Why training falls short – and how to fix it
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Why training falls short – and how to fix it

Even the best training content – and all the man-hours and resources that go along with it – can fail without the proper support structure. So how can learning organizations make sure they succeed?

Researchers from the University of Alabama looked at the latest studies in cognitive science to find where employee training can break down – and how to prevent failures.

The research

The researchers analyzed a number of educational psychology studies to find training techniques that align with known cognitive learning processes. In other words, what are some ways to train people that match how we naturally learn?

The researchers also identified common training pitfalls and how to overcome them. Below are several of these pitfalls, followed by recommendations for how to eliminate them from your training program.

Problem, meet solution

Problem: Inert knowledge. Inert knowledge refers to information that is successfully stored in a learner’s memory but isn’t applied when the time comes. So learners know the information, but they don’t know how or when to use the information.

Solution: Training content must be provided in context. For example: Why is this information important? How can it be applied? When should it be applied? How does it connect to other similar topics?

In addition to context, practice also helps learners unlock inert knowledge. The researchers make a note to differentiate “remember” level practice from “use” level practice. Practice opportunities that just test learners’ memories are often not enough to transfer inert knowledge into action. But “use” practice, which requires learners to use the knowledge they’ve acquired, is. This type of practice shows the practical application of the concept in a real-world context. Therefore, construct practice sessions where you present the appropriate cues and ensure that learners correctly apply what they’ve learned.

Problem: Far-transfer tasks. These are heuristic tasks that don’t have a clear-cut answer or a “correct” approach. Learners must use their own judgment to navigate the situation and apply their knowledge accordingly.

Solution: From the description above, you can see how far-transfer tasks might be challenging for training professionals to teach. Luckily, research provides an answer: Give your learners opportunities to practice their skills in a variety of situations that mirror their day-to-day jobs.

Research shows that learners benefit from practice sessions that test the same principle using different scenarios. For example, a sales team is learning a new prospecting concept. Create role-play scenarios that appear different on the surface but require the salespeople to utilize the same new concept in order to be successful. These simulations will help learners navigate different situations and use the new concept creatively and when appropriate. The goal for far-transfer task training, according to the researchers, is to “help learners build a mental model to apply to the many diverse professional situations they will encounter.”]

Problem: In-house experts possess lots of valuable knowledge, but they have trouble transferring that knowledge to less-experienced learners. How can you teach learners to solve problems like an expert would?

Solution: An interview technique called PARI, which stands for Prerequisites, Actions, Responses, Interpretations. This approach is designed to illuminate the expert’s thought process and how he or she came to a specific solution to a problem. In a PARI interview, a learner would ask the expert a series of questions based on the PARI model. Here’s a very brief example of how this interview might look in practice.

Prerequisites: How/where would you start? Why?

Actions: What would you do first? Next?

Responses: What would you expect to happen? What would you do if it doesn’t work out that way?

Interpretations: How would you interpret this response? What would you do as a result?

Source: Clark, R. and Harrelson, G.L. (2002). Journal of Athletic Training, 37(4), S-152-S-159.

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