Friday, June 21, 2013

Toffee Pudding or how to make learning stick

Toffee Pudding or how to make learning stick

Rachel Burnham writes: Learning & Development in organisations is all about the impact on performance.  Or rather it should be about the impact on performance.  But too often we focus on learning as an end in itself, rather than keeping in mind that the reason that learning in organisations is so important is because of the impact it can make on performance.  The performance of individuals, and teams, and whole organisations.  

So, this blog is all about what we can do to ensure that all our L&D activities have a positive impact on the performance of learners.   To do that we need to create learning that sticks. So, here are 10 tips for sticky learning:

1.  Make it real, make it relevant – Set out to make the learning experience as relevant to your learners as it can possibly be.  The closer it is to reality, the easier it will be for learners to put any learning into practice.  The more relevant it is to them, the more motivated learners will be to get the most out of the learning experience.   Consider every aspect of the L&D experience and how you can make it relevant to your learners – think about: the language used; the examples explored; how practical can you make the activities; whether the learning can be done in the workplace and the timing of the learning in relation to when learners will need to use it.

2.  Learning Needs Analysis – Make sure you do the LNA you need to give you the information to make it real & relevant.  So often, we are pressured into skipping this step and yet expected to miraculously design & deliver just what the learners & organisation needed.   In particular, find out about the context(s) in which learners will need to use the learning – what supports & barriers are there?

3.  Design with application in mind – Sometimes we create wonderfully informative and content rich programmes that help learners to learn all sorts of interesting material.  Often organisations are very impressed at how much we can pack into a short session.   And that is great, till a few weeks down the line when little seems to have changed in the performance of staff.  

So, it would be even better if we integrated how to make use of that learning in work into the design from the outset.   Often this means covering less ground and adding more depth.  By this I mean that the more information included in a programme, the more likely we are to focus on presenting knowledge and using ‘tell’ styles of delivery.  Whereas if we focus on key material this can allow us more time to build in more effective interactive learning, with time for learners to focus on how to make best use of this in their particular work situation.  Less is very often more.

4.  Set up & set down - Pay as much attention to the design & delivery of the ‘set up’ & ‘set down’ as to the core learning activity, whether e-learning, workshop, a shadowing opportunity etc.   By ‘set up’, I am thinking about all those things that we can do prior to an L&D activity that communicate expectations, generate interest and stimulate learners.  By ‘set down’, I have in mind all those things we can put in place post the main L&D activity, often with a focus on encouraging the transfer of learning.  These are a great way to extend the learning, but more than that the set up can contribute to learners approaching the core learning with an understanding of its relevance to their work, feeling motivated and already learning.   

Think more broadly than just workshops for the core L&D activity – Blended Learning opportunities includes all sorts of e-learning related possibilities, workplace learning methods, informal learning, social learning and even plain old reading a book.

5.  Practice, practice, practice and lots of quality feedback – Build into your design lots of opportunities to practice the skills and apply the knowledge.  This of course, can continue after the core learning, and it is helpful to consider how to support and encourage this.   Alongside this find ways for learners to get high quality feedback – a great way of doing this is to get learners involved in providing peer feedback to each other.   This generates great learning both from receiving feedback, but also the process of assessing other people’s work, gives great insights into what works & why.   I have been encouraging peer feedback into interpersonal skills development for some years and find it is an incredibly powerful process.  Both practice and the provision of feedback require an investment of time in the learning.

6.  Incorporate evaluation into the learning – If you know that the organisation is interested and will be checking out how you are using the learning, all things being equal you are more likely to use it.   This means that evaluation needs to be more than a ‘happy sheet’ - it is about evaluation as a learning intervention in its own right.  I will return to the topic of evaluation in a future posts.

7.  Don’t limit yourself to learning on its’ own – Learning is wonderful, but sometimes we need a bit of additional support to really raise our performance.   Why not consider if some form of Performance Support tool? Job aids such as collections of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ (FAQs) & their answers, flowcharts to guide you through a process or short video clips demonstrating a ‘how-to-do X’ are excellent ways to do this.   This is an area with lots of potential to make a big impact on performance.

8.  Involve line managers – L&D doesn’t have to go it alone.  Communicating & building relationships with line managers can be a great way to help learners to get the support they need to apply the learning.   Think about how to make it easier for line managers to do this – what support may they need from us?  Communicate the benefits to line managers from providing this support.

9.  Encourage peer support – I’ve already mentioned the value of getting learners involved in peer assessment & review.   On-going peer support can be another effective approach, through sharing tips & ways to solve challenges – it could even involve peers gradually building a shared FAQs resource perhaps in the form of a wiki.   Peer support could be encouraged very easily using social networking platforms, or an in-company networking tool or simply through a regular item in a team meeting.

10.              ‘Learning out loud’ – I came across this term only this week (see Tom Spiglanin’s blog  It expresses so well the idea that recording your learning, in some form, helps you to clarify what it is precisely that you have learnt and to absorb what this means for your actions.  You might be recording this by writing a reflective record, or a blog or actually recording sound or video clips, perhaps via a mobile phone.

So, this may not be a toffee pudding, but these tips can make your learning really sticky (and there are guaranteed fewer calories involved!).

Rachel Burnham

21 June 2013

Burnham L & D Consultancy specialises in the development of L&D professionals, blended learning and evaluation

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

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