L&D professionals are driven to develop others through learning. We cherish the days when one of our learners reports that our training helped them to act, behave, perform, function, or operate more effectively. The trouble is that those days are few and far between. And those learners are sometimes one out of hundreds that we trained.
You are not alone—this is a common problem in L&D. Estimates suggest that as little as 20 percent of training is applied to good effect after training. Taking what you learn in a training environment and using it in everyday work is known as learning transfer. Interestingly, a key strategy to improving what happens after training could lie in the information learners received before training even began.
What Is the Priming Effect?Priming is a phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus influences the response to the presentation of a later stimulus. In training, this involves teasing some of the content to be covered in training ahead of time. Priming is used in cognitive psychology, behavior modification, marketing, and advertising; all areas which have parallels in the L&D space.
How we interpret the world around us influences our responses to stimuli and our behavior. Advertisers and marketers have known and leveraged this for years. They depict happy people in their advertisements engaging with the product they are attempting to sell. We interpret that the product has made the person happy, so we want the product to make us happy too. Marketers use color to invoke certain reactions to brands and products. For example, the color red is used to advertise sale items and invoke a sense of urgency, priming us to spend our money.
Using the Priming Effect to Increase PerformanceIn the Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning, Roy Pollock and Andy Jefferson relate a story from a leadership training program and point to the power words have over our reactions and responses. The training program description stated that learners “can apply . . .” the program’s objectives. However, when the program description was changed to state that learners “will apply . . .” the program’s objectives, the course saw an uptick in sign-ups, was viewed more favorably by learners, and resulted in increased learning transfer. By using “will” instead of “can,” the description primed learners to transfer their learning by using a statement of commitment and action; instead of “can” which implies that follow-through is optional.
Another example of the effect of priming on performance involved research that compared the effect that priming words have on employee performance when sent by a company’s CEO via email. The CEO sent an email containing passive word choices to one group of employees and another email with priming words such as “thrive,” “achieve,” “win,” and “compete” to another group of employees. The overall message in the email was the same for both groups, but the researchers found that the employees who received the email with primed words outperformed the employees who received the passively worded email.
These simple changes have a big impact on performance and can be easily adapted for L&D use before training.
Prior to training, send learners a marketing-style teaser containing priming words of what’s coming up, why they should get excited, and what they will be able to achieve after training. Priming increases memory by giving learners a preamble to mull over before attending the full training. It also reduces stress and anxiety by letting learners know topics covered and what is expected of them.
Humans make decisions about the value of something based on the first information seen. This is known as anchoring bias, and we use this initial decision to make subsequent judgements. In other words, when we expect an experience to be positive, we have more positive feelings during the experience due to the anchoring effect. L&D professionals can use this to their advantage by promoting the great parts of their training ahead of time. Send an email to learners before training with a bio of your facilitators that details their facilitation experience and expertise with the training topic. Be sure to include positive reviews and testimonials from previous learners. Reading the impressions of others influences our behavior. We’ve all experienced shopping online and being faced with a decision to make about which product to purchase; the cheaper option which has poor reviews, or the more expensive option that has fantastic reviews. We usually decide to go with the option that people just like us have found to be positive, so use this to your advantage and add some five-star reviews from previous learners.
The research on learning transfer suggests that a supportive manager is the most influential factor when it comes to learners’ performance post-training. Take steps to ensure managers are primed and ready to support their teams by giving them a summary of the training and what learners will be able to do post-training if they have their managers’ support. Make this communication about the manager—focus on them and the things they need to do for their team member to turn their learning into action.
Many elements influence learning transfer: the characteristics of a learner, the design of training, and the the environment in which the learner performs every day. The design of training is the easiest element to influence by L&D professionals. If leveraged effectively, priming allows L&D teams to:
- Hook learners early who have a “need to know.”
- Reduce anxiety for learners who have a need for predictability.
- Boost learner memory of concepts covered in training.
- Promote curiosity and engagement.
- Set expectations for high-class training event.
- Set the stage for learning transfer by engaging management.
If we want learners to change their behavior after training, we need to make every day “Prime Day” and design our training to ensure the learners are primed for change before the training even begins.