Learning transfer: why we need to see learning as a pathway, not an event

Learning is a pathway not an event
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Learning transfer will not happen simply from a one-off training event. It takes a well-designed learning process to overcome the learning application challenge. Below are five key elements that will help L&D professionals create a pathway to success.

It has been said that the goal of training is neither training, nor learning. Rather, it is to enable the organisation to achieve a defined standard of performance in the workplace.

If we consider training in this way, the job of the trainer or facilitator extends beyond when the training is over to understanding and facilitating how the learning will be applied, and if and how it will make a difference.

When asked what outcomes managers want from training, the default is to talk about operationally and strategically important outcomes. Maintaining or improving employee productivity, profit margins, teamwork, product quality, waste/shrinkage, morale, relationships or reliability often come to mind.

Whether the goal of training, under the simple definition, has been met can be measured in many different ways. ROI, ROE and profit and performance measures and metrics can be used to assess quantifiable changes. Happy sheets, the Kirkpatrick Model and other programme evaluations can be used to capture the more qualitative measures.

However, while these metrics can be used to justify the training implemented or to support a future business case, in my experience, few of these measures are employed at all. Or, if they are, it is done as an afterthought and not part of the design process.

So why measure training success?

Before jumping into a programme redesign that incorporates success measures, it is important to ask the question – what does success look like? 

Is success defined by your stakeholders through the lens of business metrics such as an increase in individual performance assessments, greater productivity, reduced absenteeism, conflict? 

Or, is success defined by how well the learner has understood AND applied the knowledge into the workplace, team or individual actions?

As a facilitator and learning professional, my focus has always been on the learner – and their outcomes. Any business improvement comes as a secondary gain to the learner’s acquisition of new information, the application of new behaviours, and the impact this has on their ability to perform their role.

In simple terms, the success of a training or learning programme should be defined as the transfer of information to the learner and the ability of the learner to then apply that information in the context of their role/work. 

What is important in this definition is the application of information; not just its retention. Regardless of the measures used to define success, what is ultimately required is learning transfer. As learning and development professionals, this is what we are seeking to prove.  

The challenge of measuring learning transfer

Early models of training success focused on the training environment, not necessarily the learning that is achieved, while more contemporary measures of learning behaviour consider the impact the learning has on the workplace.  

The challenge we face as learning and development professionals when designing learning programmes that seek to impact the way learners behave AFTER the programme is finished is, in most cases, we have no control of what the learner does or the environment they find themselves in post training.

We know there are countless factors that can and will influence both the learning process and the subsequent transfer of that learning. If not considered in the design of the programme, and if transfer is not encouraged and supported, the likely benefits of the training will not be achieved.

So how do we ensure learning transfer?

There are many scholarly articles and research papers available that cite specific steps and actions that can support the transfer of learning. However, putting these aside and listening to our members and their experience, we have identified that the key to maximising the opportunity for learning transfer is to design a learning process or pathway – not an event. Within this process there are five elements that, when built into the learning design, will positively impact a learner’s ability to apply new information: 

  1. Prime, engage and educate the learner about the programme – set clear expectations about their learning 

  2. Create spaced learning activities to embed and continue the learning 

  3. Socialise the learning process with stakeholders to ensure they recognise that learning happens over time

  4. Gain management and peer support – create learning teams in the workplace to support learning transfer

  5. Design feedback loops in the learning process

Design a learning process or pathway – not an event 

Over the past decade, there has been a clear move away from standalone training towards programme-based learning, where learners are taken through a learning process – not a learning event.  Businesses like BabbleWire, Emzingo, Superb Learning, Lever and others are doing just this; working with clients to create a learning culture and improve learning transfer.

Using a process methodology, learning / instructional designers are developing programmes that engage learners beyond the life of the programme. This helps learners and stakeholders to understand learning benefits will be gained over time – not in a single event. 

1. Prime, engage and educate the learner about the programme – set clear expectations about their learning 

We have all heard about Tony Robbins’ ‘Priming’ exercise – where he sets himself up for success with a daily routine. Although a new concept in formal learning programmes, priming helps create the context and learning environment for the learner.

