If you are a leadership trainer — or a leader committed to your team’s development — you have probably asked yourself this same question at least a few times over the years: will this training actually work?
You’ve spent weeks or months researching or building just the right training program, you’ve delivered a stellar event, and you’ve left participants energized and raving about their experience.
But, there’s still that nagging concern, like a pebble in your shoe, poking holes at your success. Did they learn what I needed them to learn? And more importantly, will they do something with it?
There is little doubt that leadership training is an extraordinarily powerful tool for organizations looking to enable their employees to grow into the best, most productive versions of themselves.
That said, training isn’t something easily executed or maintained if you don’t have just the right components in place. It requires the best programs, employee buy-in, leadership support and the right tools to sustain the learning.
That last part — the right tools to sustain the learning — is something most organizations either overlook or struggle to provide for their learners.
It is one of the most common questions I get from leadership trainers all around the globe, “How do I make this training stick?”
To answer this question, we need to first acknowledge an important, yet frustrating fact: what worked for us in the past does not necessarily work for us now.
Think about it this way: how much of your childhood schooling do you actually remember?
If I were to test you on things you learned in high school history class (the American Civil War or the colonization of America for instance) how would you do? My bet is, not great.
I took 4 years of French in high school. You’d think 4 full years of conjugating French verbs and learning French sentence structure would mean I’ve got this for life, right? Wrong!
My poor French teacher, Mr. Regelbrugge, would be so disappointed in me. Day after day of studying, and I’m no better now than I was the first day I walked into his classroom.
Why is this?
As kids, we are asked to drink from a firehose of information. We are taught that if we take copious notes, read that chapter over and over and over to ourselves, or put it on flashcards, it will magically stick…for good! Not quite.
The reality is that most of the methods we've been taught for learning are not very effective. In their book MAKE IT STICK, Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, and Mark McDaniel discuss two of these strategies that are often used but fail to promote long-term, deeper learning:
1. Massed practice. This is basically cramming for a test the night before. Repetition over and over again.
2. Re-reading of text. Going back over the text you've already covered, hoping to retain it, highlighting, underlining, reading out loud, etc.
Raise your hand if these are things you have done, still do, or encourage your learners to do! If your hand is up, don’t fret, you’re in good company. We have been taught these approaches to learning from a young age.So then, what's the problem?
These methods are time intensive. They don't result in durable, long-term learning, and they can create the illusion of mastery, while not actually mastering anything at all.
Mastery implies that not only do we know the concepts, but we also understand them at a deeper, more behavioral level. These methods simply produce rote memorization, not much more. (Thus, my failure in French fluency. Darn!)
So why do we use these methods so often if they're not effective?
Because they do work...in the short term. Cramming the night before may help us retain information long enough to walk into class the next morning and regurgitate the facts on a piece of paper, or color in the correct bubble in that multiple-choice question.
It helps us test well, but it doesn’t help us sustain learning long-term.
So, if all the learning methods we have been taught isn't actually helping us learn, what will? According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, the main takeaway if you want to achieve mastery in new information is:
The right amount of effort.
Minimal effort leads to minimal “stickiness”
In corporate America we have been lulled into believing that if we just schedule the workshop or the skills-training event, we’ve done our job.
Participants will show up, learn a few things, leave, and suddenly behavior will change! But it rarely works that way.
We need to see true learning as a continuous process, not something that starts and ends in the classroom. Think of it this way, the classroom is where new concepts are conceived…AFTER class is where true learning begins. The effort needs to continue long after class is over.
Increased effort increases adaptation
Mastering a skill is like building any other muscle. One strength training session at the gym is not going to give you rock hard abs for life. (I know, I wish it worked that way too.)
You need to apply consistent effort and allow those muscles to build over time. The brain is no different — forming new pathways in the brain requires effort. If we want to deepen our learning, we need to consider something called “neuroplasticity” or the muscle building part of our brains.
The more effort and time we spend on something, we become stronger at it, the less effort, it fades away. New pathways are formed through practice and effort.
So, while it would be nice if we could see instant results, the reality is we need to put in the sweat equity. That’s how it works.
That said, how can we approach learning in a way that will produce better results?
Here are a few strategies we should focus on from Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel:
Spaced. Spaced is the opposite of cramming. When we take in new information in increments, spaced out over time, it's steadily reinforced and we're more likely to remember it in the long term. A few things you can do to create “spaced” learning in your classroom:
- Break up the learning. Are you trying to fit everything into a 9-hour day? If so, you may be doing more harm than good. At the very least you are throwing your resourced money down the drain. It isn’t serving your participants. What if you were to break up the learning into 3, 3-hour sessions over the course of 3 or 4 weeks? Again, promoting that steady reinforcement over time.
- Start the learning process BEFORE the event. Consider sending out primers in advance. Share an article or two on the topic, ask your participants a few reflective questions to get them thinking about what they will be learning. We know it is important to warm up our muscles before using them at the gym, help your participants do the same for their brains. Provide “space” before the event for participants to “stretch.”
Reflection. Reflection is defined as “serious thought or consideration”. Once you've taken in and/or applied new information or new skills, it is important to reflect on the meaning and look for connections between what you learned and what you were able to do or solve with it.
Francesca Gino, a researcher at Harvard, did an interesting study a few years back titled “The Power of Reflection.” Through this study Gino and her team found those who took time to reflect on their performance/behavior outperformed those who did not by 20 to 25 percent. Reflection is a powerful learning and performance tool!
Distillation. Taking away what matters most. For the great majority of us, we can’t possibly remember every single word we read in a book. Distilling involves focusing your learning efforts on the concepts you've decided are most important for you.
As a trainer, allow participants to think about, discuss, and write down the concepts and ideas that matter most to them.
To do this, you may need to provide more instruction than simply “take some notes”. Ask questions like “Of these 5 data points, which one leaps off the page for you? Why that one?” Or, which of the 3 strategies discussed today resonates with you the most? Why? How can you leverage that strategy more when you leave here?
The more strongly something resonates personally with participants, the more likely it is to stick long-term.
In the end, the effectiveness of your learning strategies can make or break the effectiveness of your training initiatives.
If you want to grow as a team or organization, the actual strategies used during the learning process are critical.
Here are some action items you and your team can apply to keep the conversations going long after the workshop has ended:
1. Create a post-training plan. Be deliberate. Incorporate processes intended to reinforce behavior and create new structures around the material that become "action triggers." This could include something as simple as creating a list of daily questions for yourself accompanied by a goal, why the goal is important, and how you can focus on effort rather than the outcome itself. Post this where you can see it.
2. Find the right resources. Find an accountability buddy to talk about what you're learning and who can offer support when you run into challenges. Encourage leaders to be available to their teams as a resource and coach post-training.
3. "Study" appropriately. Implement practices such as spacing and distillation and provide options for your team. Commit to reflection - what went well? What could you do better next time?
Not all learning is created equal. The methods you apply will make all the difference in whether you, your team, and your organization are able to shift behavior, understand new material at a deep level, and achieve mastery.