Why Learning Requires Doing (and What That Means for Employee Training)

Most of us can recall a few instances where we were required to sit through a lecture that bored us to tears.

We can also think of times when our parents gave us good advice, only for us to disregard it and learn for ourselves the hard way.

And many of us remember clearly how learning in a traditional classroom, listening attentively at our desks, bore little resemblance to our first “real” job out of college, when we were expected to take action on our own.

And yet, when it comes to teaching our workforce about the importance of good behavior and eliminating harassment and discrimination, we often revert to those standard, lecture-style techniques.

You could argue that the stakes are even higher for workplace training than they were back in the classroom. If your employees “fail” the test of civility, people could get harassed and treated unfairly. Bad behavior can cause your organization to lose its competitive advantage, its good reputation, and potentially even millions of dollars in legal damages.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to engage employees in civility training to help important lessons stick for the long-term. The key is to keep the lessons as active as possible.

Free download: 5 Qualities of the Best Immersive Workplace Training

Active Learning vs. Passive Learning

There’s no settled definition for “active learning” versus “passive learning,” but active learning is generally understood to mean a style in which the participants are actively engaged — not just passively listening.

Tyler Koch, Senior Professional Human Resources, makes a good distinction between the two styles in his column in Forbes. He distinguishes “training” as following a formula of instruction, retention, repetition. “Learning, on the other hand, introduces the human element of behavior,” he writes. It encourages critical thinking over repetition. It is “driven by strategic and creative application across a variety of situations.”

Some academics continue to champion the value of the traditional lecture, and passive learning certainly still has a place in the learning environment

Active Learning vs. Passive Learning

But it’s generally becoming understood that active learning is the style that’s more likely to stick. As if we didn’t all feel the truth in this from our own experience (as we mentioned earlier), the studies back it up.

For example, one study cited in this Science Magazine article compared the teaching approaches directly. Undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering and math classes compared active participants vs. passive listeners. The study found that the students who were actively engaged had about a 6% improvement on exam grades (enough to bump their grade from a B- to a B).

This Pearson article sums up some of the other studies that have pointed to the effectiveness of actively engaged students. As author Jay Lynch notes, “the primary take away from research on active learning is that student learning success depends much less on what instructors do than what they ask their students to do.”

How to Leverage Active Learning in Employee Training

The quintessential “passive” workplace training would be sitting in a big conference room staring at a powerpoint presentation with no opportunity to interact with the material. Another passive-only tactic commonly used at work: Handing employees a manual that details appropriate behavior and making them sign it.

A small step toward more active learning might be an online course that quizzes participants after each video. (However, as ELI founder Stephen Paskoff wrote in his column Checking the Box at the Big Box Store, these interactions don’t amount to much when employees are rushing through them as quickly as possible, just trying to check them off a long to-do list).

More active forms of employee training could take the form of guided discussions among employees, or even an instructor polling students throughout the course of the class and having them interact with each other based on the results (like Harvard professor Eric Mazur does).

Don’t miss: 5 Qualities of the Best Immersive Workplace Training

However, we believe that the most effective way to leverage active learning is for employees to actually try the concepts out themselves. It’s a great way for instructors to tell whether employees are really absorbing the concepts. Practicing also serves as a powerful reinforcement of new concepts for learners.

Workplace trainers refer to this kind of live practice as “immersive training.” At ELI, we call it going into the “flight simulator.”

We believe that just as a pilot would never “practice” flying for the first time in a real plane, an employee shouldn’t have to try out civil, law abiding behavior in tricky situations for the first time live in the workplace.

Unlike flying a plane, uncivil workplace behavior doesn’t carry risks of physical death or injury. However, the stakes are still high for your company. Factors as seemingly subtle as body language or facial expressions during a reaction to a harassment complaint, for example, can pave the way for a future retaliation lawsuit. (Related post: A Simple Solution for Preventing Retaliation)

How to Leverage Active Learning in Employee Training

The Evolving Role of the Workplace Trainer

It used to be that instructors were indeed the only people with the expert level knowledge in a local area. But in today’s digital world, we all have the advice of many experts at our fingertips, from lectures on YouTube to scholarly articles on Google.

Today’s educators need to be more than experts. They need to be facilitators, cheerleaders, and communicators. They need to understand not just the information itself, but the very best way to impart that information so that it sticks for the long-term.

In order for a “flight simulator” to work in employee training, you’ll need an expert instructor who can tell the nuances of what constitutes appropriate behavior. They’ll also need to understand how to deliver feedback in a way that encourages employees to improve.Employee instructors must truly believe in the importance of the material they’re teaching in order for it to be effective. Click To Tweet

Perhaps most importantly, employee instructors must truly believe in the importance of the material they’re teaching in order for it to be effective. If employees sense for even a moment that the training is just a “necessary evil” or a standard exercise in legal compliance, they’ll tune out immediately. Employees all have a lot of other tasks on their plates and on their minds. They’ll be happy to rush through or disregard anything that isn’t deemed essential to their job performance.

Making it clear that civil behavior is a top priority is one of the responsibilities of leaders at the top of the organization. But instructors also play a pivotal role in conveying the urgency of the message.

If you’re looking for instructors who have deep legal expertise, genuine passion for civility in the workplace, and the skills required to make it all work together, we hope you consider partnering with us at ELI. Our award-winning training programs are designed for long-term cultural change.

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