Transfer of learning refers to the “ability of a trainee to apply the behavior, knowledge, and skills acquired in one learning situation to another.”1 It’s what makes a job easier and faster as a learner becomes more skilled because they can apply what they already know.
In all, there are three distinct types of transfer:
- Previous knowledge applied to learning
- Old learning applied to new
- Learning applied to a real-life task
This last one is the one employers are most concerned with; it’s what all the learning is meant to lead up to. Unfortunately, this flow of learning into applied technique doesn’t always go so smoothly.
When employees fail to learn and adapt to new policies or software, it costs money. Most training is intended to save the company money either directly or indirectly, such as with safety training which will reduce injuries and lost work time. So, when employees fail to adapt, the cost of training is lost along with never seeing the cost benefits of applied training.
This situation is as troubling as it is common. In fact, by some expert calculations, only 20% or so of training investment lead to actual benefits. To try and tackle this “problem of training transfer,” we’ll lay out the main causes of why this happens.
Getting to the root of your organization’s issues with training transfer is one way to set yourself and your company ahead of the pack. As competition increases and resources decrease, eLearning designers’ job is becoming more important since a good course that breaks through these barriers can make a company far more competitive.
Let’s look at the likely causes of reduced training transfer:
1) Design and Development’s Factors
The first part of how design influences training is that it is built into the training to up the chances of transferring information in training. Design does this by encouraging learners to interact with the material, come up with their own ideas and apply what they’re learning within the training environment, instead of just waiting for the training to be over and then trying out the new information on the job.
Consider the Theories of Training: There are three main theories on a successful transfer of training.
The first is called Theory of Identical Elements and states that training occurs when the skills in the course are identical to what is needed for the job. When there is a significant degree of similarity between the training environment and the workplace, there is said to be a high level of fidelity. When learners are able to apply what they’ve learned, this is called near transfer. In addition to explaining training transfer, this theory has also been used to measure how alike different jobs are. Where it Falls Short: Theory of Identical elements is no longer useful when the learning and work environment are different.
Secondly, there’s Stimulus Generalization Approach. With this method, lessons are structured, so only the most important and relevant parts of what is needed are taught. This maximizes training transfer by relying on far transfer, or the learner’s ability to apply knowledge even when the work environment is not similar to the learning environment. For this theory to work, we identify multiple ways a single skill can be used in different work situations so we can narrow down what is most important to be taught. The behaviors that can be used across multiple situations are called key behaviors. To test learners’ transfer, we employ application assignments which are work problems which require training transfer to solve.
Lastly, we have Cognitive Theory of Transfer which theorizes that the success of transfer is dependent upon the learner’s ability to remember learned skills. To increase transfer, this theory emphasizes making the material meaningful and giving the learner methods, tricks and schemes to make information easier to remember. For example, acronym might be used to remember a step-by-step safety procedure. Potential applications of the learning are also discussed in order to make them easier to remember later when faced with a situation.
2) Learner’s Factors
Self‐efficiency: How capable do your learners feel? While a learner’s self-reliance and sufficiency levels are an issue for a trainee, as an eLearning designer you will benefit from identifying this before creating the course. To combat low capability from learners, you can incorporate more background information and easier lessons to both teach and raise confidence.
Motivation: As we’ve covered in past blogs, motivation is key to encouraging retention of knowledge. It’s also important to remember it well enough to apply it to other jobs. Fortunately, a well-designed eLearning course can increase motivation with various methods such as gamification, reward systems and by reinforcing how these new skills will benefit the learner.
Barriers to Effective Learners: Learners can be de-motivated and fail to transfer due to a variety of reasons including: Inefficient support from coworkers and superiors, difficulties with the work itself, time constraints and outdated or otherwise inferior equipment.
Personal Time and Stress Factors: Often underestimated as a cause of ineffective transfer, personal difficulties can make it very difficult to accomplish this. You and your learners all have limited energy, time and mental capacity which hinders your ability to teach effectively and their ability to retain and transfer information.
3) Surrounding Factors
Given Resources: Your learners are encouraged to transfer by being given opportunities to apply what they’ve learned and also the proper equipment to do this with. This includes everything from paper to write on up to practical educational and technological support.
Support from Higher-Ups: Transfer can be facilitated and hindered by the involvement of a manager or other supervisor. If the supervisor takes the course seriously and lends support, then students are more likely to retain and transfer the knowledge. When a manager encourages participation in training and use of new skills on the job, this is when the transfer is most successful. Obviously, if the manager is discouraging or completely uninvolved, this could have the opposite effect.
A Plan of Action: Having an outline of steps that learners and manager must take also helps transfer and helps maintain focus. This plan includes: goals along with strategies for reaching those goals and required equipment and resources. Required resources would be that every-important support from coworkers and superiors, what is expected at the end of the training and dates of progress and completion.
Positive Support from Peers: Adequate support from peers, including feedback from the group, is important to reinforce the importance of the training and encouraging transfer. As a designer, you can help this factor by incorporating options for group interaction and feedback within your courses. This factor can and should also include success stories from peers who have already used the training.
External Encouragement: Is the learner’s work environment supporting training initiatives? This factor includes peer and manager support along with whether or not a learner is being given the opportunity to use new skills without repercussions. For example: Google, arguably one of the top most successful IT companies, encourages employees to experiment without a threat of consequences if something goes wrong. This encourages innovations as well as transference.
Company Culture/Resistance to Change: We’ve all seen movies where an idealistic teacher or new boss comes into a situation where students or employees laugh at their attempts to implement changes. If your learners are used to a culture where group norms dictate that training won’t be taken seriously, then it will be even harder to successfully transfer.
Working Environment: Despite being one of the most significant factors in the transfer, a learner’s working environment is often ignored as a factor. What’s happening at work before and after your training? Is there a lack of proper equipment? Are there outdated or unsafe conditions they have to contend with? If so, transference can be even more difficult.
Have your employees failed to transfer lessons to real work? According to BusinessPerform.com, you should consider these possibilities to figure out why this problem is persisting by asking these questions:
- Was your training designed in collaboration between designers, managers, and trainers?
- Was/is training really the answer or were there other options that could have worked better?
- Were all involved parties aware of the desired outcomes?
- Were training objectives geared towards organizational goals?
- Was training created with the help of managers/supervisors to ensure the learning could be applied to the learner’s real job?
- Were learners supported after the training, including being given a chance to use their new skills?
- Did employees know why they were taking the training and what was expected of them?
- Was the training used as part of a well-thought-out program or was it expected to do the job on its own?
- Did you use adequate methods to analyze the impact of the program or rely on subjective feedback?