Learning theories for the workplace
Learn about the influence of theories on how people learn and the shift away from simplistic learning styles theory
Episode 175: Research is advancing our knowledge of how people learn and what it means for effective workplace learning. But with a myriad of theories on offer, how can L&D practitioners get started in understanding, let alone applying, the right ones?
Date: 07/09/21 | Duration 00:24:39
Are outdated and ineffective learning models holding your organisation back? CIPD research found that less than half of L&D practitioners are integrating new learning concepts into practice. Theories about effective learning, together with insights from behavioural science and neuroscience, can inform and shape the design of effective and engaging learning. Yet, wrapping your brain around all these theories can feel overwhelming and it can be difficult to know where to start.
Join our podcast presenter Nigel Cassidy, Michelle Parry-Slater, Commercial Content Learning Manager at CIPD and Carl Crisostomo, Digital Learning Consultant at Carl Learns, as we delve into the world of learning theory and find out how it can breathe new life into your organisation’s L&D programme.
Nigel Cassidy: Time to ditch all that outdated training that just doesn’t work very well, stay with us for a better understanding of how people learn best. I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast.
Would you believe that less than half of all the learning and development people surveyed by the CIPD said that they were using any new learning concepts in their training, no wonder workplace learning is seen by some as a bore and a chore. But of course it’s the businesses that are really suffering because learning is the mechanism to close their skills gaps. So here’s some inspiration for redesigning your programmes with a nod to a few learning theories and behavioural science concepts that hopefully even I can understand.
Carl Crisostomo is a digital learning consultant land learning science vlogger, his consultancy Carl Learns helps L&D teams, brands and others to harness the power of learning science. Hello Carl.
Carl Crisostomo: Hi Nigel.
NC: And Michelle Parry-Slater is the CIPD’s Commercial Learning Content Manager supporting the shift from traditional courses to a better mix of digital, social and face-to-face learning. Hello.
Michelle Parry-Slater: Hi.
NC: So Michelle I suppose L&D has all had to be delivered online because of COVID, now classroom learning is creeping back into the mix, that's good isn't it?
MP-S: It is good as long as we learn what we’ve experienced over the last 18 months or so and don't forget that. I mean we had this thing where we had to suddenly in March 2020 move to online and a lot of people just lifted and shifted the face-to-face into an online space and quite frankly it didn’t work. So we need to not do that same thing when we head back into face-to-face. And for me it’s really around understanding how best we can blend learning across the best possible outcomes for the learners and that's why we need to know some of the learning theory that we’re going to be talking about today really.
NC: And your big bugbear is your school-style teaching?
MP-S: Absolutely I mean many of us when we start in the professional, you know, I did back in the day, training, we stick with what we know where we’ve had a classroom and we forget actually classroom came about because that was all we had: we had one resource, one book, one expert at the front of the class, well that's just not the case anymore at all. The we’ve got a lot of information out on the internet freely available. So we’ve got to question how do we get learning into people in the flow of work so that they can carry on with what they’re doing and get access to information when they need it.
NC: Okay Carl can we start with a bit of learning science from you? A lot of L&D people will have been taught a few important learning theories, which of those which are most likely to crop up should we know about?
CC: Yeah I think the best place we need to start is to have a little bit of a history lesson. Learning theories have been around a very long time, even the ancient Greeks philosophised about how our brains work and if you really want to put a stake in the ground and say, this is where proper learning theory started and most importantly when it included scientific exploration, it started with Herman Ebbinghaus in his studies on memory in the 1800s. And His forgetting curve theory states that memories weaken over time. So if you’ve learnt something new you'll then make no attempt to relearn that information.
NC: Ah so this is the skills decay, when somebody teaches me a new internet platform and then three weeks later when I actually try and do it I've forgotten.
