How to help struggling learners improve
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How to help struggling learners improve

When a learner is struggling to improve, what’s the best way to help? You could, of course, provide them with more training resources, like webinars, industry conferences or external training. But those resources typically cost money, and don’t necessarily get results.

What if there was a successful and low-cost solution right under your nose? Research conducted by Harvard and Brown universities suggests there is: Pair up your struggling learners with your most successful employees.

The research

Researchers conducted a real-world workplace learning experiment with public school teachers. They identified the lowest-performing teachers in each area and partnered them with their highest-performing colleague. Over the course of a year, the high performer coached the struggling teacher one-on-one.

The intervention sounds rather obvious on paper, but the results were striking.
The researchers watched the struggling teachers’ performance steadily improve over the year. By the end of the study, the low performers’ improvement was similar to that of a novice worker adding five to ten years of experience to their career – through only one year of coaching.

The researchers suggest that this approach could be successful for a variety of workplaces, not just education. By improving communication among workers and offering peer learning opportunities, organizations could develop a learning culture where employees rely less on formal training and more on teaching each other.


The researchers found that the biggest gains occurred when the struggling employee’s weak areas matched their mentor’s strengths. In other words, the ideal peer-mentoring program would match a salesperson who struggles with discovery, for example, with a coworker who’s a master at it. The peer mentor is ideally suited to fill in the mentee’s knowledge gaps, and the mentee benefits from the mentor’s years of experience and success.


Develop peer mentoring. As in the study, consider developing a peer-mentoring program, where struggling or less-experienced coworkers are paired with high-performing or more experienced peers. If possible, create mentoring relationships where the mentee’s weaknesses match the mentor’s strengths.

The study suggests that you’ll see significant improvement. In fact, your struggling employees may develop their skills to a higher level than you anticipated.

Encourage coworker communication. The researchers also noted that employee communication is vital to a successful learning environment. Employees often have insights into their job that they find through years of experience and hard work. The goal of a learning organization is to get these insights and institutional knowledge out in the open for the benefit of everyone in the department. Without opportunities for open communication, knowledge sharing may never happen. It’s incumbent on managers and learning professionals to create these opportunities and ensure that internal expertise gets dispersed throughout the organization.

Incorporate peer learning into your training. Employees tend to value information that comes from a peer “in the trenches” with them over information that comes from a trainer or manager. So build peer-learning opportunities into your training program. Allow time for peers to discuss the training content, and share their thoughts, experiences, successes and failures. These informal peer discussions often lead to significant learning and improvement when employees share their knowledge and work through problems together.

Papay, J., Taylor, E. S., Tyler, J., & Laski, M. (2015). Learning job skills from colleagues at work: Evidence from a field experiment using teacher performance data. Journal of Economic Literature, J24, M53, I2.

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