ATD Blog

Better Science for Better Learning: What Went Wrong?

Friday, September 6, 2019

Communication Isn’t Learning

We’ve all seen it happen. A competent team analyzes a crucial performance problem, talks management into funding their solution, and creates a crisply written learning program to teach those skills. They roll it out with pride and fanfare, after which, like a Broadway flop, their program fails to perform. Now the team is facing an equation of sadness—poor value to the enterprise equals funding cuts, which equals time to send out resumés.

Urgently, they revise the program with even better writing. But that doesn’t help. Learners still don’t remember the knowledge or apply it to their work. Why not? Because good communication isn’t enough. Learning is a cognitive experience that is best managed through cognitive science.

Learning Has Cognitive Elements

What cognitive issues trip up memory and behavior change? They typically include:

  • weak self-efficacy: “I don’t think I can pull that off.”
  • poor salience: “This is dull, so I won’t remember it.”
  • messy visual presentation: “I see it but I don’t get it.”
  • lack of practice: “You told me, but you didn’t train me.”
  • inflexible content: “I deal with something different on the job.”
  • fuzzy explanations: “That SME’s an expert, but . . . what did she say?”
  • fragile commitment: “I guess I’ll do it. Any day now.”
  • low-level assessment: “I’ll pass the quiz by memorizing stuff.”

It can be difficult to choose the best way to approach these issues. Our profession sails with a thousand learning theories attached to its keel. Many are barnacles that slow down our progress. We only reach our destination if we rely on best practices derived from evidence and testing.


Cognitive Science Helps Us Make Learning Work

For more than a decade, my work at IBM has included filtering these waters to identify methods that enhance learning. I’ve helped slay a few sea monsters. I’ve discovered perfectly good methods (that’s you, Mastery Modeling), which are often applied badly. I’ve uncovered counterintuitive approaches that work surprisingly well (wait until we look at salience).

Every two weeks I’ll blog about what another evidence-based method accomplishes and how to use it. Why follow my posts? If you’re an instructional designer, the answer is obvious: Designing more effective programs can help your learners and boost your career. And you’ll enjoy this exploration because some effective methods will surprise you.


Who Else Needs to Know This?

Beyond the instructional design community, other folks can also benefit from reading about better learning methods.

  • Executives Prosper in an Evidence-Based Learning Culture. Executives achieve greater success when they nurture a learning culture that favors reliable methods. That culture trickles down from the top, and it can drive business results if executives know what they’re talking about.
  • Learning Managers Thrive on Successful Team Results. Teams achieve better learning outcomes when managers help them focus on methods that fulfill learning goals, not just schedules and cost targets.
  • Clients Profit From Wise Learning Investment. Clients who want a PowerPoint deck because it’s fast and inexpensive should know, in advance, that frugality may have a lost-opportunity cost. That way they can make informed decisions about whether to pay more for learning methods that improve their performance in the market.

You’re invited to join the conversation! Come along, two weeks from now, as we explore practical, evidence-based ways to enhance learning and promote real behavior change.

About the Author

Douglas Lieberman offers short-term consulting and targeted problem solving for difficult challenges in skill building and behavior change. For more than a decade he was a member of IBM’s Center for Advanced Learning, where he led the award-winning, patent pending Adaptive Learner approach to innovative thinking, and he created the instructional standards for IBM Watson employees’ required online training in artificial intelligence. Now he works with IBM’s P-Tech initiative, bringing technical training to underserved populations around the world.

1 Comment
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My fave section of this inaugural post is the list of cognitive issues and each one could be a blog post of its own! Thanks for your continued thought leadership and service to our profession.
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