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ATD Blog

How to Plant a Learning Environment That Helps Employees Grow

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A learning environment is a deliberately curated collection of learning resources and activities related to a specific learning need.

The environment metaphor is an important one—it’s an image that encompasses all the components that surround living things. In a good environment, the components contribute to well-being and growth. In a well-designed landscape, for example, the environment includes sunlight, soil, water, and other elements, and the landscaper ensures the right elements to help the desired plants thrive.

As defined here, a learning environment is intended to help people to learn and develop, and it, too, is designed using a wide range of components that support that endeavor. But to list all of the possible components of a learning environment would be as challenging as listing all of the possible plants to grow in a garden. Species of plants have multiple varieties, and new cultivars are created every day. In planting a garden, choices depend on climate, location, soil type, and gardener’s preferences.

A similar process takes place when designing a learning environment. There is a world of options for resources and activities—and because new activities and resources are created regularly, it would be impossible to list all the possibilities. Even so, it’s helpful to start with a solid list of potential components to include.

Breakdown of Components
The typical components of a learning environment can be sorted into six broad categories:resources, people, training and education, development practices, experiential learning practices, and learner motivation and self-direction.


-Performance support
-Personal knowledge management
-RSS feeds and other filtered information feeds
-Shared documents and wiki spaces
-Online databases and knowledge management systems
-Books, articles, and Internet resources
-Job aids
-Podcasts and video-casts
-Briefings (content delivery without activities)
-Procedure manuals and technical manuals
-Tools to support learner content sharing


-Peer support systems
-Social media connections (blogs, microblogs, social bookmarking)
-Group forums or discussion boards
-Expert directories
-Communities of practice
-Mentor relationships and developmental networks
-Coaching Professional networks (live and online; professional organizations, user groups) Conferences and professional meetings
-Tools to support interaction


Training and Education

-Courseware and seminars (internal or external; in any delivery format)
-Formal coaching after training
-On-the-job training Academic courses, degree programs, MOOCs (massive open online courses)Certificate, certification, and licensing programs
-Follow-up activities and exercises designed to support learning and application (enrichment and reflection activities)
-Tools to support delivery of engaging learning activities

Development Practices

-Action learning programs
-Stretch assignment management
-Rotation and other experiential learning programs based in workplace activities
-After-action review practices
-Supervisor support, feedback, and coaching
-Communication activities to influence learning readiness and application
-Career coaching and development

Experiential Learning Practices

-Learning by doing
-Engaging in critical reflection
-Self-monitoring and analysis of outcomes and feedback
-Creating personal notes, job aids
-Teaching and creating resources for others


Learner Motivation and Self-Direction

-Desire to learn
-Belief in link between learning and performance
-Confidence in ability to learn

These components can be curated into a learning environment to provide a wide range of possible supports for learning. Each project will have different particulars, and this list is not meant to be exhaustive; instead its aim is to prompt ideas for creating a robust, well-designed learning environment.

You’ll notice as well that several of the categories suggest specific tools—such as blogging or microblogging tools, screen capture soft­ware, and video tools—not because the tools are learning assets, but because the learners can use them to create and add to the learning components available in the environment. Designers often include links to these kinds of tools when they create the learning portals that act as the entry point to the learning environment.

It’s also important to notice how much of a learning environment is intangible, embedded in relationships and work practices. While an electronic portal is often useful for assembling materials and activities, the environment is physical and interpersonal as well as virtual.

Finally, the list of components is compiled from a larger pool of potential items derived from industry models and long-term experience. Those familiar with the theories will notice elements of blended learning, transfer of learning, informal learning, and social learning theory and practice, along with ideas contributed by personal knowledge manage­ment and constructivist learning advocates. Looking across these streams of thought yields a very rich list of potential learning resources, activities, and practices, which were categorized to make identifying and selecting them a bit easier.

For more advice on how to make your learning environment grow, check out Learning Environments by Design (ATD Press, 2015). This book empowers you to customize learning for your workforce and unearths the answers to the questions you’ve been asking: How does learning happen? What is the future of instructional design? What makes learning environments work?

About the Author

Catherine Lombardozzi is a lifelong learning and development practitioner and founder of Learning 4 Learning Professionals. She collaborates with people to align their L&D strategy and skill sets with their organization’s driving goals and initiatives. Her work focuses on supporting the professional development of designers, facilitators, faculty, learning and performance consultants, and learning leaders. As an active workplace learning professional with nearly 40 years of experience in corporate and academic contexts, Catherine often contributes to professional conferences and journals, and she teaches graduate-level courses in adult learning, instructional design, emerging technologies, and consulting. She is author of Learning Environments by Design (2015). She maintains deep interest in modern workplace learning strategies, learning culture, social learning, self-directed learning, design of online learning experiences, and scholarly practice. Catherine holds a doctoral degree in human and organizational learning from George Washington University.

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