Don’t be too quick to abandon traditional training methods
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Don’t be too quick to abandon traditional training methods

Many managers and employees are deeply skeptical of traditional training, such as lectures, reading assignments and training videos. Too theoretical. Not relevant. B-o-r-i-n-g.

The best way to learn something, they’ll argue, is by doing something. Let people tackle real-world tasks. Offer coaching and feedback. Then let them try again. That’s far more effective than sitting through a formal lesson, right?

Well, yes and no.

Research suggests that hands-on “active” learning is really good at teaching people how to do a given task. But it’s not very good at helping people transfer that knowledge to new situations.

To make that leap, learners need to see how everything fits together into a big picture.

And, one study suggests, old fashioned “passive” learning techniques – those lectures, videos and textbooks – are still the best way to teach big-picture concepts.

The research
A 2006 study compared two introductory college business classes. One used lectures and gave students no opportunities for active experiences. In the other group, students were assigned to groups and tackled business projects designed around the class topics.

By one measure, the active-learning approach was better: Students remembered more of what they learned. But even so, they ended up with significant gaps in their knowledge.

These students learned what they needed for their projects, but were less likely to integrate this knowledge into larger conceptual frameworks.

And it’s those frameworks that allow us to apply what we’ve learned to new situations, the researchers suggested.

Implications for trainers
If your goal is to teach people a specific skill – operate a lathe, answer the phone, or fill out workers comp forms – hands-on learning works great.

But if you’re trying to teach people broader concepts – for example, how to sell in teams or motivate employees – you’re still going to need formal training.

These findings also raise larger questions for workplace training. Many organizations use on-the-job training – which is mostly active learning – and consider it enough. But that kind of training is less likely to help employees acquire the high-level knowledge that will help them advance in their careers.

The best of both
Here’s a well-established model – the Experiential Learning Cycle – that combines both types of training.

The cycle starts with an active learning exercise and then puts it in a larger context. The passive learning component is more engaging because it builds on the learner’s experience.

Let’s look at an example, using the topic of employee coaching:

1. Concrete experience. The training begins with a hands-on activity – for example, a game, simulation or role play. You might pair off learners and give them a coaching scenario where a manager is trying to change behavior and an employee is resisting.

2. Reflective observation. Next, facilitate a discussion of the activity. What happened in the role play? How did learners feel about the experience? What can they apply to their jobs? This is still active learning – it gets learners involved.

3. Abstract conceptualization. Next, you employ more traditional passive learning techniques to put the learning in context. For example, you might present a coaching model and supporting research, showing how the experience fits within the model.

4. Active Experimentation. Finally, you return to active learning to convert the knowledge into behavior. For example, have learners commit to trying the new coaching concepts on the job, and review in two weeks to make sure it happened.

The experimentation creates new experiences, so the cycle begins again.

Gosen, J., et al. (2004). A Review of Scholarship of Assessing Experiential Learning Effectiveness, University of Wisconsin.

Kolb, D.A. (2008). Experiential Learning Theory: A Dynamic Holistic Approach to Management Learning, Education and Development. Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University.

Norbert, M., et al. (2006). Active vs. Passive Teaching Styles: An Empirical Study of Student Learning Outcomes, HR Development Quarterly. DOI: 10.1002/hrdq

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