CC: Exactly. Things just disappear after hours, days and weeks and so what we need to do is we need to stop that forgetting and Ebbinghaus’ theory forms the basis of my favourite learning model actually and one of the most researched concepts in learning science something called Spaced Practice. And as the name suggests it’s spacing out the practice of what you’ve learnt over a period of time. And this has the effect of making your memories more resistant to forgetting. And so by using spaced practice we’re reconstructing what we have learnt and, more importantly, reconstructing those neural pathways that led to that learning.
NC: So Michelle we’ve got these particularly famous learning theories and from that has developed a number of different learning styles and typical ways in which people are taught and you've already indicated that a lot of them are not great as far as you’re concerned.
MP-S: That is absolutely right. I mean things like learning styles per se has been debunked many a time and quite rightly so. So it becomes very problematic for the average practitioner, the average learning and development person, how do I know what’s real and what’s not real, what’s good science and what’s not so good science and how can I relate those to my work? And you’re right Nigel there are many famous ones, you know, Mihály Csíkszentmihály and his flow theory for example; Daniel Pink now with his motivational theories and human-centred design, or learning-centred design, these are all bandied around but how do you actually get a handle on them and knowing which ones you should be following and which ones you shouldn’t be following, I think a lot of theory is perhaps left a little bit to instructional designers who want to follow a more structured way of doing their work so they’re following Addie principles or they’re following Robert Gagne principles.
But as quickly as I've thrown all of those out that feels very overwhelming for a practitioner and so when you’re coming into L&D and you’re being taught face-to-face training, as I was back in the day 20 years ago, how do you access and get through to some of that? And I defer to my good colleague here Carl around how do we make that stuff work in our everyday work because it feels like we could kind of just ignore it a little bit, is it that important, our companies aren’t asking for it, our stakeholders aren’t saying, ‘Oh which learning theory are you using?’ they are actually saying, ‘What’s the bottom line? Do this learning programme, whatever.’ So it is easy a little bit to steer clear but I don't think that we should.
NC: Well Carl I’d go a bit further I would say that probably the vast majority of people in HR and possibly even in L&D may have lived most of their life in blissful ignorance of all these learning theories, I mean what managers surely want they want better trained, they want smarter staff, they want better business outcomes, so tell us why they need to even bother with all that stuff?
CC: Yeah I think one of the big things say for business is this kind of thing is needed to help, say for example, close the skill gap. I’m a big fan of the CIPD learning and skills at work reports, I've read them for the last few years and there's some great advice on how to close the skills gap. It’s a huge problem for business, it’s loss of productivity, it’s an inhibitor to growth and training is one of the main mechanisms to close that skills gap. And so what we’re doing is we’re talking about creating more personal learning experiences, we’re weaving learning into the flow of work, we’re buying more technology, more innovative learning experiences and I also think learning science has a role to play in that, make those learning experiences as effective as possible. And we also need to teach people how to be better learners, we need to teach them how to learn to learn, which is all part of learning science. So in fact we’re doing all these amazing things but we may be neglecting a few of these areas, so you’re giving people a Ferrari with a Fiat 500 engine.
NC: Okay. You’re very keen on learning about learning, what do you mean by that exactly?
CC: Yeah so this is all about understanding how to learn by using learning theory and learning science. So what we do at the moment is we learn in quite a bad way and for me learning to learn really came up when I started getting into the subject matter and a good example of it is I did a course the other day and at the beginning of the course they said it would be great if you have a background in electrical engineering and complex math problem solving, it was the fundamentals of neuroscience, and that would have scared the life out of me but I know I've got a number of techniques, a number of tricks that's going to get me through that course and I'm going to enjoy the experience and I'm going to learn a lot. So I think it’s really, really important to understand how to learn, so learning to learn.
NC: So Michelle tell us how do we start bridging the gap then between proven learning theory, things that we really should be thinking about in the design of training and actually delivering better courses?
