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TD Magazine Article

Design Tactics for Training Transfer

Maximize learning transfer to the job.

By and

Fri Sep 01 2023

Design Tactics for Training Transfer

Maximize learning transfer to the job.

Training is an essential tool for building employee knowledge, skills, and competencies. However, the effectiveness of training can be limited by the transfer of the learning to the job. According to the Institute for Transfer Effectiveness, there are 12 levers of transfer effectiveness that organizations can use to maximize trainees' application of learning post-training, four of which connect to training design: clarity of expectations, content relevance, active practice, and transfer planning.


Clarity of expectations

Without clear expectations, training is a waste of time and resources.

Many classical training sessions kick off with the question: "What are you, dear trainees, expecting from this training program?" However, transfer research encourages L&D professionals to proceed with caution. Expectations are crucial, but it's far too valuable to only start addressing them during training.

Before the training program, do your participants already know what is in store for them and what the intended outcome is? To address that key question, you must identify and overcome common transfer-hindering practices.

Among those practices is the inclusion of expectation queries during training, which can often take up a significant amount of time. Another common practice to overcome is solely communicating learning goals. What is crucial and worthy of communication is not only what participants will learn but, more importantly, what they will be able to accomplish or achieve with that knowledge—the desired behavior critical to success, the transfer goals. The transfer goals are both essential and more appealing to participants than learning goals.

To assess the clarity of expectations in your training design, ask yourself these self-audit questions:

  • Are the intended results, changes, and stages of development clear to trainees? Clearly define the knowledge, skills, and behaviors that participants should expect to develop via the training program.

  • Do trainees know the training topics and how they relate to their daily work? Provide a clear outline of the program to set proper expectations and demonstrate the impact on their job responsibilities.

  • Are learners aware of the organization's expectations for their participation? Clearly communicate attendance, participation, and skills application expectations aligned with organizational objectives and priorities.

  • Do participants understand the personal benefits of the training program? Highlight career advancement, job satisfaction, and skills acquisition to motivate and commit trainees.

To increase clarity of expectations, do so before the training program, manage positive expectations by using the priming effect, and take the variety of communicators and methods into consideration.

Clarify expectations before the training program. That involves clearly communicating the transfer goals. By providing participants with a clear understanding of the expectations, they can align their mindset and efforts accordingly.

Pretraining communication can entail sending out training agendas, prework assignments, or informational materials that outline the program's objectives, topics, and desired outcomes. For example, a pretraining exercise could involve participants reflecting on their current skills and knowledge and considering how the upcoming training program will enhance their performance. Setting expectations in advance enables trainees to mentally prepare themselves and focus their attention on the specific areas that the program will address.

Manage positive expectations by using the priming effect. The priming effect is a psychological phenomenon in which prior exposure to a stimulus influences an individual's response to a subsequent related stimulus. In the context of training, positive associations can prime participants for success and enhance their motivation to learn and apply new knowledge and skills.

Leverage the priming effect by emphasizing the training program's potential benefits and personal relevance. Communicate how the program can contribute to trainees' professional growth, career advancement, or improved job performance. Managing positive expectations and highlighting the program's value can increase participants' engagement and commitment to the learning process.


Take the variety of communicators and methods into consideration. When clarifying expectations, consider participants' diverse needs and preferences. Different individuals may respond better to various communication styles or methods. Some people may prefer written communication, while others may benefit more from visual presentations or face-to-face interactions.

To ensure that trainees receive information in a manner that resonates with them, promoting better understanding and engagement, adopt a multifaceted approach to communicate expectations effectively. That could include a combination of written materials, videos, presentations, or interactive sessions.

Content relevance

Irrelevant content in training leads to a lack of interest and motivation in learners. Will participants see the training content as close to real-life business and relevant for their day-to-day work?

"This training seems interesting, but considering our organization's unique circumstances, I'm not sure if it will be useful for us." That common statement serves as a clear indication that participants may not perceive the training content's relevance, posing a significant obstacle to the success of knowledge transfer. Recognizing and addressing that challenge is essential to effective knowledge application.

One prevalent hindrance to content relevance is L&D professionals' inclination to overwhelm learners by packing an excessive amount of content into training sessions, leading to cognitive overload that inhibits transfer. That overload can undermine participants' ability to grasp and apply the material effectively.

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Additionally, some L&D practitioners have a tendency to prioritize content delivery over active practice. Rather than using content as a foundation for hands-on learning experiences, trainers may place undue emphasis on transmitting information without sufficient opportunities for practical application.

Furthermore, L&D often integrates examples from renowned companies such as Google or Apple, inadvertently neglecting the need for content relevance and identification among participants. That approach can lead to a lack of relatability; trainees may feel that the best practices a facilitator presents do not align with their specific organizational context.

To assess content relevance in your training design, ask yourself these self-audit questions:

  • Do trainees receive precise answers to workplace-related questions during the training program?

  • Are real-life examples and situations from trainees' day-to-day work incorporated into the program?

  • Can participants directly apply the training content to their daily work activities?

  • Do trainers have a comprehensive understanding of learners' requirements, duties, and circumstances, and do they actively address them during the training program?

There are three ways to increase content relevance.

Use self-reference and emotional impact; implement problem-based learning. Leverage problem-based learning techniques that involve addressing real-life challenges and situations that trainees encounter in the workplace. Weaving in specific examples and scenarios from their day-to-day work will enable participants to directly relate to the content and see its practical applicability.

