Workplace Learning
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Research-Based Principles of Instruction Applied to Workplace Learning

Thursday, June 29, 2017

It seems like everyone who has ever gone to school is an expert in how to teach and instruct. And all of this “folk wisdom” is based on one simple thought: “Well, that’s the way I learned”! It’s also amazing how much we actually know about learning and instruction from good research, but how little of this knowledge we actually use.

Barak Rosenshine published an adapted version of a report that he wrote in 2010 for the UNESCO and the International Academy of Education in which he outlined 10 solid research-based principles of instruction. These principles are all based on research in cognitive science, research on master teachers, and research on cognitive supports for learning. The major strength is, that even though these are three very different bodies of research, there is no conflict whatsoever between the instructional suggestions they provide. Maybe the paradogma supporters (Kirschner, 2014) in the educational sciences could take a lesson from this.

It has been shown that there is absolutely no evidence in the scientific literature to support the 70:20:10 rule—the idea that 70 percent of what we learn is via experiential learning, 20 percent learning from others, and 10 percent from formal learning (see De Bruyckere et al. in their Urban Myths about Learning and Education - Myth 3). However, it is of course true that informal learning and learning from and with others is very important, especially in the workplace. When we focus on social and experiential learning, it often remains unclear if employees are learning effectively, despite 360 performance reviews and subjective (manager and L&D professionals) opinions.

Therefore, exploring to what extent proven instructional principles can be applied to the informal and non-formal ways of learning in the workplace can help make learning professionals more aware of what they need to be aware of, so to speak. 

Principle 1: Begin a learning experience with a short review of previous learning. Daily review can strengthen previous learning. 

Review doesn’t mean glancing over an article that you read the day before (in fact, rereading is proven to be a completely ineffective learning strategy; compliance training eat your heart out). Review could take place through reflection (for example, content curation) as an individual or collaborative endeavor. It also could be a well-structured discussion with peers, in which all involved can review and discuss a learning experience or moment that has been experienced during working, even content. 

Principle 2: Only digest small amounts of new material, then practice that material. 

Microlearning is hot in workplace learning and fortunately in line with this principle. For example, an enterprise provides a point-of-need performance support tool in systems employees use on the job such as a help function that provides bite-sized pieces of just-in-time information. In this case, using the system itself is the “practice” part. A challenge is that learning designers and subject matter experts always need to “guess” what the exact learner needs are. Sometimes it might be easy to guess but sometimes it’s virtually impossible. (For help designing microlearning, check out the ATD Microlearning Certificate program.) 

Principle 3: Ask a large number of questions to support connections between new materials and prior learning. 

Who will determine what the critical questions are to ask? Experts often find it hard to put themselves in novices’ shoes and truly understand what novices need to learn and how they can get there. Peer learning, where individuals have the same level of expertise, might work better because they often have the same problems. However, knowing what questions to ask (yourself?) to support learning is still a skill that requires learning. Being open and secure enough to admit that you don’t know something requires a strong person and a psychologically safe environment. 

Principle 4: Provide models and worked examples; this supports learners to solve problems faster. 

This principle works and is, hopefully, applied broadly in workplace learning. It works particularly well for recurrent tasks, which are rule-based processes performed in a highly consistent way from problem situation to problem situation (see Van Merriënboer & Kirschner, 2012). For these types of tasks, the learner can work with process documents, flow charts, or examples of previously successfully completed projects.  


Principle 5: Guided practice of new material. 

Again, this is an essential, yet missing principle in when people think about the mythical 20 percent and 70 percent amount of time spent on learning. Although there are many advantages to social and peer learning, we all must acknowledge that there is nothing like making use of good guided practice. Van Merriënboer and Kirschner refer to this as ALOYS (Assistant Looking Over Your Shoulder). A manager or coach could provide it, but to what extent is that scalable? 

Principle 6: Check learner understanding at each point. 

If the learning objective is clear and the steps to success are clear, the critical “learning points” could be identified as well. It wouldn’t be a traditional way of checking your understanding, but it could be a pre-identified task to complete that needs to meet certain standards. It is critical to keep in mind that objectivity is critical for success. 

Principle 7: Obtain a high success rate (during practice). 

This principle refers back to principle #5. (Again, guided practice piece is a gaping hole in the less formal approaches to learning, especially in the workplace.) This cannot be done without a well-structured training/learning approach. 

Principle 8: Provide scaffolds for difficult tasks. 

