Training Should be Hard — Here’s Why

Training is getting easier to provide, but that doesn't mean it is effective or that workers retain information for when they need it on the job.

Here’s a quick experiment: Think of what you ate for dinner last night. Not too difficult, right? Now think of what you ate for dinner exactly 15 days ago. Chances are you have a harder time coming up with it, if you can remember at all. Unfortunately, the same concept applies for a lot of on-the-job training, especially if it isn’t challenging enough. Employees know the material when they learn it but struggle to recall it when it comes time to use it on the job. The issue, researchers say, is that there are two primary components to how we learn and remember. There’s “storage strength” – how well we learned something. Then there is “retrieval strength” – how easy it is for us to access that information later. Robert Bjork, professor of cognitive psychology at UCLA, says the interplay of these two elements creates challenges in training for learning and development pros. So much of the focus of today’s workplace training is on delivery methods and ease of access. Increasingly, online modules and self-directed training are replacing sessions where the trainer and students have to be in the same room together. These advances make it easier for agencies and other employers to offer workers the training they need to improve. But they don’t guarantee training is effective or that workers retain information for when they need it on the job. In fact, make training too easy, and it can be detrimental to long-term retention. Just because someone can retrieve information during training or in a follow-up evaluation doesn’t mean they’ve learned the material enough to retrieve it when they need it on the job. Researchers point to two effective solutions based on practically opposite ends of the spectrum. Selecting the right approach depends on the kind of training you’re conducting. See also: Training Millennials: Just Add Toppings   Testing improves memory Training should include more tests — and those tests should be more difficult. Most employees won’t like this solution, but testing does more than determine how well the test-taker knows the information, Bjork argues. Every time information is successfully retrieved, the memory of the information changes, making it easier to recall in the future. Tests that challenge students’ understanding of the knowledge in different ways make those connections even stronger. Questions should be nuanced and presented in many different forms (think a mixture of fill-in-the-blank, short answer and longer responses). The more difficult the test, the more storage strength the material will have in students’ minds. There is one time when basic evaluations like multiple choice tests are still preferred – during pre-testing. A multiple choice test offered before training can help prime students for the material they’ll soon learn. In these situations, Bjork’s research has determined that even though learners will score poorly on the pre-tests, they’re more likely to pay attention to concepts offered as multiple choice answers during the actual training. For example, if the training topic is commercial property risk management, a multiple choice pre-test should cover common terms in business income insurance, equipment breakdown, builders risk and causes of loss forms, etc. The evaluation following the training session should use different formats to keep trainees on their toes. And the test should be hard -- every minute employees spend struggling to come up with an answer boosts storage strength. The case for the case method If you’re fortunate enough to have a group of trainees in a classroom with a subject matter expert leading the training, tougher testing may not be the most effective way to get the material to sink in. This research also makes a strong argument for teaching styles like the case method, according to the Harvard Business Review. It points to Harvard Business School (HBS) as a shining example of the case method in practice. These classes downplay testing, and professors are “choreographers of discussion” who don’t provide answers, but rather a pathway to discussion. Lectures become in-depth discussions where students debate the best course of action and are constantly forced to reassess their ideas. The school offers these tips for preparing and leading the discussions:
  • Have a complete set of objectives. Don’t confuse discussion for vagueness. Preparation should include specific information student must learn and some questions or discussion points that will get students there.
  • Let trainees take ownership. Students should guide the discussion and offer new perspectives based on what they feel will be most useful to them. Trainers should ask questions to keep the discussion relevant to the training topic at hand and focused on outcomes that will benefit the organization.
  • Listen. In traditional training models, instructors speak at least 80% of the time, and workers speak 20% of the time. The case method flips that, putting the onus on students to keep the discussion going.
Say you’re leading a session on handling auto claims. Rather than a traditional classroom session on analyzing liability, assessing damage or dispute resolution, create a fictional scenario based on an actual auto claim and let employees hash out how they would approach the situation with targeted guidance from the trainer. See also: Security Training Gets Much-Needed Reboot   This kind of in-depth preparation and delivery isn’t ideal for every on-the-job training session. It requires more preparation for instructors to lead a discussion of a real-life dilemma. But these discussions are great during onboarding and especially during scenarios involving complex concepts or customer service techniques. If you present the material the right way and make it challenging enough, trainees will understand the information better and be able to access it when they need it on the job.

Ann Myhr

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Ann Myhr

Ann Myhr is senior director of Knowledge Resources for the Institutes, which she joined in 2000. Her responsibilities include providing subject matter expertise on educational content for the Institutes’ products and services.


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