Solving the ‘transfer of learning’ problem in employee training

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Do you remember sitting in a class at school and thinking “what’s the point of learning this?”. It’s incredibly demotivating. And while it may not have felt like it at the time, there were likely several “points” to it. But therein lies the problem. If a learner can’t see the point of learning something, not only will they struggle to learn it, they’ll struggle to transfer that learning into the real world. It’s the same problem your employees are facing. It’s why workplace training is evolving in the form of the Capability Academy.  

Performance problems 

How much of what your employees learn during their training are they actually applying in their everyday work? Anything they learn becomes redundant if they do not apply it to boost their performance. This goes against the goal of the Capability Academy, which is at the forefront of employee training. Here learning is all about boosting performance through capability.  

How well your training works, therefore, means the difference between developing informed employee (those that can regale the content but do not alter their behaviour) versus capable employees (those that become more effective by how they behave). And as we’ve discussed in this blog series, the future of success for many organisations will be all about capability. 

So, let’s take a closer look at transfer of learning and how you can enhance it in your employee training.  

What is transfer of learning?  

This isn’t just an L&D catchphrase. It’s a highly researched aspect of both adult and child learning. Transfer of learning happens when what you learn in one context affects your performance in another context. While this is usually interpreted as positive i.e. the more you learn, the better you perform, transfer of learning can also be negative.  

For example, a child learns that fish have fins and swim in the water. They see a new animal with fins swimming in the water and therefore assume it’s a fish, when in fact it’s a dolphin. That is negative transfer of learning.  

The good, the bad and the far  

Transfer of learning can be good or bad. But it can also be defined by ‘distance’. Near transfer occurs when learning is applied to a closely related context. Conversely, far transfer occurs when learning is applied to a very different context. Both types of transfer of learning are challenging but far transfer, unsurprisingly, is particularly difficult to execute.  

How does transfer of learning happen? 

Transfer of learning takes place via two different mechanisms: reflexive transfer or mindful transfer. 

On-the-job training usually uses reflexive transfer but this can also be employed as part of digital training. Reflexive transfer occurs when an employee practices a process in a trial or supervised environment until it becomes second nature. When out in the field, in conditions similar to their learning environment, their reflexes are triggered. The learning is duly transferred as they apply what they learnt in their real-world situation.  

Mindful transfer requires employees to search for the connections between their training and their real-world experiences. It involves reflection and deliberate extrapolation to connect the dots.  

Rapidly evolving markets, stretched human resources and remote teams all make reflexive transfer harder to execute. That leaves mindful transfer. The easier you make it to connect those dots, the more successful mindful transfer becomes. This is where context-dependency comes into play. 

Overcoming the challenge of context-dependency 

It’s well-established that transfer of learning often fails due to inadequate context-dependency. A seminal paper by British psychologists Godden and Baddeley elegantly demonstrated this back in 1975.  

A group of divers memorised a list of words when they were on land or when they were underwater. They were then asked to recall these words, either while on land or when they were underwater. Their recollection was significantly better when they were in the same environment in which they memorised the words originally.  

This is why employee training in front of a computer or in a classroom makes transfer of learning so difficult. So does that mean digital learning is doomed to fail for your employees? The short answer is no. But what does it mean then?  

The real-world meets digital  

When it comes to digital training, context-dependency dictates that you need to work harder. You need to put more emphasis on creating context and specificity in your training programme. You need to ensure your content is relevant, relatable and easily extrapolated to the workplace. Ultimately, you need to better integrate your digital programme with real-world experiences. Here are 3 examples of how you can do this. 

Integrating your digital training 

Example 1On completion of a digital training module, prompt your learner to apply this newfound knowledge in the real world. Set a realistic timescale for this and follow up on it. Ask them to recount and reflect on how they applied this knowledge and the outcomes. Make sure this is documented as part of their learning journey.  

How On.Board can help:

On.Board makes it simple to customise your digital training programme, with helpful features including:  


Example 2Empower your employees to direct their training by asking for their input. For example, if training your employees in customer service, ask them to submit real-world examples of difficult customer queries in a group online forum. Through a facilitator (e.g. a manager or coach) stimulate discussion by asking learners to share how they would respond or have responded in a similar situation. This can be through text, audio or video. 

How On.Board can help 

On.Board’s social feature brings together learners taking part in the same task. This allows them to engage in structured, on-task discussion, including:  


Example 3Reinforce context through structured conversation between learners and their managers or coaches. By reviewing learner progress and collaboratively developing action plans, managers can help learners connect the dots between learning and application. These reviews and action plans should be digitally evidenced. This means they can be shared, accessed and updated to facilitate accountability. 

How On.Board can help 

On.Board’s Performance Hub connects learners to their support network e.g. managers and coaches. This ensures both parties can:  


Rise to the challenge 

The concept of transfer of learning was around long before digital. But in this digital world, it is now more relevant than ever before. Digital training has transformed employee training, making it more flexible and accessible. But it comes with the challenge of context-dependency. The Capability Academy approach tackles this head-on.   

Rising to this challenge means embracing blended learning, integrating the flexibility of digital with the relevance of real-world interactions. But this doesn’t mean you won’t still face employee apathy towards digital training.  

In the final blog in our series, we’ll tackle the 7 reasons why employees don’t like digital training and how you can resolve them.  


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