• Raghu Challapilla

Learning about Learning: The Secret to Being an Effective Agile Trainer

DO YOU have disengaged participants in your training class? Hecklers, phone-obsessed texters, or even the quiet, blank-faced observers who are resistant to learn what you’re teaching.

These individuals can feel like a frustrating ‘hindrance’ to your overall didactic intentions.

As someone said, “I would have been in great relationship without her!”

The key to reaching these ‘resistant learners’ is understanding training from a learners’ perspective-- All trainers are learners as well, inter-connected in kind, so being an effective trainer is hinged upon understanding the brain’s optimal learning conditions and utilizing them to suit your purposes.

From my experience as a seasoned Agile Trainer, as well as what I’ve learned from Dr. Terrence Sejnowski and Barbara Oakley’s course, “Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects,” Sharon Bowman’s “Training From the Back Room,” and Dr. John Medina’s “Brain Rules,” we’ll delve into the powerful learning processes of the brain and how they’ll help you become a more influential trainer (and more efficient learner)...

Focused vs Diffused Mental States

(Image from my presentation at Sharon’s “Training certification class”)

Focussed mind is like a tight pinball where one’s mental energy is dedicated solely to the task at hand and diffused mind is like a loose pinball in which one’s mind is relaxed enough to connect to a broader range of concepts.

The best trainers are able to strike the delicate balance between the focused state, and the diffused state.

Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison were avid proponents of this approach, taking naps between their focused, problem-solving states to come up with creative ideas. Learning is at its peak when the brain is allowed to constructively shift between these modes so… TRAINER TIPS:

  • Allow for breaks, advisably involving Coffee or snacks (to stimulate dopamine channels) in a common area for socialization (to induce a relaxed atmosphere) every hour or two


Though many people may say otherwise, the brain can only focus on four chunks of information at a time.

This is why having the TV blaring, the stereo playing, your cats rubbing up against your leg, and your phone constantly buzzing intrudes upon your work or study (focused states)-- the mental fatigue leads to a lack of resources to retrieve earlier learning, especially as the range of concepts at hand are narrowed down tightly during the focused period.

The same thing happens when one is stressed or worried-- the mind’s energy is diverted elsewhere, and doesn’t have the necessary capacity to convert short-term memory to long-term, so…


  • Keep them happy and engaged!

  • Don’t allow electronics in class - find a way to influence this indirectly!

  • If someone needs to attend to something urgent, ask them to use a conference hall outside the training room, so they won't distract others.


For maximum efficiency, the brain categorizes related items by a mechanism called “chunking,” making the recollection and subsequent use of those items easier.

At first, the brain makes small chunks which are then gradually, through practice, connected to make even bigger chunks of information. The process continues until there is a veritable cohesive network of intertwined chunks for the brain to utilize. Practice and repetition help the process of chunking, leading to mastery in the particular area in which it was applied.

The brain's four channels of working memory can focus on four items at a time, but as these four items start forming a single chunk, only one channel is needed to handle this, thereby freeing three channels and increasing the amount of knowledge that can be handled by the brain. So it’s important to present to your learners the...

Big picture/ Context

For your learners to achieve mastery in a lesson, one needs to involve a top-down approach (basically narrowing the broader concept into particular details) as well as a bottom-up approach, (which involves the repetition and practice of smaller components to assimilate into the big picture)

Introducing them to the broader context will allow your learners to better differentiate between various solutions and devise a novel solution more readily, which is why getting stuck on a single step you may not understand immediately is so detrimental-- it keeps you from truly comprehending the larger picture which is necessary for retention, and may even help you grasp the detail you were struggling with

On a related note: Our brain craves certainty. Not having certainty generates an error response in the orbitofrontal cortex, which takes attention away from the primary objective, forcing attention to the error, similar (not to the same scale) as having threat to one’s life [Ref: David Rock’s SCARF model]

Context and Big picture creates certainty in what they are going to learn, keeping their attention where it should be


  • Make sure to walk through the big picture first.

  • Tell them what you are going to teach, teach them, tell them what you taught them.

  • Though there will be learners who struggle with particular details, park it and move on . . . come back to it at the end of the class if they still don't understand it.


As stated before, practice is crucial to your learner’s mastery of the subject, therefore recalling items previously learned is very important to understanding them.

Reviewing ‘worked-out problems’ may seem like an easy way to learn, but it provides an understanding from the perspective of the author of the solution, instead of aligning this new chunk with the learner's existing concepts/chunks.

For this very reason, reading a book twice is less effective than reading it once, then setting it aside and recalling what was learned.

Mini-tests assigned along the course of the lesson are particularly effective as force learners to recall what they learnt and cement what was immediately learned. (On a side note, recall actually rewrites memory [Ref: Jason Chan and Jessica LaPaglia, 2013, PNAS]. I first learned this from an NPR talk show. This was scientifically understood by doing experiments on rats. When rats were given a substance to disrupt their short-term memory, they were not able to remember things they had been recalling (not just things they were learning). This is because the recall actually rewrites the memory, which wasn't successful during the experiment due to disruption of short-term memory)


  • Encourage your learners to communicate by asking questions and giving them problems to solve throughout training. This not only helps them recall but also generates engagement and invigorates the chunking process.

  • When I have two training sessions, in the second session I ask the participants to create a mind-map of the things they learned in the previous session, as part of a collaborative exercise.

  • Also, I like to split participants into two groups with an article to read, then ask them to formulate a presentation of the article’s contents to other team. [I learned these techniques (and much more!) from Sharon Bowman’s “Training from BACK of the room” and from Lyssa Adkins & Michael Spayd’s, “Agile Coaching Bootcamp”]

Training from the BACK of the Room

Sharon Bowman has done extensive work in this field and formulated what she calls the “4C” model in her book, Training from the BACK of the Room

4C = Connections, Concepts, Concrete Practices, Conclusions
  • Connections: The trainer starts by creating connections between what will be learned and what the participants already know (e.g. asking them to explain the topic from their point of view).

  • Concepts: The trainer then expounds upon the new concepts (e.g. teaching).

  • Concrete practices: The trainer goes on to facilitate exercises (i.e. the presentations stated above, etc.) to help participates cement the information learned.

  • Conclusions: Finally, the trainer asks the participants to reflect on what they learned and how they can apply it.

Brain Rules

According to Dr. John Medina, "The human brain has evolved to solve problems related to survival in an outdoor situation and to do so in nearly constant motion (to keep you alive long enough to pass on your genes)" [Ref: John Medina, Brain Rules]


  • Use wide open training room with large windows

  • Give them problems to solve by designing exercises around the content you want to teach

  • Create healthy competitiveness by dividing them in groups and giving them exercises

  • Moving participants around for exercises to keep them active

The Bottom Line

Along with the fundamentals such as (a):

  • Wide open training room,

  • questions throughout the training,

  • exercises

  • healthy competitiveness,

  • constructive breaks,

  • playful, relaxed atmosphere,

  • moving participants around for exercises to keep them active

An effective trainer is able to fully optimize the learner’s:

  • Fluidity between Focused and Diffused Mental States

  • 4-channel Multi-tasking Brain Capacity

  • Information Chunking Process

  • Association in Context with the Broader “Big-Picture”

Understanding the brain’s learning mechanisms through the TRAINER TIPS I’ve devised is the key to unlocking your potential as the most influential Agile Trainer you can be.

Blog originally published on: Scrum Alliance

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