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Learning Sciences Is a Vital Capability for TD Professionals

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Learning sciences is one of the 23 capabilities of the new Talent Development Capability Model, which defines the knowledge, skills, and abilities that TD professionals must have to succeed now and in the future. Learning sciences, a capability under the Developing Professional Capabilities domain, is an interdisciplinary research-based field that furthers the understanding of learning and instructional methodologies and is continually changing as new information is added and old ways of thinking are improved.

“Talent solutions that are grounded in learning science improve our credibility as a profession,” says Jonathan Halls, talent development expert and author of Confessions of a Corporate Trainer and Rapid Media Development for Trainers. “They afford us greater precision in designing and facilitating solutions that move the needle on performance because they’re based on credible research.”

Subject matter experts who are unfamiliar with foundational learning theories often present unnecessarily complex content, put unreasonable time demands on learners, plan exercises that distract from learning, and otherwise structure content in ways that are not learner-centered, Halls says. The result is ineffective training that wastes time and money.

As part of the learning sciences capability, TD professionals must understand various adult learning theories—including behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism—and be able to apply the techniques associated with them to design, develop, and deliver solutions that maximize outcomes. They also need knowledge of communication theories and models and how they relate to learning and the principles and applications of cognitive science for learning (for example, auditory and visual processing, information storage and retrieval, memory, and cognitive load).


“When TD professionals see too-good-to-be-true claims about new brain science, miracle leadership development programs, or the magical power of mobile learning, they need to step back and ask for the science behind the claims, perhaps using the six steps of the scientific method to explore further,” explain Elaine Biech and Halls in Capabilities for Talent Development, a book that offers an in-depth look at the ATD Capability Model and its components.


According to the model, TD professionals should be able to:

  • Understand the principles underlying cognitive science and how they apply to learning (for example, auditory and visual processing, information storage and retrieval, memory, and cognitive load).
  • Recognize adult learning theories, including Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Gagné’s Nine Levels of Learning, Mager’s Criterion-Referenced Instruction Approach, social and collaborative learning, and experiential learning.
  • Comprehend communication theories and models and how they relate to learning, including Richard Mayer’s Multimedia Theory.
  • Apply cognitive science and adult learning theories when designing training that maximizes learning and/or behavioral outcomes.

“Theories from learning science, such as cognitive load theory, dual encoding, and deliberate practice, among others, can guide instructional designers to craft content that is easier for learners to manage,” says Halls.

He points to an example from his own experience, in which a San Francisco-based technology company designed training based on the learning styles theory. Many TD professionals are aware that training based on learning styles has not proven to be more effective than training based on other theories; however, the approach remains prevalent in many organizations. In this example, the company’s training was not achieving the desired outcomes, so Halls worked with the trainers to abandon the learning styles-based program and designed one that incorporated the theory of deliberate practice, using techniques like interleaving content, spaced practice, elaboration (letting learners put content in their own words and connect it to their past experiences), and retrieval practice. After the training content was adapted to incorporate these research-backed theories, participants learned more quickly, required less follow-up training, and improved their performances.

About the Author

Stephanie Castellano is a former writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD). She is now a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Virginia.

1 Comment
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This sounds good mostly, but we should NOT be advocating that people learn Blooms or Malcolm Knowles! Please go instead to the top research translators in our field, like Julie Dirksen, Patti Shank, Mirjam Neelen, Clark Quinn, and others
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