Published in May/June 2018
Training reinforcement has become a popular topic among training professionals as it speaks to the fundamental principle that the more we are reminded of something, the greater the probability we will remember it. But in corporate training, developing high-performing training programs is not just about remembering, it’s more about doing. It’s about performance and making sure that those we train can perform a job at a consistent and high level.
No doubt you’ve heard of the forgetting curve concept formed by Dr. Hermann Ebbinghaus. His research found that if information is not properly reinforced after the initial exposure then we would ultimately forget an exponential amount of that information in a very short period of time. What many are not familiar with is his other conclusion called the “spacing effect.” He found that learning is greater when information is consumed over an extended period of time, or through multiple sessions as opposed to a single mass presentation.
The spacing effect is an important principle because it helps us understand how reinforcement should be designed into a training experience. All too often, training is designed as workshops with little to no practice or reinforcement provided after the initial session. More recent research by Dr. Anders Ericsson has found that those who achieve a high level of performance do this through reinforcement that is considered purposeful and deliberate practice and repetition. Essentially, it is through the reinforcement of tasks by doing and purposeful access to feedback and information.
We must be more concerned with how to design high-performing learning programs using reinforcement as the main component. Here are my keys to designing high-performing learning programs.
- Start with proper onboarding: Entry-level workers must be prepared to do the job with minimum risk of failure when working autonomously. Making mistakes on the job is not the best way to learn because it puts the learner at risk of losing confidence and puts our clients at risk due to our mistakes.
- Clear expectations of performance: Corporate training has been too much about telling a worker what they need to know, instead of teaching a worker how to do what they need to do. Training is about tasks – not just communicating information.
- Repetition: Having the learner practice behavior in a controlled environment prior to doing it autonomously on the job is a critical component to high-performance training. Repetition is going to vary depending on the complexity of the task.
- Immediate feedback: To get better at a job, the learner must have feedback that tells them how they are doing. The best feedback is immediate – as soon as the task is completed. The more immediate that is, the faster they will improve, and the fewer mistakes they will make over time.
- Coaching: Effective coaching is about providing directional advice on how to improve. Coaches should provide guidance on what to do differently and areas to focus on for continuous improvement.
- Embedded on-the-job reinforcement: Repetition is critical to improving tasks. Reinforcement is about critical on-demand information needed while on the job, oftentimes related to how to solve a problem. Reinforcement can be information that is pushed to the learner/worker to update on changes or prevent mistakes, or it can be pulled and accessed as needed. This type of information should be embedded in the day-to-day routines and easily accessible to a worker.
From where I sit, reinforcement is not just a popular topic and justification for why we should have learning libraries and on-demand content available. It is the foundation of high-performing learning programs and why we must rethink the economics of training for knowledge and skilled workers alike. We must find ways to embed learning content into the job and design training to repetitiously develop best practices.