For example, present authentic, job-related scenarios to participants and ask them to analyze and solve workplace challenges that require individuals to apply the training content. Such a self-referential approach fosters engagement and emotional connection because individuals recognize the relevance of the training to their own work experiences. It also encourages active problem-solving and critical thinking skills, which gives learners the opportunity to apply their newfound knowledge directly to their job responsibilities.

Focus on three to five key messages. To avoid overwhelming learners with an excessive amount of content, prioritize the most important messages and concepts. Identify the three to five principal takeaways that are essential for trainees to grasp and retain. A focus on a concise set of core messages ensures that participants fully comprehend and absorb the critical information relevant to their work. It also prevents cognitive overload and allows for deeper understanding of the key concepts.

Bridge the gap from "Aha, that's interesting" to "What for?" Help learners recognize the practical application and value of the training content. One way to do so is by encouraging them to reflect on how they can use the knowledge and skills in their specific work context. Learners should understand how they can directly apply the newly acquired knowledge and skills to their day-to-day work to improve performance and achieve desired outcomes.

By explicitly highlighting the application possibilities and demonstrating the impact of the training content on their job roles, you can motivate participants to actively engage with the content and facilitate learning transfer to their work environment. This step from initial interest to practical relevance bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and its practical implementation.

Active practice

Passive learning in training leads to ineffective transfer to the job.

This lever is the one that leads to the most misunderstandings because L&D professionals often confuse active practice with active learning. Active practice means not only talking about the intended critical behaviors but engaging in those behaviors in exactly the way that will be necessary in the real world.

During training, do trainees already experience, try out, and practice the desired action as realistically as possible in a safe learning environment? Many L&D practitioners focus on peripheral activities—such as theory, group work, and quizzes—and neglect the core action, the practice of critical behaviors. Knowledge and capability are distinct.

Would you choose a doctor who has only studied medical books, participated in group discussions, and aced quizzes or a doctor who has successfully performed numerous surgeries? Further, would you prefer to work with a sales colleague who can list the best sales techniques or one who has a proven track record of successfully closing deals?

Practical experience and active practice are vital for developing true capability and expertise. They are prerequisites for successful transfer.

To assess active practice in your training design, answer these self-audit questions:

  • Do trainees get the opportunity to apply previously learned topics, models, or processes in realistic situations during the program?

  • Is a significant portion (30 percent to 50 percent) of the training time dedicated to active exercises, enabling trainees to actively practice the desired actions?

  • Do participants leave the program with a sense of having successfully applied the new methods in realistic situations on their own?

The following four methods can help you increase active practice.

Allocate at least 30 percent of training time to active practice. Rather than simply discussing or presenting the desired behaviors, ensure that trainees actively engage in practicing them. That can involve real-life activities such as making cold calls or performing relevant hands-on tasks.

Create realistic practice environments. The closer the training conditions resemble real-life action situations, the better. Use simulations, role play, or scenarios that closely mimic the challenges and contexts trainees will encounter in their day-to-day work. Realistic practice enables learners to develop the necessary skills and confidence to transfer their learning effectively.

Provide immediate feedback. Offer timely and constructive feedback to participants regarding their performance and the application of new behaviors. Feedback helps them understand their strengths and areas for improvement, reinforcing their learning as well as enhancing the skills transfer to the job.

Encourage repeated practice. Ensure that trainees can practice the desired actions multiple times. Repetition and reinforcement are key to solidifying learning and building proficiency. Providing opportunities for learners to practice and refine their skills promotes active engagement and long-term retention of knowledge.

Transfer planning

Without a transfer plan, training is merely a momentary experience. Careful transfer planning during the program can double or even triple the probability

of implementation.

A key question regarding transfer planning is: During the training program, are participants already making action plans that involve specific, concrete activities?

Due to time constraints, L&D professionals may neglect transfer planning at the end of a training program. However, without participants planning the application of what they have learned, transfer is unlikely to occur.

Studies have shown that by creating specific action plans, known as implementation intentions, the likelihood of implementation significantly increases. Implementation intentions are a powerful tool for increasing success rates in various areas, including training transfer.

To assess transfer planning in your training design, consider these self-audit questions:

  • Are trainees focused on the key things they have learned and how they will use them in practice?

  • Do participants leave the program with a realistic plan of action for implementing what they have learned?

  • Have learners planned implementation in such a way that they will have a sense of achievement and see progress quickly?

  • Are they prepared for possible setbacks and obstacles so that they don't give up on their transfer plans too quickly?

  • How can you promote that trainees have a motivating, clear plan that details how they will implement what they learn?

To address transfer planning:

Dedicate 10 percent to 20 percent of the training time to transfer planning. Allocating a specific portion of the program to transfer planning enables learners to reflect on what they have learned, identify specific actions they will take, and create a concrete plan for implementation.

Make transfer planning sequences a standard part of every training event. Doing so ensures that participants develop the habit of considering how they will apply their learning and fosters a proactive mindset toward transfer.

Use attractive transfer planning tools for your training programs. Provide learners with engaging and visually appealing tools to facilitate transfer planning—such as transfer books or online platforms to document their plan, track progress, and reflect on their journey. Alternatively, provide interactive worksheets that guide individuals through the process of creating action plans and setting goals.

Increase training effectiveness

To maximize learning transfer to the job, pay attention to the four key transfer levers in training design. Incorporating them into training initiatives will not only enhance learning transfer but also support employee application and foster continuous development.

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