Multiracial adult students working in computer class. Women in casual sitting at table, using desktops, typing, looking at monitor. Online course concept
ATD Blog

Holding Learners Responsible

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

What do these two scenarios have in common?

Cody is a participant in a leadership development program that includes a 360-degree feedback component. Cody has not submitted a self-assessment by the due date, despite receiving numerous reminders. The learning team is considering extending the deadline once again and sending Cody one more urgent request to complete the self-assessment.

Sanjay’s learning team is developing an e-learning course that contains 10 minutes of content, a welcome video from a senior leader, and two interactive exercises. The content is relevant to the current organizational climate, the senior leader video is inspiring, and the exercises are important for determining whether learners have absorbed the message. Therefore, the learning team decides to lock the e-learning course menu so learners must complete the entire program.

So what do these scenarios have in common? Despite the good intentions of these two learning teams, both scenarios are examples of not holding learners responsible.


Most learning professionals are familiar with Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory related to self-concept. Knowles posited that adult learners see themselves as self-directing, responsible grown-ups. Consequently, trainers must help adults identify their learning experiences and goals and allow them the autonomy to succeed and the choice to fail.


Here are some tips for holding learners responsible:

  • Provide test-out options. Rather than testing knowledge at the end of a module, test at the beginning. Let learners skip modules with content they have already mastered. There’s an important caveat to remember: Tests must be reliable and valid so people can’t guess correct answers, which would provide a false sense of their knowledge. Self-assessments can be effective for helping shape a learner’s experience by highlighting what they do and don’t already know.
  • Start with action planning. Action planning should not only come at the end of a program, so experiment with having participants create an action plan at the beginning. Participating in the program may be their first achievable action.
  • Ask about intentions. Start by asking questions to get learners thinking about how they might take charge of their learning. For example, ask, “How do you intend to hold yourself accountable for applying what you’ve learned in this course?” or “What do you need to do to get the most value from this course?” We can ask these questions whether the program is synchronous or asynchronous.
  • Have learners write personalized learning objectives. After sharing the course outcomes or objectives, ask learners to prioritize them by voting for those that are important or relevant for them. Have them write or state their own desired learning outcome, and revisit it at a midpoint or the end of the program. Rather than sharing “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM), ask learners to identify these benefits.
  • Have learners rate their effort. Add a regular question to your level one evaluations such as, “On a scale of 0–100, how much effort did you put into this course?” Tell them at the start of the program that they will answer this question at the end. When participants know that they will evaluate their efforts, they may feel more accountable for their work. Set the expectation that learning is an active process, not a passive one.

You may also need to adjust your mindset to give learners autonomy:

  • Restrain your pride. You’ve created a stellar training program based on robust learning objectives grounded in data from a thorough needs assessment. You may know that learners will benefit from their participation in your well-crafted and executed program. But you must accept that some people are not going to complete it, as good as it may be.
  • Give up on some learners. We can request that adults fully engage with, or participate in, our programs, but sometimes we must allow them to opt out. They’re responsible adults and should be aware of the logical consequences of not completing the program as intended (for example, they won’t understand a concept that they need for success at work or to be considered for promotion). Ultimately, the employee is responsible for their learning outcomes.
  • Think “just-as-needed.” Many trainers provide training that is “just-in-time,” offered when the content is needed. We can also think about offering training that is “just-as-needed.” Providing opportunities for learners to customize content decreases “scrap learning” by increasing chances that they will apply what they learned on the job. Let learners stop midway through a program if they’ve already gotten what they think they need, or provide role-based training.
  • Focus on those who commit. So much time is spent chasing people who are not participating in developmental opportunities, and this time may be better spent enriching the experiences of learners who are fully engaged. When more people have better learning experiences, they will draw disengaged learners back into the fold.

Adult learners’ success is in their hands. Help set them up for relevant, engaging, instructionally sound experiences—and then get out of their way.

About the Author

Sophie Oberstein has been a learning and organization development professional for more than 25 years at public and private organizations, including Weight Watchers (now WW), Columbia University Medical Center, Redwood City, and Citibank. Oberstein is an adjunct professor for New York University’s learning design certificate program. Her latest book, Troubleshooting for Trainers (ATD Press), describes 45 challenges in instructional design and how to overcome them.

You can reach her on LinkedIn at or via her website at

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I like the point of learners choosing their objectives..It immediately transfers the responsibility to the other side..
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I like the concise presentation of suggestions. The most long-lasting learning comes from real-life experiences - the result of natural consequences that happen. The more we can incorporate real consequences and empower people to take responsibility for their results, the more impact our training will have. It's a nuanced topic with a lot of variation based on culture and individual needs. Thank you for this insightful article.
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Great article, particularly like the fact it drives home the point that at the end of the day, it's an adult decision to learn or not.
Love your dialogue about this piece, Donna & Lori. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
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Agreed. I sometimes need to remind myself that I can't care more about their success than they do - it just frustrates both of us.
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