Saving the Classroom

By Dr. Conrad Gottfredson

In this vital work we call training, we design, build, deliver, manage, and maintain courseware. We make it available 24/7 via eLearning, mobile learning, virtual, and traditional classroom instruction. We chase every opportunity we can find to enhance this courseware with ever emerging capabilities like Gamification, collaboration, and communities of practice. We blend it, personalize it, and attempt to measure it.

Sadly, in most cases, these remarkable courses we build and implement end up yielding limited business impact. The learners we train too often falter and even fail to perform effectively on- the -job. Most of our failure is masked by highly motivated people who eventually figure it all out. And, luckily, we don’t really see it because of the significant distance between our learning events and the time and places where our learners actually attempt to apply it.

None of this is intentional or derelict. There are good reasons why these consequences have happened historically.  But there is no good reason why it is continuing to happen. New methodology-enabled by emerging technologies can and is breathing life into organizational learning and its impact on the business. Technology is transforming learning professionals into strategic partners with the business. It’s virtually eliminating the fundamental threats that have kept training from reaching its full potential in organizations. Here’s how that’s happening.

Threat #1:  Too much to train and not enough time

There was a time when there was enough time to learn what needs to be learned.  In our world of rapid change, we no longer have the luxury of enough time to learn. While the scope of what people need to learn to keep current in their jobs has increased, the time allocated to learn it has decreased. This presents a particular challenge especially with live classroom instruction. There is too much content and not enough classroom time, a situation which often pushes trainers to skip content or rush the learner in an attempt to cover it all.

See if this real-world example sounds familiar. A Learning and Development (L&D) group recently celebrated the reduction of a 5-day course to 3 days with what appeared to them to be no loss in learning outcomes. But here’s what really happened. Analysis of the course revealed that the instructional integrity of the course didn’t change—hence no loss in learning since there were few if any outcomes planned in the first place. In both the 5-day and 3-day versions of the course, learners were exposed to 1.8 slides per minute. These slides were content intensive, requiring instructors to devote 80% of the instructional time just presenting the content. Here’s what the allocation of instructional time looked like:

with the content to facilitate learning
how to Performing the Actual Skills
the Skills with Direct Feedback
Reviewing/ Reinforcing
what was Learned

This is anything but an effective allocation of instructional time. In the contribution hierarchy of skill development, presenting is at the bottom of the list. Yet, as can be seen in this example, presenting is displacing the other vital contributors. 

Here’s how technology can help bring greater instructional balance to the allocation of learning time. Gloria Gery, in 1991, introduced a new learning modality designed for the workflow called an Electronic Performance Support System (EPPS). She defined the EPSS as a technology-enabled tool that “provides on-demand access to integrated information, guidance, advice, assistance, training, and tools to enable high-level job performance with a minimum of support from other people.”
We are now seeing an emergence of EPSS technologies and associated methodologies that are proving astonishingly effective in lifting the content presentation burden from trainers. This frees up instructional time for more effective learning experiences within the classroom. In this “flipped” classroom, instructors bring the EPSS into the classroom and use it as the primary means for learners to access the information they need in support of practice activities with highly interactive discussions around those activities.

In the “flipped” approach, participants learn primarily by “doing and discussing” rather than mostly “listening.” The table below shows the times and percentages of the 2-day EPSS course compared with the previous 5- and 3-day versions of the course. 

5 Day Course
3 Day Course
2-day EPSS-supported Course
1000 + slides
600 slides
75 slides
33 slides per hour (1.8 per minute)
9.6 minutes per slide
Present Content
Practice with Feedback
Notice how much more time is spent reviewing and discussing the content on each slide.

Here is more good news. Although some skills merit the investment of formal learning, others don’t. These skills can be safely learned in the workflow with “2-click—ten second” access to the required information in the EPSS.

Because the EPSS can travel with learners directly into the workflow, not all content requires attention during the formal learning experience. Prioritizing classroom content to just the essentials allows significant reduction of the “time away from work to learn.”  Hence, in the example shown above, the 3-day course was reduced to 2 days by completely flipping the learning methodology within the classroom.

Threat #2:  Too Disconnected from the Actual Workflow.
Transforming the classroom into a learning experience dominated by practice does not guarantee effective learning. Practice delivers value to the degree it realistically addresses what people need to know and do in their workflow. Herein lies a second great threat to training effectiveness. Practice in the classroom too often lacks workflow fidelity, where what we train people to do is what they actually do in their work.  This is due, in part, to a flaw in traditional ISD methodology. In an effort to write learning objectives that can be measured during training, those objectives, for the most part, fail to describe what performers really need to do in their work. Take a look at the following list of verbs often used in writing learning objectives:

These verbs are far removed from describing what learners need to actually do in the workflow.

