While almost every training professional can point to one or two examples of an intervention that achieved nearly everything it was designed to, it’s not exactly the norm. Engaging learners is challenging. Their attention ebbs and flows, and even in the best of scenarios, you may be content if a small percentage of participants learns a small percentage of the content.

Given the time, effort and resources invested in training, it seems striking that such a low bar exists – that is, until you recognize that we have been entirely reliant on adult learning theory and widely accepted training heuristics. These rules of thumb, while necessary, may be wholly insufficient to engage and empower learners, let alone to ensure that each learning experience is structured and designed so that learning sticks.

Perhaps it will help to look at some case studies from everyday life to help us understand why training is often harder than we assume:

Lauren understands that waking before 6:30 allows her to clear her head in the morning, maybe even make a healthy breakfast, and arrive at work refreshed and prepared for the day. Yet, despite setting three alarms each morning, she rarely leaves her bed before 7:25, and she races to her desk each day.

Alan understands that walking 10,000 steps in a day will help him maintain a healthy weight and relieve some unneeded stress. Yet, despite living in a readily walkable town and less than two miles from his office, he drives to work each day, rarely tops 2,000 steps, and has moved to wearing elastic waist bands and comfort clothes.

Lauren and Alan both know what to do, but each finds it nearly impossible to consistently do it. Life gets in the way. Attention is directed to short-term instead of long-term benefits. At any given moment, their behaviors can fail to match their understanding. This experience is referred to as the paradox of fast and slow thinking, the research behind which earned Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize.

With this background, let’s look at one more case study:

Megan understands that she should focus and take notes while she participates in training courses, that she should revisit her notes over time and that she should deliberately practice what she is learning in order to apply these lessons in practice. Yet, despite having sat through hundreds of training courses, she remains in “fast thinking” mode, forgets to take notes, and/or, an hour after the course, moves on to some emergent project and has little chance of proactively revisiting anything she “learned.”

Learning Is a Behavior

Recent research identified a discrete set of behaviors that learners rely on as they engage in training experiences. These learning actions include taking notes, setting reminders, searching in real time for context and reacting to nudges that help focus their attention. This research also demonstrated that these behaviors are largely a matter of habit and convenience and rarely a matter of trial and error – meaning that few, if any, learners participating in your training are actually prepared to learn.

Whether it is waking early and exercising more or taking notes, setting reminders and searching in real time to contextualize new information, you would be hard-pressed to find a co-worker or a teammate (or any human, according to Kahneman) who doesn’t struggle to make rational decisions. As a result, we often behave in ways that are not all that intelligent. This isn’t a condemnation; it is simply a reality. We each need more support, more structure and better architected life experiences. We each need more support, more structure and better architected training experiences, too!

Capitalizing on the Opportunity

Once you acknowledge that learning is a behavior, you may immediately recognize a greater (previously unappreciated) complexity that challenges learning and training: For everything we know about adult learning theory, there is little doubt that effectively supporting behavior change is a far more complex endeavor. This knowledge may seem overwhelming.

On the other hand, once you acknowledge that learning is a behavior, you may also immediately recognize an opportunity: As a training professional armed with this new perspective, you can now design training that supports critical, yet unevolved learning actions. Once you give it a try, you will see unprecedented results, and you’ll gain a sense of accomplishment – as if you woke up early and just walked 10,000 steps!

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