How to Get People to Apply What They Learned: Just One Thing

Learning is complex. There are many definitions and many different ways of learning. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience or being taught. Learning is the modification of a behavioral tendency. I believe any definition of learning must include the part about a change in behavior. After all, the learning that occurs in organizations requires that people change their behaviors in order to perform work at a certain proficiency. Certainly the stakeholders of our training programs care most that people leave our training and can actually “do” something valuable.Vaccination protection influenza

Therefore, the learning and development professional is concerned with how to make sure what people learn in a training class translates to performance on the job. The concept of transfer of training has been used as one solution to this problem. Transfer of training, as a technique for improving the chances that behaviors change and performance improves, is fine enough, but it takes a lot of effort and skill to pull off. And let’s face it, we are all so busy, it is difficult to add one more model to apply on top of the training we must develop and deliver in our organizations.

Isn’t there a better way? The answer is, “Yes!” And it’s simple. Let me explain.

Just One Thing

Just last week I finished reading the book, Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results. I had an epiphany while reading the case study on page 110. Morten Hansen, describes a Yale University study from the 1960s that all learning and development professionals must read, absorb, and apply right now.

In the study, researchers showed a group of students several pictures of patients with tetanus. Horrifying pictures. Then the students were asked this question, “How important do you think it is to get a tetanus shot?” Another group of students (who did not see the pictures) were asked the same question. Guess who scored highest? Students who saw the pictures were far more likely to say it was important to get a tetanus shot. Duh, right?

But it gets more interesting.

The researchers take one more step. They measured which students actually went to get a tetanus shot. Guest what? Those who said it was important to get a tetanus shot were no more likely to actually get a shot than those who did not see the pictures and did not say it was important to get a tetanus shot.

What? Can’t be. But the researchers were not done yet.

The researchers gave a third group, who were also asked the same question, a detailed plan on how to get a shot, where to go, a schedule of when shots were available, a map with the clinic circled on it, and were asked to review their own schedule to find time to get the shot. In other words, they were given an action plan of specific instructions explaining how to get the shot.

As you can imagine, the researchers found that the group who was given instructions were far more likely to get a tetanus shot than either of the two other groups who did not received the instructions.

The Lesson: Give ‘Em an Action Plan

Our training programs should include a detailed action plan that our participants can take with them after they complete the training. As this research shows, it is not enough that people learned that getting tetanus was bad for their health and that a tetanus shot is an important thing to do. Changing people’s behavior requires a detailed action plan. I have read a study similar to this applied to people who are trying to quite smoking. A detailed action plan was the difference.

So, whether it is sales training, learning a leadership coaching model, or how to give performance feedback, adding a detailed action plan to your training (e-learning or classroom training) is vital to improving the chances that your learners will change their behavior.

Do you include action plans in your training classes? Do you provide documents of actions plans that your learners can download from your Mindflash courses? If you do, share your stories in the comments section below about how you think people are using those action plans? We’d love to hear your experiences.

Oh, and by the way, go get a tetanus shot.

Bill Cushard, authorblogger, and learning experience (LX) designer, is a human performance technology (HPT) leader with extensive, in-the-trenches experience building learning organizations in start-up and hyper-growth organizations like E*TRADE, the Knowland Group, and Allonhill. You can follow him on Twitter or on Google+.