September 2018
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Obey the Learning Laws

Friday, August 31, 2018
Obey the Learning Laws

Achieve behavior change by applying three laws of learning to personality assessment training.

Many trainers fail to apply learning theory when delivering training centered around personality assessments. They often do so because they are enthusiastic about the material—brought on by the rigorous process of becoming a certified practitioner or trainer for any given assessment—and can overwhelm the students with nice-to-know information instead of personalizing the material for students in a meaningful way.


The transmitted enthusiasm can leave students saying, "Wow! That was a great class," only for them to forget about the material a short time later. This is where many trainers fail. The trainer feels great because the students had fun; however, the lessons learned will quickly fade away and never become actionable.

My experience changed my own behavior

Early in my career as a trainer, I found myself riding the wave of self-confidence after courses like these. I would see the light bulbs come on for many of the students and believe that life-altering behavior changes were taking place all around me. But then, just a few days later, I would witness some of those old behaviors creeping back into the student interactions as the buzz from the training course quickly disappeared.

I started to wonder what participants had really learned. Beyond their ability to rattle off a few differences between dichotomies and preferences, what was different about them? That's when it hit me. I had given them a toolbox full of cool tools but no direction or training about how to use them.

To get to the point of using those tools, participants needed to identify specific challenging relationships and create an action plan around improving their own effectiveness within those relationships. Take the example of a leader who was well known for his ability to solve problems and move projects forward in a timely manner but had difficulty making personal connections with his employees. Despite his success as a manager, he struggled with finding a balance between managing things and leading people, which caused him tremendous stress and self-doubt regarding his leadership abilities. He had tried several methods to make more personal connections, but nothing seemed to fit.

During a training program, he realized that there was nothing wrong with his preferred DiSC dichotomy of C/D (conscientiousness/dominance); in fact, going against his personal style would prove counterproductive. Instead, by using an action plan to improve his own effectiveness, he identified two simple actions that he could take to improve relationships: Grab a cup of coffee and strike up a conversation with a different employee every morning before beginning administrative work; and eat lunch in the break room with the rest of his co-workers and employees instead of eating lunch alone in his office while working.

Obeying the laws

Ensuring that personality assessment debriefs and training result in behavioral changes simply requires trainers to get back to the basics.

Educational psychologist Edward Thorndike developed his laws of learning, which, according to Sara McNeil's "A Hypertext History of Instructional Design," is "a behavioral learning theory based on connectionism that studied increasing a behavior with the use of rewards, punishment, and practice." The first three laws of learning are particularly useful for trainers of personality assessments:

  • The law of readiness suggests that students learn best when mentally prepared and engaged. Establish sufficient motivation to absorb the material prior to the lesson beginning.
  • The law of exercise, also referred to as the law of repetition, suggests that a student will learn best when given an opportunity to practice multiple times. This law further suggests that revisiting training components, such as the objectives and key ideas, will strengthen the student's ability to absorb the material.
  • The law of effect suggests that students will learn best in a pleasing environment. The law also suggests that pleasant ideas, such as a potentially positive application of material, will result in learned connections, whereas students will more readily forget unpleasant ideas, such as disagreeable or potentially negative applications of material.

Putting the laws into practice

Using these laws of learning as a foundation for instructional design results in more effective personality assessment training. To ensure that students walk away with actionable results, consider these five points when designing a training program.

Clarify the objective (the law of readiness). Understanding the potential uses of a given assessment, knowing your audience, and experiencing with practical application will help trainers target potential areas where students will benefit from the course.

Start by answering the question: "What do I expect students to walk away with?" In addition to conducting an initial needs assessment, you will need to know the benefits each assessment is designed to provide. You can usually find this information in the reference material for the assessment you'll administer.

Next, apply your targeted objective to an evaluation point. What will the students produce because of the training program? Evaluation points could include a personalized action plan, a team action plan, a list of shared team goals, a team vision statement, ground rules, or any other specific area of interest.

Link to emotion (the law of effect). Exploring the emotions that students currently feel compared with the emotions students would rather experience will require a coaching style of facilitation. The goal here is to have students verbalize the pain of the current state.

To define the current state, identify how your students experience the current situation and create a list of the emotions currently prevalent among the group. For example, if your targeted objective is conflict management within a team, ask "What emotions do you currently experience during a conflict at work?" I once had a participant who avoided difficult conversations with his boss for 10 years. The boss had a strong DiSC inclination for dominance, and the student had a strong DiSC inclination for steadiness. The participant felt trapped by work due to the anxiety and stress he experienced when forced to interact with his boss.

To visualize the desired future state, identify how your students would prefer to experience the situation and create a list of the desired emotions. For example, using the targeted objective of conflict management within a team, ask "If anything were possible, what emotions would you prefer to experience during a conflict at work?" In the example of the participant above, he identified tranquility and harmony as preferred emotions.

Identifying these emotions fed directly into the action plan he developed:

  • Remember that any strong emotional reaction my boss has is natural.
  • Seek to understand his response rather than judging his response as negative.

Repeat, repeat, repeat (the law of exercise). Practitioners and trainers must find ways to make the information relevant to the workplace. As you deliver information, debrief assessment results, and facilitate conversation, be careful not to overwhelm students. Psychometric assessments have many different applications, so trainers can easily veer off track during this time. Remember to periodically loop the new information back to the objective, current state, and desired future states.

