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Nuclear Physics - No Fun?

Mark McKergow, Principal Consultant, Mark McKergow Associates
26 Christchurch Road, Cheltenham. GL50 2PL, UK
Tel +44 1242 511441, email mark@mckergow.com and

Sue Parry, Training Tutor, British Nuclear Fuels
Oldbury Training Centre, Oldbury Naite, Thornbury BS12 1RQ, UK
Tel +44 1454 422219, email separry6@magnox.co.uk

presented at the International Alliance for Learning conference,
Atlanta GA, 14 - 16 January 2000


The technical training team at BNFL Magnox Generation provides essential initial and revision training for staff working at our nuclear power station in the United Kingdom. This paper outlines how accelerated learning techniques have been successfully applied to a series of complex technical training course, and the results achieved. Benefits obtained include shorter programmes (by an average of 38%) and consequent cost savings (over $1,100 per person per course), similar or better assessment results based on the same criteria and reduced course drop-outs. Additional benefits observed by the team include better learning retention and improved learner attitude towards future training.

1. The Context

British Nuclear Fuels plc (known around the world as BNFL) supplies uranium and fuel manufacturing and reprocessing services around the world. Based in the United Kingdom, BNFL also operates the older generation of UK nuclear power plants, the Magnox reactors. These supply nearly 8% of Britain's total electricity needs.

Nuclear power plants are highly regulated in the UK (as in the USA and elsewhere). The quality requirements for staff training are high, and many staff require a large amount of specialist nuclear technical training to carry out their jobs. Engineers, scientists and technical staff entering the nuclear industry with BNFL Magnox are mandated to receive technical training. The training provided - a suite of three courses covering Theory, Technology and Design - provides the essential underpinning knowledge required and forms part of compliance with the legal and regulatory requirements. The material includes physics and engineering aspects of nuclear plant, including reactor theory, radiation, plant systems and thermodynamics. This training takes place at the Oldbury Training Centre, a central facility equipped with tutors and plant simulators.

2. The Problem

Until recently these three courses had remained largely unchanged for 20 years. The content is technically challenging, with the objectives agreed at a senior level with the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. Experience showed that, through the series of lecture presentations, delegates could simply memorise the answers to key points for each session, and not necessarily understand the material. This caused a general discomfort amongst both delegates and tutors and it was clear something should be done. The programmes were also dull to attend, and to deliver.

The 30 day long programme (three courses, 10 days each) also had resource implications for the stations needing to cover for people attending courses, and for the team of tutors delivering the course. With financial targets becoming tighter, a new way of delivering the learning was required. However, the overall learning objectives were agreed at high level with the regulatory authorities, and so results had to be demonstrably as good or better than before.

In summary, the challenge was to tackle courses which were:

- difficult to resource,
- not providing good training,
- boring to present, and
- unrewarding both for tutors and delegates.

3. The Solution

During 1995 and 1996, members of the Magnox tutor team had become interested in applying accelerated learning methods, following seminars with Mark McKergow Associates. These methods had already been aplied ad hoc, giving useful benefits. During 1997, the team decided to completely rework the three courses to make fuller use of the methodology (see below). A major overhaul was carried out of the training centre, the tutors, and the material.

3.1 Training Centre

Oldbury Training Centre was designed in the 1970s for traditional lecturer-focused training. Rooms were dominated by a large tutor control desk on a dais at one end - the desk was designed to control the lighting and technology, allowing the lecturer to remain in control without ever emerging from behind the desk. Students sat in rows facing the desk.

To improve the training centre the large tutor desks, lecturing dais and blackboards were removed. Flexible furniture (allowing for a variety of layouts), plants, soft lighting (adjustable halogen uplighters), pictures (Impressionists such as Monet as well as technical material) and music were added. These inexpensive measures made a discernible difference to the atmosphere.

3.2 Tutors

To overhaul the tutors, the whole team needed to be convinced of the benefits of changing the approach - this tended to be more difficult for those who had been doing the job for the longest. Moving forward together as a team and supporting each other we gradually learnt to stop lecturing and start helping people to learn. Each member of the tutor team attended a three day training in the use of accelerated learning methods with Mark McKergow Associates, equipping them with key ideas and practical help in considering their material.

