Is your training effective – or just efficient?

06 April 2022 by John Helmer

Learning technologies have powered a significant increase in the ability of L&D to deliver learning at scale over the last two decades. They have also brought new modalities into the training toolset such as mobile and immersive delivery which means what is being offered at this expanded scale doesn’t have to be less engaging or less thorough. However, it can be argued that these changes have not lessened in any way the training world’s tendency to focus on efficiency over effectiveness. To put it bluntly, there’s a lot more training being done – but it isn’t necessarily any better.

We can’t be more definite about that last statement because so little evaluation is done, but some indications of low training quality show up in research such as that recently carried out by UK analysts Fosway Group. They report that while digital learning is clearly ‘here to stay’ and the rapid increases in adoption brought about by the pandemic are extremely unlikely to be rolled back, ‘digital fatigue’ is growing. “Learning quality“, the report says, “is now front of mind for leading organizations“.

This new focus on learning quality should, of course, be heartening news for anyone who champions learning technologies. Negative perceptions of the quality of elearning have undoubtedly held back growth in the past. Digital fatigue will similarly constitute a threat to its future. So three cheers for a focus on the quality of learning by practitioners.

The lack of evaluation, together with certain convenient assumptions by both L&D and its internal clients about the efficacy of training per se that it was in nobody’s interests to question (called ‘the conspiracy of convenience’ by Charles Jennings) may have led historically to this focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness. During the first decade and a half of elearning’s existence as an industry, this remained the norm, with learning systems designed with the needs of administrators, rather than learners, in mind. It was not until the advent of LXPs that the idea of putting the learners’ needs first in the design of systems really became in any way mainstream.         

However, if it should turn out that this new concern to improve the quality of learning focuses solely on the learner experience, something vital will have been missed. We don’t only need a quality learning experience to combat digital fatigue and prove the worth of L&D, we also need quality results. And that means improvements in performance and productivity leading to positive outcomes for the business.

There is of course nothing wrong with striving for a better learner experience. Learning theory, especially that area of it which focuses on the affective domain of learning (Kraftwohl, Damasio, Immordino-Yang, Shackleton-Jones, etc.) says that it’s absolutely essential. A learning experience that doesn’t engage our emotions in some way is inherently unmemorable. If we don’t care, we can’t learn. Other theorists emphasize the importance of learner agency: a more learner-centered approach, such as that delivered by a modern LXP, is similarly supported by empirical evidence. All this good science argues for the efficacy of improving the quality of the learner experience.

However, against this, we have also to balance other findings of learning science that tell us to beware of a laser-light focus on what the learner experiences, to the exclusion of other evidence. Gamified environments can be extremely effective (e.g. Duolingo for elementary language learning). However, too much fun can be destructive to learning if it is a mere distraction or imposes an unwanted cognitive load. Online video, which is increasingly popular in learning, turns out to have limitations when actual recall is tested. Richard E. Clark’s work showed that direct instruction is far more effective for learners in certain situations than open-ended discovery learning – of the type that for many constitutes almost the definition of a quality learning experience. 

Added to this, research by the Bjorks (a US husband-and-wife team of researchers) has shown that learners are bad judges of their own learning. It is entirely possible for a learner to report having had a really fun, engaging learning experience which, when the subject is tested, turns out to have produced no actual learning at all.

So does the science contradict itself? Well, no. Both sets of findings are true, and well supported by empirical evidence. It’s just that the practice of learning involves balancing these contradictory forces, in the same way, that an aeronautical engineer designing an airplane balances warring forces of lift, weight, thrust and drag to get the thing in the air.  

As L&D strives to professionalize its discipline in the digital age, awareness is spreading of what the job is really about now, and the role good learning science should play. We’re only now catching up with some of the new affordances of digital technology in putting more data at the learning professional’s fingertips and personalizing learning to every learner. We stand poised on the brink of a new era where technology drives quality improvements that really boost the effectiveness of learning across the board. But the key to this new effectiveness will be that good learning science.

So much has been written in 2,500 years about learning that people often don’t know where to start. But a number of foundational insights for the practice of learning cluster around the spacing effect, based on the memory experiments of Hermann Ebbinghaus and the theorists and experimenters who came after him. They got to the heart of how learning works, and that is why Learning Pool commissioned me to write a whitepaper about the spacing effect, one of the most robust findings in the psychological literature. In the opinion of many expert evidence-based practitioners in the field, it is this area of learning science that holds the key to creating quality learning experiences that also have quality outcomes.

 

To learn more about the spacing effect for organizational learning, download our latest whitepaper, ‘The Spacing Effect: Harnessing the Power of Spaced Practice for Learning That Sticks‘. 

John Helmer
Consultant

John Helmer FLPI is a writer, speaker, podcaster and communications consultant. He runs and presents the acclaimed fortnightly podcast The Learning Hack, which features conversations with leading figures in learning in the US and UK.

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