who would lecture for hours without slowing down enough for you to take notes, much less to ask questions? Did you ever get lectured to by your parents? Do you remember much about these lectures, other than that you knew you were in trouble and you couldn’t wait until they were over? We know from our own experience, as well as from psychological science, that simply "talking at" people is not as likely to lead to increased knowledge — compared to when students take an active role in the learning process. This is a simple concept to understand, but a difficult one to put into practice, particularly in preseason training when there is a tremendous amount of information your staff must learn.
Try these simple approaches to help you hold your staff’s attention and help them remember what you say:
Spacing It Out Is Better Than Cramming It In
Many of us crammed for exams in school, studying all night long before a test. You probably remember that cramming is a great way to forget everything you needed to learn as soon as the test is over. Again, what we have been told by our teachers is exactly what the science of learning has shown — interval training, where study time is spaced out (e.g., six two-hour sessions rather than one twelve-hour all-nighter) leads to enormous benefits in terms of retention and the ability to apply knowledge later on. The same concept applies to training sessions at staff training — three hours is an awfully long time to expect anyone to sit still and absorb information, particularly when you are not in school. Breaking up the knowledge that needs to be mastered into a series of five or six thirty- to forty-five-minute sessions makes it much more likely to be retained. It is always easier to focus attention when we know a break is coming.
Create Personal Relevance
We remember things better when they matter to us, and we are more likely to pay attention to a speaker or a topic when we can apply it to our own lives. When conducting staff training sessions, taking active steps to make abstract concepts personally relevant is critical. Think of personally relevant, emotional content as another "media" for reaching long-term memory. Much in the same way you can both hear and see a television program, personal relevance helps you communicate on several channels at once, promoting deeper understanding.
Here is an example of an effective technique. Have your staff pair up or break up into groups of three and ask them to talk about their favorite teacher of all time. Ask them to discuss what it was about that teacher that they liked, why they still remember him or her, and what emotions they experience when thinking about this person. Then have them practice the same exercise, this time with their least favorite teacher. After taking five minutes for them to work in groups, have a few people talk about why these teachers had such a lasting (positive or negative) impact on their lives, writing down important themes on a marker board or overhead projector. Follow this by facilitating a discussion about how these qualities can be applied to themselves as camp counselors, with the following questions in mind:
When facilitating this discussion, make sure that your staff is actively participating in this exercise by writing down answers to the questions. Encourage answers that are measurable and concrete. For example, for the first question, ask for specific examples about positive qualities of past teachers or counselors and help them think of specific activities that allow these qualities to come out. For the last question, an answer such as "When my campers are happy" is too broad. A better answer would be "When a shy camper in my cabin has made three new friends."
Similar useful activities of personal relevance include having staff write down and discuss their personal strengths and weaknesses as a person who works with children (either in small groups or one large group) or having them write down three personal and professional goals for themselves over the summer. Again, make sure the goals are measurable and concrete. All of these topics can be included in a facilitated, interactive discussion.
These principles can be integrated into a staff training program that helps your staff internalize your camp’s core mission, while also giving them the specific tools to function effectively on a daily basis.
Training Your Staff in Behavior Management
Perhaps the other area of psychological science most relevant to camps is behavioral psychology. Behavioral psychology is the study of how the environment impacts a person’s behavior, making it more or less likely to occur again. Behaviorists were among the first to isolate and predict how specific actions could lead to and change specific behaviors in all animals, including humans. In the 1950s and 60s, behavioral psychology got an undeserved, bad reputation (in some circles) as being too cold and simple-minded to work with real people in the real world. Starting in the 70s and continuing to the present, however, behaviorally-based therapies and principles have become some of the most reliable, effective ways of helping children achieve in all sorts of situations — ranging from eliminating the symptoms of mental illness to improving education. Scientifically-supported concepts from behavioral psychology can be easily applied to staff training.
Behavioral psychology provides us with guidelines about how we can create more effective training sessions. For those of you with comprehensive staff training programs, the following is intended as a supplement, where you may find a few meaningful things to add. Those of you who are starting a camp or looking to make major changes to your preseason training, however, may think of this as a broad set of guidelines.
Catch Them Being Good — Using Positive Reinforcement
Providing Appropriate Consequences
The last word about punishment is that, while it can work, it is very hard to implement effectively, because of all the requirements listed above. It is much more effective to focus on the positive behaviors as much as possible, as this acts as a form of prevention.
Give Your Staff a Jumpstart
Preseason staff training is both an exciting and uneasy time for all camp professionals, particularly new or inexperienced staff. It is also a tremendous opportunity to equip an energetic, idealistic group of young people with the tools they need to get the most out of themselves and their campers. All counselors, especially inexperienced ones, need the best tools to have the best summer. Integrating a few simple, scientifically-supported concepts can help you develop a more effective, meaningful staff training program, one that will give your staff a jumpstart for their summer.
Ethan Schafer has a Ph.D. in child clinical psychology, working in private practice and teaching at the college level in the Cleveland area. He has over fifteen years of camp experience.
Originally published in the 2004 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.