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The problem with ‘training’ events

Instructional Designers (ID) have a wide range of learning theories, models, methodologies and design tools to draw from, yet research indicates that a large amount of adult learning does not successfully transfer[1].

Why is this the case? And what can we do about it?

After taking time away from day-to-day tasks to attend training, employees often return to their roles feeling pressure to play ‘catch-up’. When they’re swamped with emails, meetings and deadlines creeping closer, training understandably becomes a distant memory.

Weber (2014) suggests that IDs tend to focus on the ‘learning event’ – often neglecting to consider how learning transfer will be supported[2]. In other words, no matter how engaging and impactful a learning experience is, if there’s no ‘so what?’ plan for embedding and extending learning post-program, you’ll see less behaviour shifts in the long run.

So, how can you make learning stick?

Burke and Hutchins (2007) propose that to determine whether learning transfer has occurred, the new knowledge, skills and behaviour must be applied in real-world contexts and maintained over a period[3].

How then, can you support learners to transfer their new insights into various workplace contexts?

Many (Merriam, 2004; Gunnlaugson, 2007; Veenman, Van Hout-Wolters, and Afflerbach, 2006) argue that higher order thinking skills are vital in integrating learning into future practice for long-lasting behavioural change[4] [5] [6].

Transfer of learning strategies

Transfer of learning strategies is the missing link to effective adult learning. Roumell (2016) proposes three strategies to support learning transfer: application objectives, intentional application or reflection and sharing learning[7].

Application objectives

Learners set personal learning commitments. By creating an action plan and articulating their own application objectives, learners create their own pathway to successful learning transfer, whilst also building personal accountability to get there.

Intentional application or reflection

For learners to change their behaviour, they need to believe they can. What better way for them to discover their ability than through ‘doing it’? Programs should provide multiple opportunities to apply learning in various situations and contexts, whether they be in real life or figuratively through case studies and scenarios.

One method to facilitate this is through compare and contrast activities, such as reflecting on their own responses to past situations and considering what they might do differently by applying their new insights. By actively envisioning how they’ll take action, learners begin to integrate new perspectives and ways of thinking, and describe pathways for change. By incorporating themselves in the narrative and visualising their actions, learners prepare to respond to similar situations in the future.

Sharing learning

After learners have applied their new knowledge and skills individually, they should come back to share with their peers. This allows learners to synthesise, process and evaluate their experiences, and build connections with others’ experiences. It mirrors learning back to them and holds individuals accountable for their personal application objectives.

Final thoughts

As IDs, it’s important to recognise that we’re not simply designing training events; the end goal is to shift behaviours – long-term. We’re creating experiences that foster the behaviours we want to see after the formal learning has occurred to create lasting impact.

For this transformation to occur, and learning to be successful and sustainable, we need to bridge the gap between the learning event and the integration of what was learned. This can be achieved through transfer of learning strategies. Designing embedding activities (that ideally involve awareness and support from the participant’s leaders) – such as action plans, application or reflection, and sharing learning – scaffolds learning and extends the learning process until it is incorporated and ingrained into ‘the way we do things around here’.

Relevant articles:


[1] Saks, A.M., 2002. So what is a good transfer of training estimate? A reply to Fitzpatrick. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 39(3), pp.29-30.

[2] Weber, E. (2014). Turning learning into action: A proven methodology for effective transfer of learning. London, England: Kogan Page.

[3] Burke, L., Hutchins, H. (2007). Training transfer: An integrative literature review. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 6, 263-296.

[4] Merriam, S. B. (2004). The role of cognitive development in Mezirow’s transformational learning theory. Adult Education Quarterly, 55, 60-68. doi:10.1177/0741713604268891

[5] Gunnlaugson, O. (2007). Shedding light on understanding forms of transformative learning theory: Introducing three distinct categories of consciousness. Journal of Transformative Education, 5, 134-151. doi:10.1177/1541344607303526

[6] Veenman, M. V. J., Van Hout-Wolters, B. H. A. M., Afflerbach, P. (2006). Metacognition and learning: Conceptual and methodological considerations. Metacognition and Learning, 1, 3-14. doi:10.1007/s11409-006-6893-0

[7] Roumell, E.A., 2019. Priming adult learners for learning transfer: Beyond content and delivery. Adult Learning, 30(1), pp.15-22.

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