MP-S: I think the skills report that Carl mentioned is a good place to start but also we’ve got fact sheets on the CIPD website about learning theory which just gives you some direction of travel to start with and, like anything, start small. So perhaps it is just thinking about Sweller’s thoughts on cognitive load, don't overload your learners. So look at a programme that you already have and see perhaps where there is load, where we’re trying to do too many things, so we’re trying to expect somebody to read and remember and watch video and remember and so on and so forth – I think I go back also to what Carl said earlier about spaced learning and practice, spacing out our learning has been definitely proven when we think about the pandemic that when we’re taking bitesize virtual classrooms as opposed to previously a whole day in a classroom. Learning has become more impactful because people can fit that into their day job but they can also remember and practise what they’ve done in that learning session. So my advice is a little bit at a time, Vigotsky’s scaffolding is absolutely key to this where we start small, we build a bit more, we build a bit more and we build a bit more. We can do that for ourselves as practitioners too.
CC: Yeah I think a really nice example of that is I heard the other day from Kathryn Desmarius and she’s a senior director of global education solutions at Johnson & Johnson and she’s been studying learning science as part of her leadership in learning in organisations programme and she's studied learning science and now she's applying what she's learnt back in the workplace. And so what she did she took an existing sales programme, you know one of these ones where a sales training where you turn up, they fill you full of knowledge and then you’re shunted off. And I've worked in sales and I've been on plenty of those in my time. But she turned it on its head. She applied spacing, which we’ve talked about, she also applied a model called Interleaving, where we weave different learning concepts throughout the learning experience, so you don't treat content as something that is linear, you mix it up, and that makes us work harder when we’re trying to learn something. And so she used interleaving. She used spacing and she used chunking as well. So she really chunked down her content. And what she saw firstly was improvements in MPS scores. So that's what they use to measure learner engagement but also they got knowledge improvements of 80% above target. They expected a 10% increase and they smashed that target, 80% above target. So I think that's a great example of how learning science can be applied in the workplace.
NC: I can see here Michelle the problem that you can study the learning science, the theories, but it is making that leap into practice that is really quite difficult isn't it? I mean say for example about blocking or whatever you do, I just wonder is that one reason why we saw this figure earlier 50% of training hasn’t modernised, that people do find this redesigning very, very difficult?
MP-S: Yeah I think you’re absolutely right there and I think some of that is because we are not being tested or learnt on it, nobody in the business is saying what learning theory did you use; what instructional design theory have you used in putting this together? They really care more about other stuff. So I think we have an onus on us, for our own professional development, for our own professionalisation of our industry almost, to bridge that gap. And how we can do some of that is questioning about what it is that we’re counting. If we’re presenting figures back to our organisation that talk about number of learning hours, or number of people who went on a programme, then is that wholly relevant and is that wholly useful? Should we be saying, okay well you wanted the figure of number of learning hours, it’s this number, but what is the impact measure?
And if we measure better things then actually we’ll need to get more professional in what we’re doing, so we’ll need to think about well how do we motivate people to come along to our programmes and to take part of our programmes, to finish our programmes and that might help us to start looking at motivational theories for example. But I think a lot of it is all tied up in a shift towards more modern thinking and away from that sort of classroom ritual of people coming together and learning together in large parts.
CC: Yeah I was going to say it’s hard to keep on top of new learning theories, even existing ones, and in changes to existing theories because these things are incredibly organic and I would say that learning science translators play an incredibly important role because, as Michelle pointed out, you’re not taught this stuff and it’s not really easy to find.
NC: So a translator, that's a thing is it?
CC: A learning science translator is someone who dives into the academic research and then repurposes it and repurposes what they find in a way that can be understood by, say, you and I. And they’ve really helped me. I think it takes a certain skillset to decipher an academic paper and, more importantly, having the ability to compare one piece of research with a whole body of research in order to form an opinion and provide advice. So people like Will Thalheimer, Clark Quinn, Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neilan, they're doing all that hard work to make research accessible for everyone. In fact I'm currently reading Clark Quinn’s book called Learning Science for Instructional Designers, and it’s a great entry point for anyone who is interested in using learning science to inform their practice.
