How to design for learning transfer

AuthorNatalie Ann HolborowDigital Content Specialist

What’s stopping you from achieving maximum learning transfer in workplace learning?

It doesn’t matter if the training you delivered received 100% scores on learner feedback forms, or that the next cohort is signing up fast—if the knowledge is not successfully being applied and performance targets are not being hit, the training isn’t fulfilling its purpose.

We know this can be hard to take in after the buzz of delivering an engaging and well-received training session.

In a previous blog post, we outlined three variables that affect learning transfer: learner variables, intervention design and the work environment or climate (Baldwin & Ford, 1988; Ford & Wessbein, 1997; Salas et al., 1999). Providing courses doesn’t guarantee that there will be behavioural change post-learning, no matter how engaging your content is.

What steps can you take to ensure effective learning transfer in your learning design?

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Set clear objectives

To increase the transfer of learning, it’s important to get it right from the design stage and help shape behaviours that enable learning. The way in which we guide or instruct learners is a key consideration in this. One of the most effective ways to guide learners is to tell them explicitly where they should be heading, why training is relevant to their progress and how to reach their goals. This is where effective learning outcomes are crucial (for more guidance on how to set better learning outcomes, see this post).

Patti Shank, an internationally-renowned instructional designer and author, says that it’s helpful to think about the outcomes of instruction in terms of objectives set when designing for effective transfer. These can be tied into two categories:

  • Procedural objectives - These involve a sequence of steps and are more likely to involve ‘near transfer’. An example of this might be that by the end of the module, the learner will be able to import and segment contacts within their new marketing software.

  • Declarative objectives - These require the learner to use reasoning to apply their knowledge to new contexts, and usually involve ‘far transfer’. An example of this might be a learner on a customer service course making a judgement on the next actions to take when faced with different complaints.

Create learning outcomes that will inform and direct. Regardless of how you want your learners to achieve them, it’s useful to set out what you want them to be able to do using active verbs that relate to cognitive skills, not tasks. Knowing what goals they are working towards also enables learners to ensure that they have chosen the correct course or strategy and can commit to achieving it. According to Krijer and Pol (1995), you might want to consider working with the learners to determine outcomes, which they say can also strengthen the transfer process.

What you set out as learning outcomes should be what you assess at the end of the learning journey. They should inform the design of the ongoing and final assessment activities that are critical to checking learners’ understanding and progress, as well as shaping the feedback you provide learners.

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Use scenarios

You need to go beyond the idea that real-life application assumes exact replicability—a concept that encourages rote memorisation. Your goal is unlikely to be to transmit simple facts to learners, but to enable them to apply learned knowledge to resolve real-life problems.

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To encourage learners to apply their knowledge and make judgements within different contexts, consider using scenarios. A scenario can be accompanied by questions. These require learners to participate and engage meaningfully with the scenario being described. The following questions are typical of those used to engage and elicit appropriate responses from learners:

  • Would you agree or disagree and what are your reasons?
  • What next steps would you take and why?
  • If this happened, describe how you would respond.
  • Do you have an alternative solution to the problem? If so, please describe it.

Without opportunities to practice knowledge and skills in different contexts, learners have no way to modify existing schema (theoretical network-like mental structures for organising information). The learning should be designed in a way that allows learners to practice in non-repetitive and unpredictable scenarios.

Providing questions that encourage reflection and self-explanation allow learners to expand upon what they’ve learned and identify where they need to address any gaps in their knowledge. Using metacognitive strategies increases awareness around their own thinking and reasoning as they approach different contexts.

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Facilitate social and collaborative learning

Hagel, Seely Brown and Davison (2010) stated: “To succeed now, we have to continually refresh our stocks of knowledge by participating in relevant ‘flows’ of knowledge—interactions that create knowledge or transfer it across individuals. These flows occur in any social, fluid environment that allows forms and individuals to get better and faster by working with others.”

Although constructivism places an emphasis on learner autonomy, or ‘learner-led’ experiences, this doesn’t mean that learners should simply be left to their own devices. Bruner emphasised the impact of others on learners as they develop their knowledge and skills, which means he’s often associated with a branch of constructivism known as ‘social constructivism’. Bruner referred to support from others as ‘scaffolding’ (Bruner et al., 1976). Scaffolding learning – for example, providing useful information or encouraging learners to work in groups rather than alone – helps guide learners when necessary whilst still giving them the freedom to create understanding for themselves.

Another key concept in constructivism is the concept of the zone of proximal development. This refers to the difference between what a learner can achieve independently compared to what a learner can achieve through collaboration or with guidance (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky emphasised the role of the ‘more knowledgeable other’ (MKO). The MKO is someone with greater knowledge, skills or ability than the learner, who can help them realise their potential. Vygotsky recognised that the MKO wasn’t necessarily someone older and that a learner’s peers could act as the MKO.

For more effective learning transfer, we must refresh learners’ knowledge by encouraging them to participate in interactions that transfer knowledge across individuals (what Hagel, Seely Brown and Davison refer to as a ‘flow’ of knowledge). As learners discuss problems collectively, they are learning from shared practice as well as from the previous experiences or mistakes of their peers.

But how do we facilitate this in the online environment? Accelerated by the remarkable shift in the 2020 job market due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 70% of the workforce will be working remotely at least five days per month. Thankfully, today’s learning systems come equipped with communication tools such as forums, comment threads and real-time chat facilities. This means discussions can be held, questions can be asked, and feedback can be given regardless of time and location. In the Thinqi learning system, for example, those all-important ‘Discussions’ and ‘Groups’ features mean you are able to incorporate everyday conversation into the learning system – a vast majority of which is valuable learning material. It’s 100% accessible whenever and wherever you and your learners are.

When learning is relevant, available at the point of need and is easily accessible, it becomes a natural occurrence. The more people share knowledge, ask questions and engage with each other, the more we are able to bridge the gap between learning and application, and strengthen the efficacy of transfer.

In summary

When we consider the purpose of training and learning from a business perspective, the ultimate goal is to increase overall productivity and performance to achieve a defined standard. The learning must be “effective and continuing”, with regular opportunities for retrieval practice and real-world application. In 1885, the German researcher Hermann Ebbinghaus, famously pioneered a series of experiments identifying what is now known as the ‘forgetting curve’, which describes the rate at which new knowledge deteriorates or is forgotten. Regular, continuous opportunities to apply the learning are critical in counteracting this effect.

If you want to encourage learning transfer across the business, remember to make the outcomes clear, apply learning to a variety of contexts and encourage people to interact with each other as they develop new knowledge and skills.

It doesn’t need to be complicated and it certainly shouldn’t be a mere afterthought. Design for learning transfer from the outset and give your learners sufficient opportunities to put their newly acquired knowledge and skills into practice—then watch them flourish in their roles.

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