August 2019
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TD Magazine

The Science of Effective Training

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Combine elements of this training periodic table to lead effective training programs.

If professional development experiences are a sort of lab in which learners can experiment and test new knowledge and skills, and if the training room is a space for new and engaging ways to help individuals learn, what is the ideal mixture of elements?


Engaging, effective training programs are a mixture of science and art; they require a certain quantity of adult learning theory, available technology, intuitive tools, proven practices, creativity, and a touch of risk. The proportions of these building blocks, however, depend on the situation.

Inspired by my science teacher father, I put together a periodic table of elements of amazing learning experiences. It's organized into solids, liquids, gases, radioactive elements, and interactive elements. Some of the elements have been around for a long time; others have only recently been discovered. You may look at this table and think of other elements not represented, or you may find that it inspires you to dream up yet-to-be-discovered elements. The point of this table is not to offer an exhaustive list of learning tools, strategies, theories, practices, and platforms but rather to explore some broad categories illustrated by specific examples and to dissect the impact on learning when talent development professionals mix a variety of these elements together.

Beyond these periodic elements, effective training programs depend on an X factor: your comfort level with engaging learners. Before we explore this X factor, let's explore the elements.


Solid elements

The principal property that the solid elements share is that they are tools—whether tangible, physical tools or virtual, online tools—that trainers and instructional designers can use. Some, like Microsoft Word (Wd) and YouTube (Yt), are ubiquitous. Others have only recently gained traction over the past few years. Tools such as Kahoot (Kh) and PollEverywhere (Pe) are a bit more viral in nature. They are not necessarily elements that are commonly found in every office, but when people see them in action for the first time, they quickly move to incorporate these tools into their own training sessions and presentations.

Unless talent development professionals are intentional about how to use a solid element, they cannot fully unlock its value. Similar to the way in which cavemen applied logic and necessity to mold solid rocks or metals from useless, inanimate objects into arrows for hunting and bowls for holding food, anyone wishing to make good use of these solid learning elements must apply intention so these tools can meet a need.

For instance, using an online polling tool can be a cool visual aid, but is it necessary in a room with only seven people? Equipping people with colorful, scented markers so they can write on flipcharts can keep learners awake, but what will you do with their flipchart notes once they are finished with an activity?

Few solid elements are intended to stand alone. For best results, you must mix them with some of the other following elements.

Radioactive elements

These elements are some of the most powerful yet most dangerous elements known to the L&D world. A little bit can go a long way, but if used improperly, they can be extremely combustible and can contaminate the L&D reputation for years to come.

Lecture (Lc) and PowerPoint (Pp) have a well-deserved reputation for being overused and abused, combining to create toxic clouds that pour acid rain down on the learners we're responsible for helping.

In his book Brain Rules, John Medina reminds anyone who lectures that emotions garner attention. Learners don't need, nor can they remember, every detail, and the brain cannot multitask. Therefore, participants can't pay attention to your presentation while they're busy reading every word on your slide.

The lecture isn't inherently a bad element, but a lecture that doesn't follow a format in which science tells us the brain will absorb and process information is inherently bad. The same applies to any of these elements. Many participants believe it's OK to come late to a training session that begins with an icebreaker (Ib) because the opening activity holds little value. When judiciously and thoughtfully designed and delivered, icebreakers can help illuminate the entire presentation's purpose.

Even something as simple as snacks (Sn) provided during a break require thought. Some treats may provide a short-term sugar rush, but the human system will crash once that rush is gone. If you choose snacks with the time of day in mind, healthier options such as vegetables or nuts can provide learners with sustainable sources of energy.

Interactive elements

Introducing interactive elements of social media into a learning experience is a way you can prime learners in advance for a course. You can also use these elements to keep the learning going, such as through hosting blogs on a WordPress (Wp) site, posting slides on Slideshare (Sh), or challenging participants to participate in a topical tweet chat via Twitter (Tw).

Using these interactive elements requires a degree of daring and trust, because there can be a disconnect between you and the learners. Typically, you will use these elements outside of a formal classroom, which means you need to give up an element of control.

Several organizations I've worked with use Mailchimp to automatically send out emails (Em) with learning boosts (Lb; see liquid elements) following a training session to aid learners in retaining key concepts and content. David Kelly, executive director of the eLearning Guild, invites attendees to write guest posts reflecting on their key learnings and experiences, and then he publishes them on the organization's blog site following each conference.

When you introduce interactive elements into a learning strategy, you open the possibility for learning to be more than just a one-way experience. Because social media has a broad reach, learners have opportunities to reply to the trainer, other learners, or the world at large.

Liquid elements

The liquid elements share three properties: They are practices designed to support knowledge and skill transfer; take the shape of the vessel (usually the organization or the team) into which they are poured; and can be frozen and locked into place as needed, then melted so that the shape can change and be adjusted, as appropriate.

