Developing Active and Effective Employee Training

As the nature of work-related expectations continues to change, organizations and individuals must adapt to new ways of learning within the workplace. Creating a dynamic environment capable of responding effectively to the demands of continuous change requires empowering employees and may be achieved through training that utilizes active learning.

What Is Active Learning?

Active learning allows participants more control over their environment and the responsibility for learning. Three formal training design elements for guiding participants are used with active learning:

  • Cognitive – how is the trainee focusing attention?
  • Motivational– where is the effort of the trainee being directed?
  • Emotional – in what ways is the trainee “managing” emotions?

These active learning design elements ensure that the employee learns and retains the training objectives through active participation. It allows the participants to explore or experiment with the information or task presented. The information presented gives the trainee an opportunity to infer various principles and strategies for effective performance.

An active learning approach goes beyond “learning by doing” and focuses on how the training affects the trainee cognitively, motivationally, and emotionally.

Traditional learning approaches, such as lectures followed by practice opportunities, are more passive in nature. The key distinction between the active and passive approaches to training is this: with active learning the individual is actually constructing and processing the information while with passive learning the information is simply presented and rehearsed.

How to Include Active Learning in Training

Each active learning design element contains a set of specific components for inclusion in a training program, and ensures that trainees maintain control over their learning.

Cognitive. Instead of expecting trainees to retain information that has simply been presented to them, exploratory learning allows trainees to specifically focus their attention on the task presented. This can be accomplished through:

  • Active Exploration – trainee is given minimal guidance, and allowed to freely explore and experiment with the tasks
  • Guided Exploration – trainee explores the task in a systematic way, planned by the trainer

Although participants using exploratory methods may perform poorly on training evaluations, their transfer of knowledge and skills back to the job is typically better compared to trainees using traditional, instructive training methods.

Motivational. Framing errors as part of the learning process encourages trainees to maintain their focus and learn from their mistakes. Simply acknowledging that errors will be made positively affects overall performance. In contrast, trainees who are encouraged to avoid errors (often characteristic of passive learning techniques) may perform well during the training, making minimal mistakes, yet are unable to transfer the learning to other settings.

Emotional. Maintaining emotional control during training can help trainees to reduce performance anxiety and decrease negative emotional reactions. Reinforcing positive thoughts or emotions throughout training can be useful, especially during portions of the training that are particularly demanding or difficult.  This can be as simple as including emotional cues and statements within the training like “Maintain a positive attitude”. This can increase trainees’ emotional control, improving both training performance and transfer of training to the workplace.

Practical Implications

Employers who want to use a more active approach to learning must take steps to ensure that trainees are attending to the cognitive, motivational and emotional processes occurring during training sessions. The formal training design elements incorporate exploratory learning, error-tolerance and reinforcing positive emotion can increase active learning in trainees. As with any training development, the overall goals of the training (i.e. mastery of the information) and individual differences of the trainee (i.e. cognitive abilities) must be taken into account; however, active learning can be an extremely useful method for increasing employees’ knowledge and skills.

Interpretation by:

Elizabeth Allen

DeGarmo Group

This was a summary of the research and practice implications from: Bell, B. & Kozlowski, S. (2008). Active Learning: Effects of Core Training Design Elements on Self-regulatory Processes, Learning and Adaptability. Journal of Applied Psychology. 93 (8). 296-316.

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