How can we help people put learning into practice?

It is very easy for a learning activity to be disconnected from real working life. Head knowledge (e.g. about ways of collaborating) may not be translated into any kind of action or change of behaviour.

What can we do in the learning design to help people to activate their learning, retain it, embed the change and sustain it? I’ve come up with five practical steps in the learning design guide for our organisation which are all about helping people to activate their learning. See what you think, and I would love your thoughts on what I’ve missed (in the comments).

  • Keep it real
  • Remind them
  • Make the full content findable
  • Support the change
  • Plan to gather insight from people who have activated their learning

Keep it real

The learning environment can feel distant from the real working environment. It is important for learners to sense that what they are learning is “real” so they can relate it to their own experiences, understand when the learning could be put into practice, and actually remember to do something about it. How can this be part of the learning design?

  • Put the learning into practice yourself. Practice what you preach (and make sure any other presenters are doing that as well). Incorporate your own personal stories about how it worked for you into what is presented.
  • Include real stories of colleagues – show their faces, give the context, include quotes that convey an emotional impact.
  • Base a course activity on the learner’s own real situation. For example, in a benefits masterclass I ran, the activity was to draw a benefits map for the work each learner was doing at the moment.
  • Include opportunities to practice in a real technical environment (or a “sandbox” which is real except that it is not live data). Ideally the learners will be able to continue using this environment when the official learning activity is over. Simulations, particularly in CBT environments are rarely convincing enough to help actual users, and it is important to overcome all the start-up issues that happen with first use of a new system.

Remind them

After people have used the learning environment you’ve designed, what will remind them to put what they learned into action? Your plan could include:

  • Embedding. Reminders written in to the flow of their work.
  • Favourites. As part of the learning, include a step for the learner to put helpful links where they’ll find them when they need them – eg browser favourites or a page in OneNote.
  • Job aids. Prompts included in the main guides they follow to do their jobs.
  • Pin-up. A summary to pin on their wall.
  • Action learning plan. Ask them to say what they’ll do differently to the group – a public statement gives a sense of commitment (but only if unforced).
  • Survey. After 3 months, ask them whether and how they’ve put the learning into action. The act of asking will prompt activation.
  • Drip-feed reminders. The classic example in BT is the ‘speaking with one voice’ campaign, who send regular emails (eMoments) with an interesting new tip or technique on the subject to everyone who’s taken part in one of their workshops.

Make the full content findable

When the learner starts to put it into practice, they often realise they have forgotten some details and want to refresh their memory on what they learnt. That can be difficult if the event had no supporting materials, or if the replays is too lengthy or if the CBTs are locked away in the Learning Management System, and can only be consumed in sequential order. The learning design needs to make the full content findable in the moment of need.

  • Split up lengthy replay and videos into smaller chunks, store them where they can be easily searched. Make the title and description comprehensive so the search engine will find it by the things the user might search for. If you have a video transcript, store it in the video document set so that it also is indexed.
  • If you have made a CBT, also publish a Powerpoint or Word version of the same content. The search engine will index all the text in the powerpoint, making it findable. Users will find it easier to refresh their memory from a conventional document than by re-doing the CBT. MS-Office documents are better than PDFs because they allow the users to extract useful stuff into their own notes and pass it on to others more easily.
  • Put links to the learning environment in the everyday electronic workplace of those who will need the information.
  • Test the search results on the main corporate search engine and make sure you can explain how to find your content using search.
  • As part of the organised learning activity, include a task which requires them to find information using the same technique that they will use in the workplace.

Support the change

It is totally natural to revert to the old way of doing things. Making a change into a habit needs support. Work with the sponsors of the learning design to consider everything that is needed to support the change this could include

  • Performance support
  • Action learning sets
  • Removing barriers to adoption
  • Incentivising change
  • Making alternatives harder
  • Managing resistance

Plan to gather insight from people who have activated the learning

Learning design is often done by experts or learning professionals. Those are vital roles, but they don’t include the perspective of someone who has recently put things into practice for the first time. First-timers often struggle with some of the basics that are so obvious to the experts that they aren’t mentioned.

Part of the learning design should include an improvement cycle after pilot users have participated in the learning activities and have had time to activate their learning in their normal workplace. Consult with the pilot users after a period of time to find out their experiences of trying to put their learning into practice. From this you may find

  • Authentic human-interest stories that you can include as learning components
  • Basics about getting started that might have been missed or been unclear
  • Suggestions on improving relevance and balance of the content
  • What would have helped them to activate their learning more easily

Consultation will normally need to be in the form of telephone interviews, as it is difficult to get adequate depth of feedback on electronic media.

And now your thoughts…

What else helps people to activate their learning and put it into practice? What has helped you?


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