Learning experiences: an alternative to one-time learning events

designing-learning-experiences

I often come across titles such as “The Importance of Training Employees”, “The Importance of Workplace Training and Development”, or “Why employee training is important”. I deliberately choose to stay away from them. I think they never reached the Offbeat shortlist, not even when I was desperate about not finding high-quality resources for the newsletter […]

I often come across titles such as “The Importance of Training Employees”, “The Importance of Workplace Training and Development”, or “Why employee training is important”. I deliberately choose to stay away from them. I think they never reached the Offbeat shortlist, not even when I was desperate about not finding high-quality resources for the newsletter (and unfortunately that happens more often than I would like).

You might wonder, ok, but what’s wrong with them?

Well, when I first joined L&D I might have been drawn to them because I too believe in the importance of offering development support to literally everyone. The reason I’m against them is that I think they preach a way of doing things that’s not effective on its own: training. Let me be clear, I’m not blaming anyone who’s writing these articles. As L&Ds, we’ve been preaching training as well for decades now. Maybe because we did not know better. Or because the purpose was not performance improvement or behavior change, but rather employee retention and engagement. Who knows?

Although I might get some mean comments, I decided to speak up and write down my thoughts on the matter. In recent years, I’ve been exploring how adults learn, how performance improves, and how behaviors change. My conclusion after reading books, articles, research papers, and watching videos of all sorts is not that training is bad or something. It’s just not enough.

So what shall we do? Stop all activity and quit our jobs? Well, no. A solution has been explored throughout the years. This article and our first learning program are both addressing it. Before jumping into finding out more about learning experiences, let’s take a step back and make a case against one-time learning events. We’ll do so by reviewing both how hard behavior change is and how our brains work when in learning mode.

The case against one-time learning events

How behaviors change

Behavior change is complicated by default. And that’s shown by the multiple theories and research papers out there. Everything is so complex that oftentimes scientists contradict each other, breakthrough ideas are launched every couple of years and sometimes the wrong ones stick, get spread, and reach our ears and the ears of our internal clients. So not only that the process of behavior change is hard. But the time it takes to dig deeper into trends and understand their scientific base also makes our job (I think part of our L&D role should be one of the behavioral managers) pretty damn hard.

Now let me put into simple words and very briefly what I understood so far about behavior change. First, behaviors vary in complexity. This means that contextual cues, self-efficacy, background, beliefs, attitudes, and so on might matter in different levels when it comes to changing different types of behaviors. Moreover, as Katy Milkman tells in her book How to change, there are many internal forces that prevent behavior change: laziness, procrastination, or forgetfulness, being some of those forces.

So in order to guide people towards behavior change, you need to know which of these factors might matter more than others for their specific situation, and to be aware of the fact that they will have to fight those internal forces that are pretty damn strong. You might remember the System One, System Two theory of Daniel Kahneman. Well, those internal forces are driven by System One, which as he depicted in his book Thinking Fast and Slow is not easy to overrule.

I don’t want to get into any specifics here. I would just repeat things that others have talked about at length. But what I do want to conclude is that, again, behavior change is hard. More often than not, it takes a lot of time, and complex architectures need to be put in place to guide the process.

So expecting one-time learning events to have the impact we desire as a profession seems unrealistic.

Let’s go on.

The neurobiology of the learning process

The primer part of our body that determines learning is our brain, with its multiple components and complex storage space. This information is definitely not new, but wait for it!

Our feelings, actions, thoughts are the result of electrical impulses that travel along a series of connected nerve fibers (axons), called “circuits”. Each circuit corresponds to a single action, thought, or feeling.

The neural circuits which carry those signals are encased in a substance known as myelin. The myelin determines how quickly and precisely a signal can travel along a circuit.

Much like a wider road allows you to travel faster, thicker myelin enables electrical impulses to travel more rapidly through a circuit. The thicker the myelin, the greater your ability to control movement and thoughts more accurately.

Myelin is living tissue, and much like a muscle, it needs to be exercised regularly for it to grow. When you do the same thing over and over again you don’t stimulate myelin growth because you’re using existing, strong circuits.

There are multiple well-known stories of people who mastered the process of thickening their myelin. What they all have in common is how deep and thoughtful they were practicing the skills they wanted to acquire. Let’s look at one of them.

As a young man, Benjamin Franklin wanted to improve his writing. The education he received left him, by his own assessment, as an average writer.

The Spectator was an inspiration for him. So his goal was to be as good as those writing for it.

But since he had no one to teach him how, he had to find another way. His technique was clever. He picked up articles, read them, and wrote down short descriptions of the content. Days after, he tried recalling word by word what he read, while using the descriptions he made.

He compared his results with the original articles and corrected his work. This provided real-time feedback on the outcome of his efforts.

By doing this over and over again, he spotted his problem. He lacked vocabulary. Not that he didn’t know the words, but he couldn’t recall them when needed. So he engaged in other types of writing — poetry. He thought poetry would force him to come up with all kinds of words he wouldn’t think otherwise due to the poem’s rhythm and rhyming pattern.

He picked up again The Spectator articles and transformed them into verse. After a while, waiting enough for his learning to fade away, he turned them back into prose.

As a final step, he worked on structure and logic engaging in the same recollection exercise.

As we all know, he ended up being a great writer. His autobiography became one of the classics of American literature.

So these are just two of the proofs that I found about how the learning process should be deeper, take longer, and be designed more purposeful. Compare Benjamin’s Franklin learning process with the one we design for one-time learning events. I don’t know about you, but to me, they don’t seem even remotely similar.

