Learning is a Path… Not a Station

Each and every one of us have experienced formal learning; if not somewhere else, in school for sure. We have prepared for tests, school leaving exams or college or university assessments. And you also probably remember the feeling of starting studying at the last minute, fueled by the adrenaline of panic, mugging up anything just to scrape through. If you have had such experiences, you may also remember that skimming through something only once was usually not even enough for a B. Why, then, is the idea so deeply rooted in corporate training that a 1-hour e-learning course or a full-day workshop can be sufficient for knowledge transfer?

Why do we see learning as a one-off episode to achieve our learning goals?

We tend to see the learning process complete when in reality, it has only just begun. Let’s see: the learner has read through the material, and if we are in luck, they had encountered practical examples and some case studies; at the end of the learning material, they can test their knowledge - which is, at this time, is still in the working memory instead of the supposed long term memory, and thus would rather be called a memory instead of true knowledge - on a series of final tests. If they have achieved the required percentage, a green tick appears next to their name, and presto! the learning process is complete. Does it sound absurd to you? Unfortunately, this is often the reality.

By completing a course, the learning process not only comes to an end on the learner’s side: it is the same when looking at the perspective of the training provider. The effectiveness of learning or the fulfilment of learning objectives is rarely assessed, and thus we have no data on how effective the training was and how much of the knowledge was truly incorporated. And one reason for looking at a course as a one-off event is precisely this: we have no data to show that it is not an effective process. As long as the only tangible outcome of the training is a green tick on a statistical interface, nothing will force us to self-reflection.

Delegated liability

The unspoken expectation towards learners is that they should be able to magically absorb knowledge, practice what they’ve learnt, test themselves, apply every theory in practice and continuously thrive to deepen their knowledge. Nevertheless, we cannot shift the responsibility entirely onto them, claiming that everything needed for learning is included in the course material. The problem with doing so is twofold: first, it will not yield results and furthermore, it will put too much pressure on the learner. Imagine how you would feel if after training, you still wouldn’t be able to use a new process, policy or software confidently. In such cases, most probably, some of the more reckless would take a leap of faith, but the majority would opt for avoidance and stick to the old habits, no matter how wrong they are. .

The example above shows that the way we approach the learning process clearly calls for a paradigm shift: we need to see learning as a process, and not as an event. There are of course several examples both at international and national, where this approach is well established and effective. Let’s see some solutions that have proven to work.

How can we support the change?

  • Modularized training: think in smaller units! It is much more efficient to learn half an hour weekly over 5 weeks than 2.5 hours at a time.
  • Provide more opportunities to practice: if the technical possibilities are there, it is much better if the exercise blocks are generated from a question bank and mix several topics. It is even better if the question set is adaptive and gradually raises the bar for the learner with increasingly difficult questions which are based on the learner’s performance in the previous exercises.
  • Social-learning methodologies: encourage learners to ask questions, think together and share experiences, for example in forums or on the intranet interface of the training.
  • Support learners in maintaining and deepening their knowledge: practice quizzes, weekly newsletters, short tips, practical information in the form of text messages, expert videos are all great supportive tools after the completion of the training.