The effectiveness of learning – Back to Basics

Learning Effectiveness

This posting is the first in a series that will discuss a wide range of considerations to be taken into account to ensure effectiveness of learning interventions.  The approach will take into consideration myriad issues that extend beyond the effectiveness of learning design to encompass success factors including appropriate analysis of needs, organisational environment, media and audience, through to expectation, risk and project  management.

The followers of trends in the learning space will be familiar with strong advocacy towards the benefits of un-structured learning (known as informal learning) over structured (formal learning). While I don’t intend to argue the established opinion in this specific forum, I will say that, like the ageing adage “e-learning is not a panacea”, the same is true for un-structured learning, in all its various forms.

In considering the effectiveness of learning, the issue for me is that if we, professionals in the learning and development arena, want to be accepted as active contributors to the business end of our organisations, we need to demonstrate professionalism and learning design excellence, through value contribution, in a balanced manner.

In short that means:

  • Being expert at performance analysis.
  • Positioning ourselves to influence when learning interventions are most appropriate for a business problem and when they are not.
  • Having confidence saying “no” to armchair requests for learning while recommending, as appropriate, other non-learning interventions.
  • Establishing (by mutual agreement) exactly what “success looks like”; how and when all stakeholders will know “when the (intervention) is successful”.
  • Focussing on human performance outcomes.
  • Scoping the range of environmental factors at play which effect organisational decisions, budgets, priorities and the implementation of projects.
  • Adjusting recommendations and decisions according to audience characteristics, their learning environment and importantly, their working environment.
  • Building compelling material that, as appropriate, blends and balances teaching strategies, assessment techniques and media selection with structured and un-structured solutions.
  • Establishing and maintaining expectations across full range of stakeholders.
  • Applying risk management and project management principles.
  • Utilising learning design principles to enable sustainable benefits and impact.
  • Demonstrating “success” by addressing learning and performance evaluation criteria, and reporting outcomes.

At the risk of being classified a “dinosaur” (it’s happened before) I need to explain why I believe we need to re-establish some basic principles and guidelines within our profession.  Here are some points to think about:

  • This is certainly not about re-inventing the wheel.  It’s a reminder, for some a wake-up call perhaps and it’s about reflecting on some relatively simple process disciplines that can lead to increased learning and performance effectiveness.
  • My observations tell me that a good proportion of people currently working in learning and development roles have learnt “on-the-job” by watching a colleague facilitate a course, by developing course content, setting out lesson plans, through to initially dabbling in e-learning development and becoming proficient with the production software.  But, how may have access to substantial and practical learning design processes, or access to people who have formal background or extensive experience in the learning and development field.
  • For all the discussion about un-structured (informal) learning, (where my heart is), fully structured (formal) learning is here to stay.  A quick way to define structured (formal) learning is the presence of learning objectives, an assessment (that relates directly to the objectives) and a learning strategy that supports both.  It may not always sit alone as a discrete event (and in most cases it shouldn’t) but we can expect to be developing structured learning into the foreseeable future and we need to know how to design and implement it effectively.

How many of us (you) feel sufficiently motivated to learn more about our profession; to provide more effective learning interventions?  Do you have the required confidence and know-how or are you confident to the extent that you don’t need assistance?

I think it’s time to get back to basics.  It’s time we reflected on what we do, how we do it, why and how successfully we do it.

So, to provide a portion of framework as this series of Learning Effectiveness unfolds, I will occasionally refer to some well established models that extend back over a number of years and discuss their applicability (or otherwise) in today’s just-in-time world of rich media and thirst for instant digital gratification.

For the most part though, we will weave our way through some of the theory and lace it with practicalities, some tried and true methodology and, along the way, realise the fact that learning effectiveness and success stems from addressing a range of factors.