More frequently than I care to admit, I run across studies that show that we do not effectively apply the knowledge we have demonstrably learned. That’s a big challenge for those of us that teach stuff for a living.
The evidence that we don’t apply learning
Here’s what got me thinking: An article in the December issue of the Academy of Management’s Learning and Education journal reported on a study of applied management knowledge . Based on a written in-basket exercise, participants were found to have earned only 32% of the possible performance points across eight items. (Data was drawn from 25 years of results with nearly 24,000 participants). The authors of the study comment on the “disturbingly low level” of results that “leave little question that there are, in fact, substantive gaps in the applied knowledge of both practicing and aspiring managers.” (Study by Baldwin, Peirce, Jones, & Farouk – see sources.)
I was reminded of a 2009 study conducted by the Corporate Executive Board which revealed that while employees who engaged in formal training events were highly enthusiastic about learning in the workplace (73% favorable), they were considerably less enthusiastic about applying what they learned from formal learning events (41% favorable). (Data was drawn from over 10,000 learners in 47 companies worldwide. See sources.)
Promoting application of learning
At first glance, studies of this nature force us to take a look at what we can do to promote transfer, and the HRD literature gives us several fine models that identify the factors that promote transfer. These factors include learner motivation and self-efficacy, perceived relevance of content and skills, effectiveness of trainers, use of engaging practice activities in program design, peer support, manager support and reinforcement, effective feedback and coaching, recognition and reward for demonstrated behaviors and outcomes, and active removal of barriers to applying learning. (See sources for details.)
But what if…
These models are well-researched and provide terrific guidance, but I wonder if we may be looking at this all wrong. What if the real problem with applying knowledge is the very notion that knowledge can be garnered in one context (formal learning) and then applied in another (on the job)?
Situated learning theorists and many constructivist thinkers make the argument that learning must take place in the context of its use – that “application” of learning is really more akin to relearning. And even some cognitive load studies have shown that it doesn’t help to break down complex skills into more learnable chunks if the context of use requires people to pull all those knowledge chunks and discrete skills together in a complex and dynamic environment.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe there is a time and place for formal learning, and all that we have learned about performance-based design and promoting transfer should be applied (oh, the irony!) to ensure our formal learning contributes to our ability to “do” on the job (or wherever it is we do what we learned).
But these kinds of studies also underscore the need for crafting strong apprenticeship-like learning, coaching, communities of practice, and other in-the-job learning support activities that make “transfer of learning” obsolete. All formal learning programs need to be “blended” – either by the designers of the program who ensure the follow up activities, or by the learners themselves who take control of experimenting and reflecting on experience in their performance environments.
Note to self
Being jarred by these kinds of studies reminds me that even the most interactive, engaging learning events are just the beginning of learning – that to be effective, I must put into play additional activities that bring the learning into its context of use. In that application or performance context, I need to be sure there are plenty of supports – mostly of the human kind – to bridge that final step between “learning” and truly having “learned.”
The Elusiveness of Applied Management Knowledge: A critical challenge for management eduction. (2011) By Timothy T. Baldwin, Jason R. Pierce, Richard C. Jones and Shameem Farouk. Academy of Management Learning & Education 10(4).
Refocusing L&D on Business Results: Bridging the gap between learning and performance. (2009) By the Corporate Executive Board.
A study of best practices in training transfer and proposed model of transfer. (2008) By Lisa Burke and Holly Hutchins. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 19(2).
Development of a generalized learning transfer system inventory. (2000) By Elwood F. Holton III, Reid A. Bates, and Wendy E. A. Ruona. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 11(4).