Research-based Principles of Instruction Applied to Workplace Learning

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

It seems like everyone who has ever gone to school is an expert in how to teach /instruct. And all of this ‘folk wisdom’ is based on one simple thought, namely: “Well that’s the way I learned”! It’s also amazing how much we know actually about learning and instruction from good research, but how little of this knowledge we use.

Barak Rosenshine published an adapted version of a report that he wrote in 2010 for the UNESCO and the International Academy of Education in which he outlined 10 solid research-based principles of instruction. These principles are all based on research in cognitive science, research on master teachers and research on cognitive supports for learning. The major strength is, that even though these are three very different bodies of research, there is no conflict whatsoever between the instructional suggestions that they provide. Maybe the paradogma supporters (Kirschner, 2014) in the educational sciences could take a lesson from this.

While it has been shown that there is absolutely no evidence in the scientific literature to support the idea that 70% of what we learn is via experiential learning, 20% learning from others and 10% formal learning (see De Bruyckere et al. in their Urban Myths about Learning and Education – Myth 3) it is of course true that informal learning and learning from and with others is very important, especially in the workplace. When we focus on social and experiential learning, it often remains unclear if employees are learning effectively, despite 360 performance reviews and subjective (manager and L&D professionals) opinions.

Therefore, exploring to what extent proven instructional principles can be applied to the informal and non-formal ways of learning in the workplace, can contribute to making learning professionals more aware of what they need to be aware of, so to speak.

Principle 1: Begin a learning experience with a short review of previous learning. Daily review can strengthen previous learning

Review doesn’t mean glancing over an article that you read the day before (besides, rereading is proven to be a completely ineffective learning strategy anyway; compliance training eat your heart out). Review could take place through reflection, for example content curation, as an individual or collaborative. It could also be a well-structured discussion with peers in which all involved can review and discuss a learning experience or moment that has been experienced during working; even content.

Principle 2: Only digest small amounts of new material, then practice that material

Microlearning is hot in workplace learning and fortunately in line with this principle. For example, an enterprise provides a point-of-need performance support tool in systems employees use on the job, for example a help function that provides bite-sized pieces of just-in-time information. In this case, using the system itself is the ‘practice’ part. A challenge is that learning designers and subject matter experts always need to ‘guess’ what the exact learner needs are. Sometimes it might be easy to guess but sometimes it’s virtually impossible.

Principle 3: Ask a large number of questions to support connections between new materials and prior learning

Who will determine what the critical questions are to ask? Experts often find it hard to put themselves in novices’ shoes and truly understand what novices need to learn and how they can get there. Peer learning, where individuals have the same level of expertise, might work better because they themselves have often had the same problems. However, knowing what questions to ask (yourself?) to support learning, is a skill that requires, well, learning. And being open and secure enough to admit that you don’t know something requires a strong person and a psychologically safe environment!

Principle 4: Provide models and worked examples; this supports learners to solve problems faster

This principle works and is, hopefully, applied broadly in workplace learning. It works particularly well for recurrent tasks, which are rule-based processes performed in a highly consistent way from problem situation to problem situation (Van Merriënboer & Kirschner, 2012). For these type of tasks, the learner can work with process documents, flow charts or examples of previously successfully completed projects.

Principle 5: Guided practice of new material

Again, this is an essential, yet missing principle in when people think about the mythical 20% and 70%. Although there are many advantages to social and peer learning, we all must acknowledge that there is nothing like making use of good guided practice. Van Merriënboer and Kirschner refer to this as ALOYS, the Assistant Looking Over Your Shoulder. A manager or coach could provide it; but to what extent is that scalable?

Principle 6: Check learner understanding at each ‘point’

If the learning objective is clear and the steps to success are clear, the critical ‘learning points’ could be identified as well. It wouldn’t be a ‘traditional’ way of ‘checking your understanding’ but it could be a pre-identified task to complete that needs to meet certain standards. It is critical to keep in mind that objectivity is key here.

Principle 7: Obtain a high success rate (during practice)

This principle refers back to principle 5 and again, the guided practice piece is a gaping hole in the less formal approaches to learning, especially in the workplace. This cannot be done without a well-structured training/learning approach.

Principle 8: Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks

This principle requires carefully designed processes. However, workplaces should be able to successfully implement such scaffolds and they are. A peer or colleague ‘looking over your shoulder’ is a good example. But also performance support tools such as check lists, short instructional videos and repositories can also be the scaffolds. However, it’s hard to know the exact level of scaffolding that each learner needs. How do you know when to ‘remove a scaffold’ to enable the learner to move towards mastery? Maybe ALOYS is the best scaffold to be found.

Principle 9:  Require and monitor independent practice

To implement this principle, you need to establish the standards that need to be met. This is probably easy for some tasks but very difficult for others. Take the case of critical parts of a process where making a mistake during independent practice could cost a lot of time, money or even lives.

Principle 10: Engage learners in weekly and monthly review

This can be done through well-structured discussion groups, face-to-face or in an online community of practice format. It is critical that there is a pre-defined outcome, otherwise the risk is discussion for the sake of discussion.

So, where does this leave us? Glancing over the principles and how to apply them in a workplace learning context, we need to state the obvious first: As usual, the whole learning journey should start with a learning need and a learning objective. Then, there needs to be a careful analysis of the required steps to successfully achieve the learning objective. One of the things to keep in mind is that in workplace learning, the instructor is often missing. It is important to acknowledge that this is a major challenge (we, in the world of positive-speak no longer experience problems, but rather we experience challenges). It is not about control or about being rigid. It’s about acknowledging how critical it is in learning that a competent individual (or system?) who knows the learner’s skill or knowledge gaps, offers appropriate (point-of-need) instruction, guidance, support, learning content and constructive feedback at all times. Managers could play an instructor role, provided that they’re good, truly supporting their team’s professional development (and have those just mentioned skills and/or competences!), but we need to keep in mind that it’s only one of the hats that they could wear.

Some learning professionals argue that social and experiential learning happen on the job anyway so that we should simply support it. The first question is: What do those people mean by ‘support it’? And furthermore, even if it’s a fact that social and experiential learning happen on the job, we should be critical and curious to what extent it happens and how it happens. It is naïve to think that we can get away with providing support on the fly and hope for the best. True learning needs structure and well-thought through context, to name a few.


De Bruyckere, P., Kirschner, P. A., & Hulshof, C. (2015). Urban myths about learning and education. New York: Academic Press.

Kirschner, P.A., (2014). When a paradigm becomes a paradogma. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30, p. 297-299.

Rosenshine, B. (2010). Principles of instruction. Educational Practices Series-21. Plaats: Uitgeverij.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction. Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, Volume(issue), 12-19.

Van Merrienboer, J. J. G., & Kirschner, P. A., (2012). Ten steps to complex learning. A systematic approach to four-component instructional design (2nd edition). New York: Routledge.


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