There are several different types of priming in psychology, with each working in a specific way. In action, priming has the potential to influence how learners perceive their training, preparing the learner (and their brain) for what is to come, while also allowing them to adjust to the future learning state before entering it.   

The process of priming and engaging the learner before they officially commence a programme can take place in a number of ways, including face-to-face and online communications, activities, online resources or closed groups on platforms such as Facebook, Yammer, Microsoft Teams and so on. 

Using a range of mediums to deliver what is often incorrectly described as ‘pre-training activities’, ensures that we are meeting the learner where they are and inviting them to take part in the learning process, rather than to just attend.

Companies are increasingly recognising that it takes more than a well-designed programme to achieve success – it takes the engagement of not only the learner, but their stakeholders as well.

2. Create spaced learning activities to embed and continue the learning 

The application of spaced learning activities within learning and development programmes is broadly considered both new and innovative. Spaced learning involves learners participating in multiple learning bursts – short, intensive learning bites – separated by intervals.

With spaced learning, it is in the learning breaks where the hard work is done and the brain makes new connections between the learning and what the learner already knows. The focus on this methodology is repetition of information and increasing challenge. 

As part of a broader learning programme, spaced learning provides a methodology for delivering important content quickly – while ensuring learner engagement. The format allows for the integration of blended activities, maximising engagement within a learning process. 

3. Socialise the learning process with stakeholders

Companies are increasingly recognising that it takes more than a well-designed programme to achieve success – it takes the engagement of not only the learner, but their stakeholders as well. 

While priming focuses on the learner’s journey, socialising the learning process focuses on educating the stakeholders about what the learning looks like and educating them about their role in the process. 

Many of the barriers to learning transfer – including an emphasis on short-term results, lack of opportunity, lack of coaching, lack of reinforcement, a contradictory role model and operational demands in the workplace immediately following the learning – can be mitigated and planned for during these two important activities.  

It is during learning socialisation, stakeholder engagement and the building of collaboration with managers and peers (see below) where the potential success or failure of the learning will be determined. These stages offer the opportunity to engage the business and establish expectations about when and how the learning will occur.  

When delivered as a learning process (as opposed to an event), learners engage with the information over time and mostly in the workplace. 

4. Gain management and peer support 

We know that the manager’s support (or lack of) will impact IF and HOW learning transfer occurs in the workplace. So, connected with the process of socialisation is the building of collaboration with the learner’s managers and peers around the learning process.

This collaboration allows the establishment of a positive environment in which the learning can occur, and may take the form of learning teams, peer mentoring, recall days that involve the learner’s manager or team, or simply feedback loops – all of which are designed to create opportunities to enable the learner to apply the learning and develop from the application. 

When delivered as a learning process (as opposed to an event), learners engage with the information over time and mostly in the workplace. Learning transfer is increased when group-based learning events are coupled with interval reinforcement, the opportunity to practice in the workplace, and peer and management support.

5. Feedback loops

The final element to ensure the success of a training programme involves embedding feedback loops (i.e. ongoing evaluation) into the learning to measure the impact of the programme across the full lifecycle.

When well-designed, feedback loops enable us to understand the impact of the learning on the learner, other stakeholders and the organisation. A feedback loop may be simple check-ins, a learning journal, peer conversations, or formal surveys/questionnaires. Collecting this information across the life of the programme allows the facilitator, learners and other stakeholders to adjust the process to maximise the impact of the process. 

The elements outlined are not, by any means, exhaustive, and are simple to deliver and maintain throughout a learning process. However the key to success is that, firstly, training is redefined and designed as a learning process and, secondly, they are designed and embedded into the process, not offered as an add on or optional extra.  

 

About Kerry Brocks

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08th Jul 2019 22:45

"Learn to teach and teach to learn."
I love looking at life as a never ending lesson plan.

I agree with your point Kerry that the most important objective before launching a programme is to get clear on what success actually means before you go out and start educating people. I think its important to have a few benchmarks so that it encompasses the varied types of people who will be a part of the training.

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