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ATD Blog

Evidence-Based Design That Leads to Learning Transfer

Monday, November 16, 2020

Providing learners with access to training does not guarantee post-training behavior change. Even the most engaging piece of learning content won't inspire a change in the thoughts or actions of learners. This article will highlight some evidence-based approaches to designing learning that elicit learning transfer.

The Problem

The goal of all training is for learners to turn their lessons into action. But it is surprisingly rare, with some estimates suggesting that as much as 80 percent of all training is ineffective. The process of taking information from a training event and using that information in the work environment is known as learning transfer. There are multiple factors that contribute to effective learning transfer. Internal learner characteristics such as the learner’s self-efficacy and motivation to learn, as well as the combination of peer support, manager support, organizational culture, and other environmental factors all contribute to making learning transfer happen.

Designing for Learning Transfer

What can learning designers, instructional designers, and content developers do to maximize the chance that learning transfer will happen? The design of the learning experience falls squarely on the shoulders of the learning designer. Following are some best practices when designing learning solutions that are backed by academic research.

If we design training that makes it easy for learners to see the link between learning and workplace performance, this increases how much learning is applied on the job.

Mirror the Workplace
The similarity of the tasks and materials in the learning event and the learners’ work environment has an effect on transfer rate. When the physical characteristics of the tasks and the learning environment match the performance environment, learning transfer increases. Interestingly, only the perception of the similarity needs to exist; the learning and performance contexts do not need to be identical for benefits to be seen.


Model the Way
Modeling is a technique shown to increase learning transfer, as it provides a demonstration of how to apply learning on the job. Modeling, along with allowing learners to practice how they will apply learning in training, can increase learning transfer by as much as 37 percent.

Active Versus Passive Learning
Active learning techniques like error management—where learners are encouraged to anticipate issues they might encounter in their role, and then supported while they solve these problems—also increases learning transferred to the role.

Space It Out
Learning transfer is impossible if learners forget what they learned in the training. Use spaced repetition in your training program to minimize the forgetting curve. For example, send snapshots of learning content before the main training event, and follow up with detailed summaries of key topics after training.

Plan Your Actions, Act on Your Plan
Action plans are learner-generated plans to implement learning. They increase learner accountability post-training, are linked with increased goal achievement across a number of domains, and increase attention in training and improve performance scores on trained behavior post-training. Action plan templates are incredibly easy to create and can be used again and again across training events.


When learners reflect on what they’ve learned, they augment the information they have received and encode the information into long-term memory. Action plans prompt learners to think about what they will do with what they have learned. Another, more complex form of reflection involves asking learners to prepare a lesson plan for the topic covered in training, as if they were to train someone else on that topic. This level of reflection brings the language processing centers of the brain into play, leading to deeper encoding in memory.

Each of these approaches makes it easy for learners to see the link between training and job performance and increase the likelihood of learning being transferred to the job.

Key Takeaways

There are many elements that influence learning transfer, and each element must work in harmony for the training to be a success. As a designer of learning, you play an important role in promoting learning transfer. Through the medium of learning design, you can bridge the gap between learning and performance by making it easier for learners to see the connections between training and the work environment. Add these evidence-based learning design methods to your toolkit to maximize the chances of your learning designs leading to learning transfer.

About the Author

Fergal Connolly is a learning transfer expert who shares his evidence-based learning transfer approaches with the learning community. Fergal holds an MSc in education and training, and a BSc in psychology. Contact Fergal for speaking engagements, writing opportunities, or learning transfer consultancy by visiting

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I had a few "light-bulb" moments while reading your article! Thank you for posting such a well constructed and clear presentation of these ways to promote learning transfer. I need to incorporate more time during and at the end of my trainings for co-workers to share their initial thoughts on applying what they have learned. That time will both serve as their own self planning for learning and could be a form of modeling as well.
Hi Latoya,
I am so glad that you found this article enlightening! I like how you are planning to combine two approaches for maximum transfer pay-off- great idea!
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Hey Fergal,
Would you please let me know if you can site references for this article? The claim of mirror, modeling and reflection intuitively make sense. I would just like to read further on the subject. Much appreciated.
Hi John, my apologies for the late reply. I added links in the text to research instead of citing authors in the article. Let me know if this is helpful for you.
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