Sunday, February 28, 2010


Working in organizations is a continual learning process, and learning is at the heart of all training activities. Different learning approaches are possible, and learning is a complex psychological process that is not fully understood by practitioners or research psychologists.
Often, trainers or supervisors present information and assume that merely by presenting it they have ensured that it will be learned. But learning takes place only when information is received, understood, and internalized in such a way that some change or conscious effort has been made to use the information. Managers can use the research on learning to make their training efforts more effective. Some major learning principles that guide training efforts are presented next.

People learn at different rates and are able to apply what they learn differently. Ability to learn must be accompanied by motivation, or intention, to learn. Motivation to learn is determined by answers to questions like these: “How important is my job to me?” “How important is it that I learn that information?” “Will learning this help me in any way?” and “What’s in it for me?”
Additionally, people vary in their beliefs about their abilities to learn through training. These perceptions may have nothing to do with their actual ability to learn, but rather reflect the way they see themselves. People with low self-efficacy (low level of belief that they can accomplish something) benefit from one-on-one training. People with high self-efficacy seem to do better with conventional training. Because self-efficacy involves a motivational component, it affects a person’s intention to learn.

Whole Learning
It is usually better to give trainees an overall view of what they will be doing than to deal immediately with the specifics. This concept is referred to as whole learning or Gestalt learning. As applied to job training, this means that instructions should be divided into small elements after employees have had the opportunity to see how all the elements fit together.
Another concept is attentional advice, which refers to providing trainees information about the processes and strategies that can lead to training success. By focusing the trainees’ attention on what they will encounter during training and how it is linked to their jobs, trainers can improve trainees’ participation in the training process. For instance, if customer service representatives are being trained to handle varying types of difficult customer calls, the training should give an overview of the types of calls, the verbal cues indicating the different types of calls, and the desired outcomes for each type of call.

The concept of reinforcement is based on the law of effect, which states that people tend to repeat responses that give them some type of positive reward and avoid actions associated with negative consequences. The reinforcers that an individual receives can be either external or internal, and many training situations provide both kinds. A new salesclerk who answers a supervisor’s question correctly and is complimented for doing so may receive both an external reward (the compliment) and an internal reward (a feeling of pride). A person who is positively reinforced for learning is more likely to continue to learn.

Behavior Modification
A comprehensive approach to training has been developed based on the concept of reinforcement. This popular approach, behavior modification, uses the theories of psychologist B.F. Skinner, who stated that “learning is not doing; it is changing what we do.” Behavior modification makes use of four means of changing behavior, labeled intervention strategies. The four strategies are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. Each is reviewed next.
A person who receives a desired reward receives positive reinforcement. If an employee is on time every day during the week and, as a result, receives extra pay equivalent to one hour of normal work, the employee has received positive reinforcement of his or her good attendance by receiving a desired award. Negative reinforcement occurs when an individual works to avoid an undesirable consequence. An employee who arrives at work on time every day may do so to avoid a supervisor’s criticism. Thus, the potential for criticism leads to the employee’s taking the desired action.
Action taken to repel a person from undesirable action is punishment. A grocery manager may punish a stock clerk for leaving the stockroom dirty by forcing her to stay after work and clean it up.
Behavior can also be modified through a technique known as extinction, which is the absence of an expected response to a situation. The hope is that unreinforced behavior will not be repeated.
All four strategies can work to change behavior, and combinations may be called for in certain situations. But research suggests that for most training situations, positive reinforcement of the desired behavior is most effective.

Immediate Confirmation
Another learning concept is immediate confirmation: people learn best if reinforcement is given as soon as possible after training. Feedback on whether a learner’s response was right or wrong should be given as soon as possible after the response. To illustrate, suppose a corporate purchasing department has developed a new system for reporting inventory information. The purchasing manager who trains inventory processors may not have the trainees fill out the entire new inventory form when teaching them the new procedure. Instead the manager may explain the total process and then break it into smaller segments, having each trainee complete the form a section at a time. By checking each individual’s form for errors immediately after each section is complete, the purchasing manager can give immediate feedback, or confirmation, before the trainees fill out the next section. This immediate confirmation corrects errors that, if made throughout the whole form, might establish a pattern that would need to be unlearned.

Learning Practice and Patterns
Learning new skills requires practice and application of what is learned. Both research and experience show that when designing training, behavioral modeling, practice, and learning curves are all important considerations.

The most elementary way in which people learn—and one of the best—is behavior modeling, or copying someone else’s behavior. A variation of modeling occurs when people avoid making mistakes they see others make. The use of behavior modeling is particularly appropriate for skill training in which the trainees must use both knowledge and practice.

Active practice occurs when trainees perform job-related tasks and duties during training. It is more effective than simply reading or passively listening. Research has found that active practice was the factor most closely associated with improved performance following training. Once some basic instructions have been given, active practice should be built into every learning situation. It is one of the advantages of good on-the-job training. Assume a person is being trained as a customer service representative. After being given some basic selling instructions and product details, the trainee should be allowed to call a customer to use the knowledge received.

Active practice can be structured in two ways. The first, spaced practice, occurs when several practice sessions are spaced over a period of hours or days. The other, massed practice, occurs when a person does all of the practice at once. Spaced practice works better for some kinds of learning, whereas massed practice is better for others. For example, training cashiers to operate a new machine could be alternated with having the individuals do tasks they already know how to do. Thus, the training is distributed instead of being concentrated into one period.
For other kinds of tasks, such as memorizing tasks, massed practice is usually more effective. Can you imagine trying to memorize the list of model options for a dishwasher one model per day for 20 days as an appliance distribution salesperson?
By the time you learned the last option, you would have forgotten the first one.

People in different training situations learn in different patterns, called learning curves. The kind of learning curve typical of a given task has implications for the way the training program is designed. In some situations, the amount of learning and/or the skill level increases rapidly at first, then the rate of improvement slows. For example, when an employee first learns to operate a stamping machine, the rate of production increases rapidly at first and then slows as the normal rate is approached. Learning to perform most routine jobs follows such a curve.
Another common pattern occurs when a person tries to learn an unfamiliar, difficult task that also requires insight into the basics of the job. In this pattern, learning occurs slowly at first, then increases rapidly for a while, and then flattens out. Learning to debug computer systems is one example, especially if the learner has little previous contact with computers.

Transfer of Training
For effective transfer of training from the classroom to the job, two conditions must be met. First, the trainees must be able to take the material learned in training and apply it to the job context in which they work. Second, use of the learned material must be maintained over time on the job.
One way to aid transfer of training to job situations is to ensure that the training is as much like the jobs as possible. In the training situation, trainees should be able to experience the types of situations they can expect on the job. For example, training managers to be better interviewers should include role playing with “applicants” who respond in the same way that real applicants would.


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