Consider the thousand-slide course referenced earlier in this article. In the effort to reduce the course to three days, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) offered up 221 learning objectives. Only 40 of the 221 (18%) learning objectives targeted actual job tasks. And, those 40 objectives directly related to only 14 of the 59 (24%) actual tasks that learners needed to be able to perform in the workplace. The learning objectives approach failed to identify Fifteen other tasks, that would result in critical to catastrophic impact if ignored.

The SMEs also identified 181 objective statements that only addressed 27 (15%) of the 69 actual concepts that learners needed to understand in order to make correct decisions. These 181 objective statements focused on differentiating, identifying, distinguishing, listing, describing, summarizing, understanding, and explaining. These are cognitive objectives, not behavioral objectives. They may be measurable, but they are most certainly disconnected from much of what learners need to know to perform effectively in the workflow.

There’s much more to this disconnection than Bloom’s Taxonomy, however. The distance from the classroom (virtual or not) to effective on-the-job performance is vast. In formal training, we pull people away from their work and to the best of our ability create an environment that mimics the real world. Then we attempt to train them. But at the moment when the training/learning experience ends, whatever they have learned enters the “forgetting death spiral” which is the third threat.

Threat #3:  Too much forgetting, too fast

Learners vary in how much they learn while participating in any formal learning course. Whatever they learn, though, rapidly evaporates following the learning event. The rate of evaporation depends upon whether the instruction was superficial or methodologically sound and upon the complexity of the knowledge and skills.10 In short, forgetting happens and most of the time it happens quickly. The following graphic shows how, at the end of training, memory immediately begins to deteriorate and within a few hours, much of what was “learned” is gone.
Our learning solutions need to counter this reality and intentionally assist learners as they transition from learning to performance on the job. Leaving the situation to chance is both risky and costly.

A task-based EPSS can interrupt the forgetting curve and bridge the gap between the training event and the workflow, shortening the time from the start of a course to successful on the job performance.

While formal training is an important part of any learning and performance support strategy, if that is all you provide, then it is more difficult for performers to transfer what they have learned to their jobs. It is not enough to only provide formal training for performers. Formal training does not take place in the context in which performers will use the skills they are learning. Without on-the-job performance support, it will take performers longer to transfer what they have learned to their jobs and they may not remember all of the pieces of specific tasks they need to perform.

At each stage, performers need different types and levels of support. Understanding the different stages of the complete learning journey is critical to designing a learning and performance support strategy that not only meets the needs of all performers but also addresses strategic needs of the organization. Intentionally addressing all three stages of Train, Transfer, and Sustain frees performers from the burden of remembering and remaining current. It reduces time they take to step away from their work to learn, solve problems, and assist others. In its place performers can focus their efforts on the actual work of the organization—continuous improvement and collaborative innovation.
The following table shows what a complete learning and performance solution needs to include:

This stage needs an orchestrated learning experience that specifically targets job-critical knowledge and skills.
This stage needs a “familiar” performance-support solution that provides immediate (e.g., 2-click, 10 second) access to the tasks and related concepts identified in the Job Task Analysis.
This stage needs immediate access to integrated performance support solutions that provide immediate access to cascading levels of support (see the PS Pyramid below.) These integrated solutions need to provide targeted access to updated knowledge and skill requirements at the moment of Apply.
Core components include:
o   A real-time virtual, in-person, and/or self-instructional course.
o   The appropriate learning support components (e.g., participant guide, slides, activities.)
o   The performance-support solution that learners will rely upon as they enter the other two stages.
Core component:
o   The performance-support solution that learners learned to use in the “Train” stage.

Core components include:
o   Job-tailored, integrated performance-support solutions with full-pyramid support. (See below.)

Threat #4: Unrelenting change 
Skills, when performed over and over, tend to become automated—deeply rooted in people’s skills sets and performed without conscious thought.  Once skills have become ingrained into the work practices of people and organizations in this way, replacing out-of-date practices with new ways of performing and thinking becomes one of the most significant learning challenges an organization can face.

Currently, most organizations are doing all they can to overcome unrelenting change. But what’s missing is technology-enabled Performance Support. Only with an EPSS can we hope to keep constantly changing information current and accessible to our performers.

In The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s character is asked how he went bankrupt. He replies: “First gradually, and then suddenly.” 

This will be the case for much of what we call formal learning today unless we push our efforts more deeply into the organizational workflow and provide people with the technological tools and preparation they need to successfully perform at the Moments of Apply, Change, and Solve. This strategy must be at the heart of all we do and should always have been the case. The people we are charged to train and support deserve “immediate, intuitive, tailored aid” that is intentionally orchestrated by technology to “ensure the most effective personal and collective performance.”

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