This principle requires carefully designed processes. However, workplaces should be able to successfully implement such scaffolds, and they are. A peer or colleague “looking over your shoulder” is a good example. But also performance support tools such as check lists, short instructional videos, and repositories can also act as scaffolds. However, it’s hard to know the exact level of scaffolding that each learner needs. How do you know when to remove a scaffold to enable the learner to move towards mastery? Maybe ALOYS is the best scaffold to be found. 

Principle 9: Require and monitor independent practice. 

To implement this principle, you need to establish the standards that need to be met. This is probably easy for some tasks, but very difficult for others. Take the case of critical parts of a process where making a mistake during independent practice could cost a lot of time, money, or even lives. 


Principle 10: Engage learners in weekly and monthly review. 

This can be done through well-structured discussion groups, face-to-face interaction, or in an online community of practice format. It is critical that there is a pre-defined outcome, otherwise the risk is discussion for the sake of discussion.

So, where does this leave us? Glancing over the principles and how to apply them in a workplace learning context, we need to state the obvious: As usual, the whole learning journey should start with a learning need and a learning objective. Then, there needs to be a careful analysis of the required steps to successfully achieve the learning objective.

One thing to keep in mind is that in workplace learning, the instructor is often missing. It is important to acknowledge that this is a major challenge. It is not about control or about being rigid; it’s about acknowledging how critical it is in learning that a competent individual (or system) who knows the learner’s skill or knowledge gaps, offers appropriate (point-of-need) instruction, guidance, support, learning content, and constructive feedback at all times.

Managers could play an instructor role, provided that they truly support their team’s professional development (and have the required skills and competences). But we need to remember that it’s only one of the hats that they will likely wear.

Some learning professionals argue that social and experiential learning happen on the job anyway, so we should simply support it. The first question is: What do those people mean by “support it”? Furthermore, even if it’s a fact that social and experiential learning happen on the job, we should be critical and curious to what extent it happens and how it happens. It is naïve to think that we can get away with providing support on the fly and hope for the best. True learning needs structure and well-thought through context.  


  • De Bruyckere, P., Kirschner, P. A., & Hulshof, C. (2015). Urban myths about learning and education. New York: Academic Press. 
  • Kirschner, P.A., (2014). When a paradigm becomes a paradogma. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30, p. 297-299. 
  • Rosenshine, B. (2010). Principles of instruction. Educational Practices Series-21. Plaats: Uitgeverij. 
  • Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction. Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, Volume(issue), 12-19. 
  • Van Merrienboer, J. J. G., & Kirschner, P. A., (2012). Ten steps to complex learning. A systematic approach to four-component instructional design (2nd edition). New York: Routledge. 

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on 3starlearningexperiences, a blog that aims to present learning professionals with evidence-informed ideas on how to make both the instructional and the learning experience more effective, efficient, and enjoyable.

About the Author

Mirjam Neelen is a learning experience design expert and a learning and development consultant with more than 10 years of industry experience, working at companies such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Google. In her current role at the Learnovate Centre, she leads the learning design processes across various industry segments, such as multinationals, small and medium enterprises, start-ups, and higher education. Mirjam analyses business and performance challenges in close collaboration with her customers, delivers technology-enhanced innovative, effective, and impactful learning strategies and upskills customers to enable them to implement the strategies. She presents about projects regularly; both internally to industry partners and externally at conferences. She has completed an MSc in Learning Sciences and published an article, based on her thesis, in the International Journal of Knowledge and Learning. Prior to working as a learning experience designer, she completed an MA in Psycholinguistics and a BA in Speech Therapy. She started her career as a speech therapist, working with adults with aphasia and children with various neurological disorders.

About the Author

Paul A. Kirschner is university distinguished professor at the Open University of the Netherlands as well as visiting professor of education with a special emphasis on learning and interaction in teacher education at the University of Oulu, Finland. He is an internationally recognized expert in the fields of educational psychology and instructional design. He is research fellow of the American Educational Research Association and the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Science. He was president of the International Society for the Learning Sciences (ISLS) in 2010-2011, member of both the ISLS CSCL Board and the Executive Committee of the Society, and he is an AERA Research Fellow (the first European to receive this honor). He is currently a member of the Scientific Technical Council of the Foundation for University Computing Facilities (SURF WTR) in the Netherlands and was a member of the Dutch Educational Council and, as such, was advisor to the Minister of Education (2000-2004). He is chief editor of the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, associate editor of Computers in Human Behavior, and has published two very successful books: Ten Steps to Complex Learning (now in its second revised edition and translated/published in Korea and China) and Urban Legends about Learning and Education. He also co-edited two other books ( Visualizing Argumentation and What We Know about CSCL). His areas of expertise include interaction in learning, collaboration for learning (computer supported collaborative learning), and regulation of learning.

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