Positively reinforce (the law of effect). Make the classroom fun. Students feel a surge of excitement when they are able to put information into their own words and make real connections to their own situations. Encourage and foster that creative energy by using games, activities, or scenarios that help students make connections between theory and the workplace.

Of course, remember the objective—no amount of encouragement, creativity, and positive reinforcement will enable your students to transfer learning on the job if your class veers off target from the intended learning outcome.

End with accountability (the laws of effect and exercise). Keep the positivity flowing by revisiting the students' desired current state. Help them see new information as an opportunity to move toward that goal. Ensure that students write down goals and create an action plan that address strategies and potential challenges to making desired changes. Have students share those goals with a partner and create an accountability pact.

Getting started

All of this may seem overwhelming to implement because it often feels abstract to apply theories—sometimes it's hard to know exactly where to start. To get you moving in the right direction, let's look at four simple steps you can take right now to ensure that your next training session is a success.

Determine what your target audience needs (the law of readiness). Just ask. It is really that simple. There is an overwhelming number of possible applications for the information and learning contained within personality assessments. If you are going to make the best use of your learners' time, what changes would create the biggest impact?

If you have the resources and time to complete surveys or focus groups, great. If not, remember that in as little as a few hours, a single trainer armed with a clipboard can conduct interviews with C-suite executives, managers, and employees to discover everyone's most important goals.

Create emotional buy-in (the law of effect). You need to create emotional buy-in up front. The objective is key—it's the road map you'll need to show others a new route. But without buy-in, the others won't continue to drive that route once you exit the vehicle.

One of the most effective ways to create buy-in is through linking the pain currently experienced to the relief that the proposed solution offers. You may need to get things flowing by sharing some uncomfortable stories about being triggered by challenging behaviors or judgments that you've made in the past (be careful not to offend anyone).

Were you once too task-focused as a leader? Or perhaps you felt uncomfortable with confrontation and became a doormat. Or, did you have difficulty working with others who weren't dependable? What could participants learn from your experience? Once the ice is broken, your students will soon begin freely sharing stories of their own. Capture a list of the current state of emotions during those challenging interactions and contrast them against a desired future state of emotions.


Repeat and reinforce (the laws of effect and exercise). Post the objective at the front of the classroom. This reminds students why the training program is important and what they are expected to retain after it is complete. Continually reinforcing the objective with a positive environment helps students relax and participate more easily.

Use a few lighthearted jokes or stories about each dichotomy and preference, often called type-stories, to keep students actively engaged. When you're facilitating, don't be afraid to share relevant personal stories to highlight the objective (see sidebar). This technique increases the connection between facilitator and student while also providing a safe and judgment-free atmosphere.

Provide accountability structure. Action plans and accountability partners increase a student's probability of success. Challenging participants to create an effective action plan is easy by answering these critical questions:

  • What will they do?
  • How will they do it?
  • When will they do it?
  • To whom are they accountable?

Another law of learning, the law of recency, suggests that the most recent information a student learns will be the first piece of information that student recalls. Positioning positive action planning and accountability at the end of the lesson ensures that students will more quickly reflect on the lesson objectives, make connections to learned material, and put the training into action.

Your turn

You can change behaviors and have a little fun at the same time with personality assessments. After all, these assessments focus on everyone's favorite subject: ourselves. To create behavioral changes resulting in personal and organizational benefits, trainers need to focus and deliver content in an intentional direction.

Having fun in the classroom is an important concept in adult learning, so trainers should be careful not to lose that aspect when revising lessons. Ensure that some of the stories and activities serve to keep the atmosphere light and that each story and activity is relevant to the objective. With a little planning, participants will feel connected and emotionally invested in the material, actively participate in engaging exercises, and develop realistic accountability agreements that encourage follow-through.

Developing new behavioral patterns can be tough work, but the potential for lowered stress and improved relationships makes the effort worth it.

Reinforce Objectives With Type-Stories

One of my favorite type-stories involves my own DiSC preference C/D (conscientiousness/dominance), which is characterized by careful planning, problem finding, and blunt task-focused solutions. Once I was piloting a new class while another trainer (with strong DiSC inclination for C) was simultaneously piloting the same class in another classroom. One of our challenges was to stay on the same timeline to release the students at the same time, so we checked our progress during breaks. During the final break, he entered my classroom wide-eyed because my PowerPoint slide indicated another hour of lesson time. He informed me that he only had about 15 minutes left.

Of course, being the time-conscious planners that we were, neither of us would accept blame. Upon further investigation, we found that the mistake was in his notes, which caused him to move through the material too quickly. Feeling victorious, I semi-jokingly told him that he needed to pay closer attention to the details.

Four short weeks later, we taught the class again. Only this time I screwed up the timing and finished 30 minutes earlier than him. Red-faced, I apologized to him for both my error and previously poking fun when he made the same mistake.

Sometimes I use this story because it highlights an objective: understanding yourself and understanding others. My gift for fault-finding within systems probably isn't best applied to co-workers.

The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the commandant or the U.S. Coast Guard.

About the Author

Thomas Frazier is chief petty officer academy instructor at the U.S. Coast Guard Leadership Development Center.

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