Once in a while, we instructors get an opportunity to change the way we teach. I don’t mean just tweaking our materials, but moving to a different educational paradigm. And, to my surprise, I liked it.

I have been training people professionally for 13 years, getting them ready to take the certification exam for project management professionals (PMP). This year, for the first time, I taught a PMP Prep class using professionally-developed materials created by someone other than me. It was different, both as a learning tool and as a teaching tool.

It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but I was surprised by my reactions. Somehow, the experience was both humbling and a confidence-builder.

Learning Tool: the student’s viewpoint

Before taking my first batch of students through the course materials, I wanted to experience the class from their viewpoints. I used the reading, video lectures, resources, flashcards, and four types of quizzes from their perspective. So my first pass through all the materials included honestly answering every question without looking at the answer guide. I took the pre-test, the chapter quizzes, the post-section quizzes, and the exam simulation.

Would you like to guess how I scored?

No, not 100%.

Not scoring 100% was an eye-opener. I’ve been teased about my ability to recite from the PMBOK Guide from memory.

So what the heck was going on? Mostly, there were two issues.

First, as we tell our students, passing the PMP exam is based on reading and interpreting the questions correctly. When you are the one messing up on a question, you begin to understand why some students seem so defensive. I wanted to argue my point. However, as a result of misinterpreting a few items, I learned better ways to help my students dissect the stem question and analyze the answers, and how to diffuse the defensiveness.

Also, I didn’t answer perfectly in all 10 knowledge areas. I’ve always known that my comfort level was higher in some areas than other, but you can imagine how mortifying it was to discover my slight misconceptions in differentiating between EEF and OPAs. I wasn’t wrong, but I wasn’t 100% right either. I salved my pride by quizzing a few other PMP instructors and tripping them up, too; but still, it was a humbling experience.

Happily, brushing up on my knowledge base using materials developed by 10 other subject matter experts (SMEs) broadened my personal interpretations of the PMBOK Guide. It helped me with areas that aren’t near the center of my comfort zone – which is what learning is all about, no matter our expertise. In the end, I went into teaching the course more confidently than before.

Teaching Tool: Improving understandability

The second surprise I encountered was related to the quality of my current materials compared to the professionally-prepared materials. I’ve developed classes used to teach thousands of students, and used materials prepared by highly regarded PMI chapter volunteers. I’ve done my best to constantly improve them over the past 12 years, based on positive feedback from hundreds of students.. I’m pretty darn proud of those classes and materials.

But, in comparing my self-developed materials to the professional ones, I had to admit that the professionally-prepared materials were better for the students, and better for me as an instructor.

In 2014, I did my doctoral research on the topic of teaching adult learners in project management education. As the research showed me, adult learners need more varied approaches to content acquisition than slides and lectures; they benefit from learning feedback tools, such as robust test banks and flash cards. As a course developer, I never had the time to develop multiple tools for different learning styles and to test them adequately.

As an instructor, the professionally-developed course materials liberated me from PowerPoint Hell. Instead of tweaking my slides, I spent more time in lesson planning, student interactions, and reviewing student performance data. Instead of assuming that my students were learning the information I presented, I looked in on their level of engagement with the materials, and checked out their quiz scores. When the first class participant emailed me that she had passed the PMP exam, I wasn’t surprised. Based on her discussion and her test scores, I knew she was ready.

In summary, teaching that first class with professional materials was more work the first time through, but it was better for all the learners, including me. Isn’t learning what teaching is all about?

Karen Rainford