The way in which you use these liquid elements and the degree to which they can be effective will depend on your organizational culture, learners, and management buy-in.

Many organizations still rely overwhelmingly on formal training—whether classroom-based, webinar, or e-learning—to address employees' learning needs. Pouring one or more of these liquid elements, such as learning boosts, spaced learning (Sl), or microlearning (Mc), offers opportunities to unfreeze an organization's this-is-the-way-we've-always-done-things mentality to make an overall learning program more effective.

Combining those three elements with formal learning programs can create a mixture of foundational knowledge (through classroom training) with ongoing informational nuggets that lead to higher retention and on-the-job application. With microlearning pieces such as distributing short stories or video clips prior to a training session, talent development professionals can prime learners' minds. Providing additional pieces of content—such as short articles, quizzes, action plans, or job aids—as part of a learning boost initiative after employees complete a session or e-learning module can go a long way in aiding retention.

According to Art Kohn, a professor at the Portland State University School of Business who has written extensively on the connection between brain science and the implications for learning, "If you provide your learners with booster events in the hours and days after training, you can reshape their forgetting curve. For example, if you provide employees with a leadership seminar on Monday, you can expect that most of this information will be lost within a week. However, if you provide a booster event, such as a multiple-choice questionnaire, it causes the learner to recall the information, which will reset the learner's forgetting curve."


Finding ways to integrate these liquid elements to boost learner retention and make on-the-job application more likely may require melting the old, frozen organizational learning habits down into a more fluid set of practices.

A wide variety of learner-centered practices such as follow-up (Fu), supervisor support (Su), and performance-based goal setting (Gs) are also essential to employees simply understanding why they need to continue learning and improving in the first place.

When it comes to these liquid elements, sometimes it's appropriate to melt down practices, mix them with new elements, and refreeze—that is, codify them into organizational practices and culture. There are other times when it's best to leave practices fluid and allow them to ebb and flow as situations warrant.

Gas-like elements

These elements are concepts, models, and theories that you may never see, but they constantly waft through the air of any training room. Some, like the air we breathe, are invisible and odorless, but you'd definitely know it if they were suddenly vacuumed out of the training room.

In any quality adult learning (Al) experience, you must include the work of titans such as Malcolm Knowles and Robert Gagné. Perhaps less well-known—because their contributions to the field are newer—but no less important is the work of Jane Vella (dialogue education, De); Cammie Bean and Cathy Moore (instructional design, Id); Donald Kirkpatrick and Will Thalheimer (levels of evaluation, Le); Nancy Duarte and Melissa Marshall (visual design, Vd); and Karl Kapp, Kevin Werbach, and Dan Hunter (gamification, Gm).

Those aren't just names dropped in the middle of an industry publication. Without integrating their work into your training cauldron, a quiz show will be just a time-consuming activity in the middle of your training session, not part of a truly gamified experience (gamification); the usefulness of smile sheet data will be limited in the context of evaluation because you're not asking the right questions (levels of evaluation); and slides will continue to be repositories for presenters' knowledge, not visual experiences that help learners more easily digest and process information (visual design).

The X factor: Facilitators

On paper, you can have what appears to be an effective training program formula that includes research-based practices, adult learning theory, and activities proven to effectively engage learners. But it is critical that facilitators execute the formula well.

Consider this formula: (Lc + Rp) + (Id + Al + Gm) + Kh.

You will combine lecture and role play with a round of Kahoot as a culminating knowledge check. Throughout the training session, the facilitator should adhere to appropriate instructional design, adult learning, and gamification principles. The facilitator would work with a group using this formula, leading a session that is engaging and could lead to significant change.

However, some talent development professionals—even those who have been leading training for decades—could blow this up and lead both themselves and the learners into a terrible experience. The idea of integrating an online game platform (Kahoot) and needing to provide instructions for, monitor, and facilitate a debrief for a role-play activity could prove too much, even for people who have led training sessions for years. Understanding your comfort or skill level will help you choose the right elements for the formula.

Finding the right formula

"Should I use Prezi?" is a question that still comes up from time to time. The answer: Only if that element of your presentation—no matter how cool or en vogue it may seem right now—will help improve your overall message and purpose. The key here is that no single element, by itself, can get your point or purpose across.

Training sessions begin with an idea (or an order from a supervisor) and an empty beaker. Simply putting one element into that beaker—whether a traditional lecture or a highly interactive game—won't have much impact. Finding the right mix of elements, however, can be an elusive task. Using the same combination of elements time and time again can lead to a stale concoction. Bringing in new elements can be risky (the first several attempts may even blow up in your face), but continuing to pursue new, innovative combinations of elements is how you make breakthroughs.

About the Author

Brian Washburn is the co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning.

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Speechless. What an Innovative way to use Periodic Table in L&D !!
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This is fantastic! I love the concept of a training periodic table. It really helps create a visual picture of how well multiple training strategies can fit together to create an amazing learning experience.
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