NASA research: Improve results by preparing ‘learning climate’
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NASA research: Improve results by preparing ‘learning climate’

A NASA-funded meta-study says that one of the most important steps to make training effective is “preparing the learning climate” – in other words, how you set the stage before the training begins.

“[E]xpectations about the training can affect learning,” the researchers stated. “We know that trainees with unmet expectations demonstrate lower posttraining commitment, self-efficacy, and motivation.”

So what can you do ahead of the training to increase learners’ commitment to learning?

The study, conducted by University of Central Florida Institute for Simulation & Training and sponsored by a NASA grant, offers the following suggestions:

1. Notify in ways that generate commitment
Studies have shown that how you notify trainees can improve training results later. Some keys:

  • Don’t overpromise. Overselling creates false expectations. If workers get a sense that the training is hyped, and that it won’t deliver the promised benefits, their commitment to learning drops. So do results.

    Better: Draw a realistic connection to the benefits learners can expect. If you’ve done similar training in the past, you can cite specifics of how others have benefited.

    For example, if Joe was better able to qualify prospects as a result of the training, just say that (or better yet, have Joe say it). Avoid claims such as “After this session, you’ll never chase an unqualified lead again.”

  • Show a training process. When notifying workers of the training, mention that there will be follow up. Studies have shown that workers have a deeper commitment to training if they see it as part of an ongoing process. This subtle, simple step has been shown to increase trainees’ intention to learn.

    Example: “Please note on your calendar that training will be held next Tuesday, with a half-hour follow-up session on the following Tuesday.”

  • Focus on opportunities, not deficits. Again, a subtle point, but the research shows it’s important: Explain the training in positive rather than negative terms. If the message is “We’re going to fix what you’re doing wrong,” you create stress. Instead, frame your message something like this: “We’re going to show you best practices for this technique, so that you can do your job even better.” Research shows that this positive orientation translates into a deeper commitment to learn.

2. Make it mandatory? It depends
Some training, of course, is always mandatory, such as OSHA-required safety training. For other types,organizations must decide whether sessions will be required or optional. So which policy yields better results?

The research shows that it depends,based on how training is perceived within the organization.

In general, the research shows that if training has a good reputation, making it mandatory is a good thing. It signals to workers that the training is important, which will increase engagement and commitment.

But if training has a bad reputation, making it mandatory sends the opposite message: “We’re forcing people to do this because they wouldn’t go otherwise.” Yes, people will show up, but they’re likely to pick up on the cue and just go through the motions.

Bottom line: Know the reputation of the training you are going to present. If it’s good, there’s no problem with a requiring attendance. But if the reputation is poor, making people show up isn’t enough to make the learning effective.

The solution isn’t to give up on training but to work on the perception. You’ll have to take steps to improve its reputation (for example, by getting and applying worker feedback).

3. Get supervisors’ buy-in
The third key, the research shows: Get supervisors on board.

Trainees look for cues from their supervisors about what they are expected to learn. These cues have a big impact on learner’s attitudes.

Get supervisors to buy in by getting them involved. For example, get their help with scheduling, so that skills can be applied on the job as soon as possible after training. And enlist their help with follow up – for example, to assess whether people are actually using those

More broadly, educate bosses on what good training looks like and how it can help their people.

Supervisory buy-in helps to create what’s known as a “mastery orientation” – an expectation that workers are expected to master the taught skills and will be supported by their direct supervisor in doing so.

Salas, E., et al. (2012). The science of training and development in organizations: What matters in practice. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 13(2), 74-101.

1 Comment

  • Harry Koolen says:

    Stephen – This is a very comprehensive meta-study that anyone involved in training design and implementation should read carefully. Another great resource is an earlier study by Grossman, R., & Salas, E. (2011). The transfer of training: what really matters. International Journal of Training and Development, 15(2), 103-120. Together, the two studies provide lots of raw material for developing a training implementation strategy template that addresses “must do’s” before, during, and after formal training interventions. Thanks for the citation and comments.

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