3.3 Material

Many changes were made to the material. However, the course objectives were fixed so we worked within their existing framework. We considered how to split the material between the courses. The subjects covered in the first course of the three (Theory) was kept - this also allowed for straight before and after comparisons using the same assessments at the end of the course. Material was moved around between the other two courses (Technology, and Design) to create more coherent groupings of subject matter. The content was trimmed slightly to focus on changing business needs (less time given to technologies which had become less relevant over the years), whilst maintaining standards.

The material was redesigned to incorporate a variety of accelerated learning methods:

* The old courses had relied almost exclusively on detailed information presentation, typically using lists of words projected on an overhead projector. Brain-friendly learning strategies were introduced, including 'right brain' learning modes such as visual, spatial, musical and metaphorical (see for example Jensen, 1995). A balance of large chunk learning was added to the existing small chunk material - making sure that outlines of the main content, wider considerations and analogies were presented first, before detailed inputs of information. (A good summary of left/right brain research can be found in Springer and Deutsch, 1997.)

* Activities to generate positive emotional states were included, including games and challenges for the participants. Spontaneous humour was encouraged. This helps promote learning and memory, in part through the brain=s limbic system (see for example Lawlor and Handley, 1996).

* Learners were helped to maintain a state of relaxed attention by using a variety of activities, frequent breaks and the altered learning environment, together with co-operative learning in groups. We made sure the groups were changing regularly - people worked with everyone else on the course at some point.

* Multi-sensory learning and multiple intelligences informed the choice of activities. All Howard Gardner=s seven intelligences (Gardner, 1983, 1993) are addressed throughout the course, in ways such as;

  • Mathematical/logical intelligence - figures and statistics, flow charts, sequential reasoning, organising information.
  • Linguistic intelligence - reading, listening, writing, using word definitions.
  • Visual/spatial intelligence - pictures, mind maps, visualisations, colour coding, using the room as a spatial learning tool by associating different places with different learning points.
  • Musical intelligence - music helped to inform the environment, was used to help the learners energise and relax, and as a support and background in some activities.
  • Interpersonal intelligence - group work, discussions, reviews in groups, finding out different viewpoints and different ideas about the material.
  • Intrapersonal intelligence - time for solo reflection, quiet moments, using structured solo evening work.
  • Physical intelligence - practical hands-on activities, movement around the room and between rooms, use of physical activities in bringing the abstract material to life in different ways.
  • Gardner's eighth intelligence, naturalist (Gardner, 1999), arrived too late to be included explicitly. However, we believe we have used some aspects of this intelligence, in particular the aspects of categorisation and classification, in the material.


* Delegates spent time understanding the benefits to them and the organisation of completing the course. This aspect had been almost completely ignored in the past.

* The tutors positively changed their practice to build self-esteem in the training room by catching people doing things right and valuing the learners contributions and questions. Particularly on the first course, learners often arrive nervous about their ability to achieve the required standard, and this is a vital part of helping them through the process.

* Different aids to memory and understanding were added, including metaphors visual and physical activities, mind maps, reviews and hooks to associate with key points.

Other key changes made to the material were:

* The written material, previously four large files of information, was split into notes (in workbook format containing the core content), and resource packs (containing background information and support material).

* Pre-work, to be completed before the course, and structured evening review work were added.

* The number of overhead slides and the amount of lecturing was reduced. Many activities were added.

* Big pictures were added, both of the whole course and of each individual part. These often took the form of literal 'big pictures' - large posters summarising the key points of entire sections of material, in colourful and memorable ways.

* Many wall posters were added so that the content was on display throughout the course, rather than being gradually revealed. This helps to make review activities easy to do, as well as providing learners with a sense of achievement as they can see the ground they've covered, as well as pre-exposing some of the key points in advance.

* At the end of the course research work was added to be done back at site in preparation for the next course. This helped to turn the perception of the three courses into a single learning event, albeit help over a period of time, and served to keep the learning content in the learners minds between the formal teaching weeks.

