8 behavioral science tips to boost employee learning

read time - icon

2 min read

May 23, 2023

By Lisa Burden. The article was originally published in HR Dive on October 15, 2018: https://www.hrdive.com/news/8-behavioral-science-tips-to-boost-employee-learning/539140/

As employers come to grips with a constant need to upgrade skills, the science of learning is making its way into mainstream training for workers.

A red-hot talent market — combined with information that moves faster than ever before — means employees and employers are coming to grips with a constant need to upgrade skills and acquire new expertise, making on-the-job learning important for both workers and companies.

It is, perhaps, no surprise then that the science of learning is starting to make its way into mainstream training for workers.

Behavioral theories affecting learning

There are a number of fields impacting employee learning, according to Paul Hanges, a professor of industrial/organizational psychology in the University of Maryland’s psychology department.

Hanges said that in his field, for example, “we talk about a methodical approach to training. There’s a lot of technical pieces that organizations should go through in order to increase the chance that the training program will deliver on what the organization needs and [provide the] skills that the employees actually need to do the job.”

Psychology plays an extensive role in employee training and overall diversity management strategies, according to Kimberly Underwood, University of Phoenix research chair, center for Workplace Diversity and Inclusion Research. When new employees initially encounter organizational cultures, they enter with their individual identities, beliefs, values, biases and experiences gained from societal and cultural influences, she told HR Dive via email.

Effective organizational diversity socialization largely depends on the extent to which employees believe their identity is accepted within the organizational culture and how this identity is tied to the mission and values of the organization, Underwood added; this can lead to either a successful socialization process or dysfunctional behavior such as biased decisionmaking, incivility or an inability to assimilate within teams.

A culture of learning is a “must”

Why is it important to understand this? Because, experts say, a learning culture is a must. The primary predictor of business outcome, according to Julie Hiipakka, Bersin’s VP of Learning Research, is a learning culture.

And it may be more important than ever before, according to BetterUP’s chief information officer, Gabriella Kellerman. “In today’s economy, market forces are shifting so constantly, and technologies emerging so rapidly, that a learning culture is not just a nice-to-have, it’s a necessity for survival,” she told HR Dive. Constant technological and market changes mean that so-called hard skills expire just as soon as they are mastered, she said, which means that workers need to expect continuous learning and re-learning as a core part of their role. But that doesn’t mean soft skills — leadership, innovation, agility — are being neglected. An increasing number of employers are also turning to training in those areas to help support a workforce navigating the new reality of constant change, Kellerman said.

The result can be improved engagement and retention. Data shows that people will stay on the job longer because of training, said Kurt Kraiger, a professor of industrial organizational psychology at Colorado State University and the founder of jobzology.com. It’s a powerful retention tool, he said. And even if you are dealing with turnover, “it’s the people who are interested in learning that are the ones you want to keep, anyhow,” he said.

Real-world applications

Practices vary from employer to employer, but many are beginning to look at learning through this lens. It’s common to measure time spent on learning programs and learner satisfaction with those programs. The annual or biannual engagement survey is still standard practice as well. But it remains a challenge for employers to link specific programs to those key outcome metrics of productivity and retention. Overall there’s an enormous and growing gap between common practices and state of the art evidence-based approaches, Kellerman said.

There are sound training principles that well-run learning organizations keep coming back to, Kraiger said. For example, employers need a plan for what they want to train on. Find your performance gaps so that the training is designed around things that actually matter. It’s also crucial to listen to employees, he added. And then, if you can show that you listened and can say “this training program is going to give you something that you can immediately take back to your job,” you’ll be in a good position. The more relevant the training appears to adults, the more motivated they are to learn, he said.

Learning programs designed around the latest behavioral science findings focus on a number of key principles, the experts said:

  1. Create deep learning. Kellerman said it must be deeply integrated across multiple cognitive domains, so one doesn’t simply memorize facts but instead can productively use the training in context at work in multiple different arenas. Teaching for this outcome requires a hyperpersonalized, longitudinal approach that works with the learner in their immediate context, and in small batches over long periods of time. That’s how our brains learn best and deepest.
  2. Target learners who are ready. According to Kellerman, not all employees are ready to learn and to change. And when they are ready, the kind of change they can achieve will vary from person to person. Optimal learning programs select for learner readiness based on pre-learning assessments that help identify not just who is ready to learn, but what types of goals they are most motivated to work toward. Coaching can be an ideal way to help people identify their goals, and also to help them progress toward greater readiness.
  3. Give support. Feedback and accountability are some of the most important kinds of support learners need to successfully achieve their goals, Kellerman said. Coaches are great accountability partners because of the connection and trust in that relationship, which allows learners to feel safe making mistakes.
  4. Measure the learning. Learners themselves, as well as their broader organizations, need to be able to track progress effectively to know what’s working and what’s not, Kellerman said. Self-assessments are a simple way to start, and these assessments should be designed to measure lasting behavioral change rather than incremental knowledge retention. Team 360s provide a richer lens through which to evaluate growth. These assessments serve not only to demonstrate progress but also to re-anchor the learner on their next set of goals.
  5. Avoid multi-tasking. Hanges noted the importance of the amount of memory that can be devoted to a particular task. What we know, he said, is that, as attention span is split over multiple tasks, the amount of attention that can be devoted to a particular task such as learning decreases; and so, training is less effective, he said.
  6. Demonstrate relevance. Elementary and high school students are told what to do, and that doesn’t work for adults, Hanges said. Adults need to be active learners and it’s important that the relevance of the training materials be demonstrated, he added.
  7. Allow learners to teach. Adults have experiences that can enrich everyone, so you have to allow for discussion and for people to bring in their experiences from the workplace to enrich the material, Hanges said.
  8. Create time to apply the training. Workplaces need to allow employees to apply what they have learned, Hanges said. If employees return from training and a boss tells them to forget what they learned, or that the workload doesn’t permit time for experimentation, “then the training doesn’t really matter,” Kraiger said.