One involves cramming, the other one spaced repetition.

One makes use of shallow or at best normal practice, the other one makes use of purposeful practice.

One is about pushing information as a whole towards the learner, the other one is about exploring chunked information.

So what shall we do? How can we design experiences that are closer to improving performance and changing behaviors, rather than just thicking the “we’re offering training to employees” box?

Exploring learning experiences

We defined the solution as learning experiences. You might find it as learning programs or learning journeys as well. I’m sure I took all these terms from somewhere, but unfortunately, I have no idea who was my inspiration in the first place. Sorry about that, and thank you a lot!

Going back, we define learning experiences as a combination of learning methods and strategies organized over a longer period, with the purpose of boosting awareness and understanding, and engaging participants in practicing the skills and knowledge they need to do their jobs better.

If you’re wondering what this approach brings to the table, read on.

Characteristics

In our view learning experiences have 5 characteristics:

  • Are rooted in deep research.
  • Make use of the spacing effect and interleaved practice.
  • Combine multiple learning methods.
  • Exploit chunking.
  • And engage learners in purposeful practice.

We’ll explore all these characteristics below because they can all be found in the different steps of designing a learning experience.

4 steps to design learning experiences

Understand your learners

The first characteristic of a learning experience is its research base. This means that before even thinking about architecting the experience itself, we should take the time to understand who we’re designing for. If you’re familiar with design thinking, this first step of understanding your learners is basically the inspiration phase.

Different tools, such as interviews, focus groups, co-creation, or looking at various data sources can be employed here. And the research timeline should be set depending on the complexity of the need you’re trying to address.

The outcome of your research should be a list of insight statements that will guide your design.

Insight Statements succinctly articulate the most valuable learning or “aha” moments that emerge from your research. IDEOU

Set your goals

The next step is again not about the architecture of the experience, but rather about establishing what you want to achieve. Together with your insight statements, your goals will determine how are you going to structure your experience in terms of content, learning strategies, methods, and timeline.

Here, you can look into all kinds of methodologies such as:

In my work, I find it better to set no more than three goals, as this helps me focus on the things that really matter for a specific need. If in your research you’ll uncover other complementary needs, prioritize and think about other programs for the needs you’re not addressing right now.

Structure the learning experience

After you conduct your research and decide on your goals, the time has come to start thinking about the experience itself. And there are three things to consider here: the content you’re going to cover which you should have discovered in your research (the learning needs of your learners and their level of know-how on those matters), learning methods, and learning experiences.

Once you’ve decided on a list of skills and pieces of knowledge, you have to start thinking about how you’re going to engage learners in acquiring them.

Learning methods are the activities in which you’ll engage your learners which might be informed by their habits. On the other hand, learning strategies should be employed in all learning experiences as a way to improve long-term retention and application of knowledge and skills and are the way you’re going to connect the content and the learning methods in order to reach your goals.

Learning methods. There are so many learning methods out there it will be hard for me to make a list here. To name a few of the most popular ones we can talk about workshops, coaching, mentorship, peer learning, assignments, e-learning, communities of practice, or reflection through, for example, journaling. As a rule of thumb, your research should be the one guiding your mix of learning methods. Do your learners like to share knowledge with others? Or maybe they are used to watching videos? Or spending time alone, reflecting?

Learning strategies are a bit more complex. So far I’ve discovered a few that researchers have found effective:

Chunking is a process by which individual pieces of an information set are broken down and then grouped together in a meaningful whole.

Deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.

The spacing effect refers to the finding that long-term memory is enhanced when learning events are spaced apart in time, rather than massed in immediate succession (see Ebbinghaus, 1885/1964, for the first study on the spacing effect).

Interleaved practice – when you are learning two or more related concepts or skills, instead of focusing exclusively on one concept or skill at a time, it can be helpful to alternate between them (for example, if you are learning topic A and topic B, rather than practice only A on one day and only B on the next, you can practice both on each day by incorporating a mixture of the two topics or by switching back and forth between them).

Prototype your solution

When the architecture of your solution is done. Don’t launch it just yet. Put it on a napkin, as the saying goes, and see how your stakeholders react. You can gather feedback on the content you’ve chosen and the timeline of your program. I would not advise you, though, to ask for feedback about the learning methods and strategies you’re proposing. You’re the learning expert, and this is when you’re consultancy self should come by and explain your choices to your stakeholders.

Once you’ve launched, don’t forget to iterate. It will be some time before you’re going to reach the most impactful form of your experience.

Skills, knowledge, and mindsets you need as an L&D

In my view, this approach doesn’t just mean we should acquire or dig deeper into some new knowledge and skills but also adopt some new mindsets.

  • Of course, we should learn more about different research methods and how to use them effectively in order to gain empathy for our audience;
  • The same goes for learning strategies, learning methods, and as a whole, how adults learn;
  • We should learn how to prototype and work iteratively to improve our products and services;
  • In the end, we have to have the courage to dig deeper, not be executants and put our best skills and knowledge to work.

Final conclusions

Do I think that learning experiences will help people thicker the myelin as Benjamin Franklin did with his own? Well, not 100%. I usually avoid being 100% sure of anything, so I’m not choosing to break my rule with this theory.

Still, comparing the two options, one-time learning events, and long-term learning experiences, I still believe strongly that the latter is the better one. The better one to reach our goals to guide behavior change, of improving performance, collaboration, and ultimately our learners’ lives.