4. The Results

4.1 Time Saving

The time taken by the courses has been reduced by the following amounts:

Table 1. Time savings achieved


Initial Duration

Final Duration

Time Saving (%)


10 days

5 days



10 days

7 days



10 days

6.5 days



30 days

18.5 days


This time saving translates into a significant financial saving - the participants roles have to be covered while they are away on the course, usually by others on overtime! This equates to around $80,000 per year - or over $1,100 per attendee per course.

4.2 Assessment Results

All the courses are assessed using a written examination, of questions with multiple choice or short written answers (a few words to a paragraph). This format is unchanged, due to regulatory requirements within the nuclear power industry in the UK.

4.2.1 Theory course

For the Theory course, the same assessment was retained to allow a direct before and after comparison. The results of the old (10 day) and new (5 day) courses are shown below.

Table 2. Comparision of results: Theory course

Programme(N=population measured)

Mean Assessment Score

Standard Deviation

Drop-outs (People starting the course & failing to finish)

Old Theory (N=115)




New Theory (N=60)




The mean score on the revised course, although slightly lower, is still acceptable in terms of knowledge gained. As can be seen from the histograms above, the shorter version of the course shows slightly lower results - apart from the number of drop-outs. The drop-out rate has reduced substantially - from 3 per cent to zero. Sometimes a delegate would start the course and give up, having struggled with the material. This shattered their confidence and limited their career progression opportunities. Potential drop-outs have so far all completed the course, sometimes with extra support after the course to achieve the required standard. This keeps the learners very much 'in the system', rather than rejecting them.

4.2.2 Technology and Design courses

The other two courses (Technology and Design) show the following results, based on a new assessment reflecting the revised distribution of material between the two courses:

Programme(N=population measured)

Mean Assessment Score

Standard Deviation

Drop-outs (People starting the course & failing to finish)

Technology (N=36)




Design (N=24)




These scores are higher than the Theory course, indicating the the first course is still the most challenging for the participants. It should be said that the Theory course has always been regarded as the most difficult of the three, because of the abstract material (nuclear physics theory, in comparison to the more engineering based work on the two subsequent courses). It also marks the start of a learning process where the participants may not have experienced formal instruction for years or even decades. This is always the moment where confidence is potentially a major issue for the learners. Once the Theory course has been passed successfully, the subsequent courses are much less nerve-racking. Also, the subsequent courses are now built on a much firmer foundation, and this is reflected in the higher marks. The Theory course was also the first to be revised; the team were learning about their own ways of applying the various learning methodologies, and the learners were experiencing these methods for the first time. Both of these may account in part for the lower Theory scores.

4.3 Qualitative results

The following results are based on the observations of the tutors.

* Longer information retention - on subsequent courses the learners remember much more and are able to move on faster. (This is the tutors' view; this factor was not measured on the original course, so quantitative comparison is not possible.)

* Improved understanding rather than learning by rote. (Students can better explain and use the information provided .)

* Improved delegate feedback after the course, in terms of enjoyment and satisfaction.

* Re-designed learners - delegates have higher confidence and self esteem, are more relaxed, learn much more, are happier and subsequently have higher expectations. This is a great investment for the future of the organisation, which was not fully expected or foreseen.

5. Lessons Learned

In tackling this process, the team gained some useful experience in tackling a major programme redesign:

* It takes time to get it right - approximately 30 hours of work to 1 hour of final product and 3 or 4 courses to perfect the presentation. As time went on, the team got better at designing and running sessions in an accelerated way.

* When things go badly, the team found a tendency to revert to old style lecturing. A conscious effort must be made to avoid this, and to get into the learning activities, which allow the learners to interact with the material directly.

* The introduction sets the scene - it is important to get it right.

* Re-designed courses breed re-designed learners - expectations go up. Once the genie is out of the bottle you cannot put it back!

6. Conclusions

This paper has outlined the changes made to this series of technical training courses, and details the results obtained. We offer these results in an attempt to provide a further set of reliable data as to the effectiveness of using new learning methods in practice, particularly in a technical and commercial environment. Although the numerical results can be shown on paper, the whole effect of the changes, the ways in which the learners now tackle their work, the interplay of various ideas and theories, are all very difficult to convey by means of the written word. We are happy to be contacted if you want to find out more about this work.


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