NC: And to take that on Michelle just give us some more practical ideas for how you run this process out and how you gather the evidence and then know what changes to make with your learners and for your learners.
MP-S: I think community is a good place, the L&D community is a really supportive and kind and generous community. So it doesn’t cast aspersions if you come along and say, ‘I don't know anything about this, teach me,’ because by the inherent nature of the community we’re all in there for teaching, for helping each other. So things like Twitter chats, the L&D insight chat, to chew over some of these sorts of issues and the CIPD communities as well chew over some of these issues. And I think that learning from each other is one way that we can all support each other understand. Because Carl is absolutely right, you look at an academic paper at Ebbinghaus, as you talked about a long time in this podcast it’s really complex, it was about remembering numbers, how can you go from remembering numbers to suddenly thinking, well how does this apply to people forgetting what I taught them in an online class? So there is a certain sense of trying to apply it, but coming together as an L&D community we can work through how we can actually apply. So taking something like the forgetting curve and remembering that if we just spaced out, if we remind people regularly about these things then they’ll go away.
But for me also some of it is knowing what’s good science and what’s bad science. So relying on the translators that Carl’s mentioned to make sense of it for us can be really useful. And there are some really good people in this space that make it so that I can understand it. Now I'm not an academic, I came into L&D and it was only an itch of my own that I got curious about different types of learning theory, and I'm very aware that, for example, social learning works. So social learning in my understanding it’s people learning from people. Why is it when people go down to the smoker’s hut that they’re always more engaged than those people that don't do that, and these are the sorts of things. And I'm like well how can I harness that? How can I work with that? How can I get them to have a conversation there or around the coffee machine, around learning and what’s good for their work? So I investigated and found Albert Bandura had done a load of research about social learning and what that means and how we can harness it. And so there's a professional itch to scratch but we do need some help, we do need some help with that I would say.
NC: And I was just wondering Carl what Michelle’s talking about I've seen referred to as micro-training is that the same thing? Because what I'm thinking about is that if you’re redesigning a big training programme you might neglect these social interactions which might actually be really important in terms of outcomes for the learners?
CC: Yeah I pick up on the micro-training or the micro-learning piece first, often with these things, micro-learning and lots of other things that we do as part of our day-to-day practice is backed by science, we just don't know, and micro-learning is a wonderful example of that. There are a lot of definitions about micro-learning but all of them agree on one thing and that is learning done over a shorter period of time. And micro-learning essentially comes from chunking which is a strategy we use to work within the constraints of our working memory. Our working memory is where information is stored and unless we do something to firm up that knowledge, i.e. through something like space practice, it disappears out of our head. So chunking involves organising a large box of content into smaller logical segments and cognitive science research shows that chunking can improve focus, reduce the potential for overload and make it easier to remember. So there's some good science behind this stuff and micro-learning is a great example of that.
NC: I get all that but if I was being cynical I might say you’re doing that classic thing of taking something that works in practice and seeing if it works in theory. There's a sort of a slight element of self-justification about some L&D work that you’re kind of grafting the science on to prove that you’re all terribly grown up and everything.
CC: Yeah I think Michelle and I have talked about this before where we’re not ignoring this stuff completely often we’re doing some of this stuff but we don't know that’s it’s science-backed and that we’re spacing stuff out, everyone’s suddenly beginning to space stuff out and everyone’s suddenly beginning to reduce the size of content and people are taking more notice of the content they’re delivering and taking big text blocks and turning them into text and graphics and doing things like that. So yeah it’s stuff out there and there is science behind it, yeah you could say I'm trying to connect up what people are doing to the science but I think it’s the other way round.
