Authentic learning moments promote transfer to the workplace

Guest blog by Sofie Willox

This article was originally published in Dutch in HR Magazine, March 2022.

It discusses five dimensions that promote learning transfer based on our (Mirjam & Paul) book “Evidence-Informed Learning Design – Creating Training to improve Learning Design”.

To what extent do people actually apply what they’ve learned in a workplace context after a training? Training content can be interesting, but without actual learning transfer we don’t see any behavioural change on the job. So, how do we achieve transfer? Through what I call ‘authentic learning moments’.

Without context we don’t learn

The goal of training is learning (that is, sustainable change in behaviour and cognition; Paul Kirschner calls this a stable change in our long-term memories) so that people can perform to standard in their job. In order to achieve this, the training that we design ideally considers and mirrors, as best as possible, the context in which the learning should be applied. For example, while we learn about driving and driving rules and even the theory of certain maneuvers like starting to drive a manual transmission car on an incline, we learn how to actually start to drive on that incline by practicing it on a hill and not just by reading how to do it in a theory book. If we want to promote a smooth transfer of learning to the workplace, we need to take this context into account. In other words, we need to balance the safety of a training moment and the reality of chaos and bustle once participants are back in the workplace. This is often a reason why transfer to the workplace is difficult. Authentic learning moments do take expectations, chaos, and context into account by mirroring the real-world during moments of learning. Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neelen describe in their book “Evidence-Informed Learning Design – Creating Training to improve Learning Design (2020)” five dimensions to mirror learning situations as closely as possible to the reality of work to promote transfer and thus learning effectiveness and efficiency.

Five dimensions of authentic learning moments

The first dimension is the focus on the task itself; providing effective practice opportunities during training for tasks that the participant is expected to perform when doing their ‘real’ work

The second dimension focuses on the physical environment, literally and figuratively. Life outside the ‘clean’ training context is often busier and more chaotic than in the typical learning situation. The people we need to train are all dealing with the stream of emails and phones screaming for attention, their manager who sets changes priorities, an unstructured Teams or Dropbox environment in which they get lost, colleagues who deliver the data they need too late, and so forth. These are all things that muddy up the situation. How do we help our participants deal with these scenarios when they get back to work after a training? 

Social context is the third dimension. If the participant is expected to perform the task in a team setting, then it’s better to also practice in a team setting during the training. In this way we again mirror reality.

The fourth dimension focuses on delivering authentic results. What results do we expect to see from the participant afterwards? For example, if management expects them to be able to create and interpret a data visualisation, it’s better to specifically practice and test whether or not the participant can do this in line with management’s expectations during the training.

The final dimension focuses on criteria and evaluation. In what way are participants assessed in real life whether they’re competent or not? For example, should the deviation in the balance for a cashier at the end of the day be no more than 2%? If so, it’s best to include these conditions during the learning experience.

To conclude: When designing and developing learning interventions, we should take the specific work context of the participants as much as possible into account. By doing so, learning transfer between the safe learning environment and the workplace will run much more smoothly.