3 Ways to Improve Transfer of Learning in the Workplace

Business.com / Education / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

The success of your onboarding program depends on three factors that will improve the transfer of learning from training to application.

In many organizations, the process of hiring and training employees can be time consuming and expensive.

However, if the right employee is selected and the training is adequate, the upfront costs are justifiable. Unfortunately, studies show that it’s rare for an employee to efficiently transfer everything they’ve learned from training to the real world.

As a business owner or manager, this is troublesome.

What is Learning Transfer?

Let’s begin with a little background information. Are you familiar with the term “transfer of learning?” Transfer of learning “refers to learning in one context and applying it in another, i.e. the capacity to apply acquired knowledge and skills to new situations.”

In all, there are three distinct types of transfer:

  • The transfer from prior knowledge to learning,
  • The transfer from old learning to new learning, and
  • The transfer from learning to an application

When looked at through the lens of a corporation training an employee, the latter type of transfer is most important. Businesses need to focus on how they can help employees transfer the knowledge from training to a real living, breathing business environment.

This task is incredibly challenging, though. It’s difficult to know how an individual will respond to training, and a thorough understanding of a concept during training doesn’t always transfer to real world success. Let’s use an analogy to further explain the challenge of learning transfer and why it’s so difficult.

Take a college football team, for example. Each year, college football teams bring in a new crop of freshmen athletes. Generally, freshmen will take what is called a “redshirt year.” During this year, they get to practice with the team but never compete in a real game situation. This entire year is dedicated to learning.

However, occasionally a freshman will get an opportunity to play. While even more rare, a true freshman will occasionally get an opportunity to play quarterback—arguably the most important position on the field. The most challenging aspect for this young, inexperienced quarterback is transferring the knowledge he has learned in practice to a real game situation with variables he cannot control.

He may perform extremely well in practice, but that doesn’t always translate over into game time success.

When this freshman quarterback performs poorly, coaches don’t immediately question the player’s athletic abilities. Instead, they consider the transfer of learning. The coaching staff asks, “How can we improve the structure of practice so that this player is able to transfer more of what he learns from the practice field to the game field?”

As a business owner or manager, this is how you need to think. When you see new employees performing poorly in the workplace after showing promising signs during training, don’t give up on them.

Instead, consider that the problem may be an issue with the transfer of learning. Ask yourself, “How can we improve training so that future employees are able to transfer more of what they learn in the boardroom to the sales floor?”

Related Article: Generation of Change: How Does Age Impact Employee Training?

3 Tips for Improving Learning Transfer in Your Organization

While every organization deals with differently, most would agree that there are three basic stages in the learning transfer process: preparation, action and evaluation. With those three things in mind, let’s briefly look at some tips for improving learning transfer within your organization.

1. Clearly Identify Learning Goals and Outcomes

Before any training starts, it’s important that you review the purpose of the training session and clearly identify learning goals and outcomes. This is beneficial for two main reasons. First, it allows your team to refocus their efforts and keep the big picture in mind. Second, this gives the participants an idea of where the training is headed and what will be expected of them at the end of the process.

This is why you often see sections labeled “Learning Objectives” at the beginning of textbook chapters, case studies, or lectures. When people know what the takeaways are supposed to be, they’re more aware of what they’re learning and which pieces of information are most important.

For example, let’s say you’re training customer service agents how to properly field a complaint on the company’s 1-800 hotline. At the beginning of the training, you would announce to these employees that the learning goals and expected outcomes are understanding

  1. The proper way to greet customers,
  2. When to transfer a customer to a superior, and
  3. How to handle hostile customers.

Because the customer service agents know these are the three expected outcomes, they’ll be more apt to focus on the material related to them.

2. Use Real World Examples During Training

Going back to our example with the college quarterback, one of the reasons it’s so difficult for a freshman to transfer knowledge from practice to games is that coaches often do a poor job of replicating live game experiences.

Instead of playing scrimmages with full pads, 11 players on both sides of the ball, and crowd noise, they dumb-down the drills and ensure there’s no contact. When the freshman gets into the game and realizes things are very different than they were in practice, everything he learned goes out the window.

When training your employees, it’s important that you use as many real life examples and situational experiences as possible. If everything is a drill, they won’t be able to transfer much of what they learn from training sessions. Let trainees shadow employees, field phone calls, and get a taste of actual experiences. When combined with drills and exercises, these real-life experiences can facilitate a better transfer of learning and helps to develop leadership capabilities.

Related Article: Dear BDC: How Do I Best Manage Expectations?

3. Provide Individuals with Post-Training Support

Transferring skills to the workplace at the conclusion of the training program begins with a post-course debriefing,” writes Leslie Allan of BusinessPerform.com. “The post-course debriefing is an ideal juncture at which to identify, plan and agree with the employee where the skills will be applied and to set specific goals for their application.”

In addition to debriefing after training, it’s important that you provide participants with some level of ongoing support that they can access. This provides them with a place to answer questions, review concepts, and communicate when they’re having trouble transferring some part of the learning over to the job.

Putting it All Together

In the end, the success of your training programs depends on your ability to facilitate a transfer of learning among your employees and participants. It’s not the amount of money you spend on training, but the amount of attention you give to learning transfer that will determine the long-term success of your new hires. By no means is it easy, but the more time you spend improving your learning transfer processes will absolutely pay dividends.

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