MP-S: I don't want to discourage people with your challenge, which is fair enough Nigel, but if we’re saying we know this works and then we’re retrofitting to why does it work that's actually all right. I've spent a large proportion of my L&D career not knowing why this stuff works but knowing it works and if that’s your starting position as a practitioner then great, you’ve got a sense of well I tried this and I've experimented with it and I understand that this has a better impact in my business. Now if you want to then go back and dig into the academia of why does this work then wonderful I really encourage you to do that. What we mustn’t encourage people to do is not try, not to try to move away from the theories, the experience, the surveys that the CIPD and others so show that they don't work as well and I'm afraid seven hours sitting in a classroom doesn’t work as well as seven hours spaced across a period of months with reflection, with conversations with other people - the social learning, with small videos - the micro-learning. The fact that these things are working, if we don't necessarily know all the science behind it then is that a bad thing?
NC: Excellent case for the defence Michelle I think there. I mean I've looked up to find out what people say is wrong with workplace training and they commonly say it’s too generic, it’s too basic and too boring.
MP-S: For some people that might actually be the case and I feel bad for them and I really want to encourage the L&D practitioners in their organisations to think differently. Sometimes this is because we’re measured on the wrong stuff, we’re measured on just put people through the course, get them on that e-learning so we can tick a compliance box. As professionals we need to be better than that and where learning theory can help us is the balance between the science and the art of L&D. So yes we can look at motivational theory, yes we can look at how to do really good instructional design, human-centred design, so we’ve really got our learners at the heart of the offer that we’re giving them when it comes to the L&D experience and we need to balance that against what the business priorities are. It can't all just be fun and running around fields or whatever it is, it’s got to be based in the business need, but it doesn’t need to be boring. It shouldn’t be boring, because what we know from the science is actually if we engage and we have an emotional response then we’ll remember it more. So I think it’s beholden on us as professionals to actually fight against the boring e-learning because we’re told we need to put a thousand people through some compliance training.
CC: And I also think, you know, this stuff makes you credible. You’re in a profession, you’re a practitioner, you owe it to yourself. You know I went to the dentist the other day and I was thinking about this podcast as I was staring up at the ceiling. So after the treatment I asked the dentist about the importance of keeping up with modern dentistry as part of their role and we had a discussion around various things but there was one thing they said that really stood out for me which was, if I didn’t keep on top of this stuff I would get sacked. A lightbulb went off when they said that to me and I think we should be taking it as seriously as that. And fortunately no one at the moment’s going to sack you but they’re doing that as much for their job security as much as for the quality of the service that they deliver.
NC: Great well we’re coming near to the end of our time so just before we go from each of you maybe a final thought about how you can break down the barriers and actually make some serious improvements to the learning that you’re responsible for.
MP-S: For me I think it’s don't be scared of academic theory. I'm a very pragmatic practitioner in this in that it feels ethereal and out there but just try stuff out, you know, and use people like Carl, use people like the learning scientists, Fossway is another great space and CIPD’s own research and factsheets to enable the science to become a little bit more accessible so you can mix it together with your art.
CC: Yeah I think since Ebbinghaus there's been a whole series of movements, behaviourists, cognitive and constructivists and they’ve all added insight and they’ve all improved our understanding of learning and I think you shouldn’t ever, if you do start looking into this, hook yourself on one of these movements because you may like it or it may appeal to you, you should take pieces from each of them and learn from each of the movements and feed that into your own learning practice.
NC: Well thank you very much indeed both of you, grateful thanks to Carl Crisostomo and to Michelle Parry-Slater for some great thoughts on how putting the best learning theory into practice will definitely get you some results.
Still very current our last podcast on embedding sustainability within organisations, it prompted Jan Maskell of Investors in the Environment in the North West consultant to challenge all managers, including HR professionals to take responsibility for the environment. Find out how by checking out that edition, if you haven’t already, meanwhile please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts so you never miss an edition but for now from me, Nigel Cassidy and everyone at the CIPD until next time it’s goodbye.
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