For years trainers have struggled with what is commonly referred to as “the transfer problem.” We’ve all seen it: a topic that is carefully instructed in the classroom leads to little or no behavior change. So, what does it take to mend the bridge connecting the training room to the real world?
To answer this, let’s look at an example from World War II—when my neighbor trained to parachute from a C-47. Despite the fact that he would be plummeting only once, he told me that the instructor had his undivided attention. Later when he packed his parachute, he meticulously followed every instruction. When he finally made the leap, he followed his training instructions to the T.
I use this example because it clearly demonstrates two critical factors in any transfer of learning. First, my neighbor’s life depended on his ability to implement what he had learned, so he did his best to do exactly as instructed. He was motivated. Second, he knew exactly when and where he’d bring his new skills into play. It’s not hard to recognize that you’re staring out of a hole in the plane and it’s now time to put your parachuting skills into play.
A great deal has been said about how to build motivation into training, so let’s examine what is often the bigger and more stubborn issue—not knowing when and where to bring training skills into play.
Contrast parachuting instructions with corporate learning. Much of the content participants learn in corporate classrooms prepares them to deal with events that spring up spontaneously, emotionally, and unannounced. Training topics such as conflict resolution or meeting management require participants to apply what they learned on the fly. When it’s time to implement their new skills, trainees don’t walk up to an open C-47 hatch and stare out onto France. Instead, the call to action sneaks up on them (often in the form of an emotional outburst) and they’re caught by surprise.
Consider Melinda, a design engineer who has just finished a conflict resolution course. Later that week she’s talking with a coworker who suddenly becomes hostile. The good news is that Melinda studied exactly how to deal with this situation. The bad news is that she falls back into her old habits. When you ask her why she failed to implement what she had learned, she cries: “I didn’t even think about what I had learned. I was caught off guard!”
What happened to Melinda? An old stimulus led to an old response. To break long-held habits, we have to find ways to connect old stimuli to new responses. For example, imagine that you’re training women how to avoid an assault, what can you do to break old and unsafe habits? In traditional self-defense seminars, trainers warn women to never put themselves into a situation where they’re alone with a strange man. This advice seems to be just what the doctor ordered. Participants are warned well in advance of exactly what to look for so they won’t be caught by surprise. But is this enough?
To see if these traditional warnings work, a group of researchers approached women who were walking to their car immediately following self-defense training. To manipulate the trainees, the researchers walked up to the subjects and asked them to help “videotape an advertisement” on the dangers of smoking. Wanting to help out, each of the women climbed into the “media van” with a strange man.
The researchers then chastise the subjects for stupidly getting caught alone with a stranger, and as you might suspect, each admits that she knew better. The person conducting the experiment then turns to the camera (it’s all being taped for a TV special) and begs women not to be so naïve.
As you watch this frightening scenario you think: What’s wrong with these people? On the other hand, as you muse over the fact that not a single person avoided the trap, you’re forced to ask, what’s wrong with the training? Harsh warnings followed by indignant finger wagging certainly didn’t work.
So, what does it take to prepare participants who face unexpected and emotional cues? How do you link old stimuli to new responses?
Place Visual Markers
Scientists who design stress-training learned a long time ago that the very things that cause stress don’t remind people to use the stress techniques they learn. To deal with this “hidden stimulus” problem, trainers now encourage participants to place a small red sticker at locations where they are likely to feel stress. For instance, people who become uptight in traffic jams place them on the steering wheel. Others learn to put stickers on the phone where they often get into heated arguments. If you know where the skills you’re training will be required, place visual markers that warn: Be careful, you may soon need to call on your newly learned skill.
Identify the Entry Condition
When teaching human interaction skills, you can’t exactly place a red sticker on, say, your boss’s forehead. Instead, focus on the condition that calls each new skill into action. Never separate the skill from the call to action. When you’re showing video examples, first show the stimulus or entry condition, and then show the response.
Don’t assume that a statement such as “Never be alone with a stranger” is readily understood. Explore each element in detail. For instance, what do you mean by the term “alone”? You’re walking down a busy street in a strange city at night. You turn a corner and suddenly you’re all by yourself. Someone could spring out from behind a dumpster and now you’re “alone with a stranger.” The hair should stand up on your neck when you experience being alone in a new and dark place. That’s the “alone” you’re talking about and the “alone” others need to fear. It may sound silly to suggest that you have to instruct what you mean by common terms, but you do.
Finally, explain what you don’t mean. For instance, with children you have to teach that the “stranger” they should never be alone with is not likely to be a big, scary, ugly person holding a gun. The stranger could be a kind neighbor who is going to ask you to help find his lost doggy. Obviously the same technique applies to adults. A stranger is not just a frightening fellow with bolts screwed into his head; it’s the friendly guy asking you to step into the “media van.”
In summary, be aware of the fact that you’re often training people to enact skills that don’t make it out of the classroom because the cue to use them isn’t obvious. The call to action comes out of nowhere. So, with each new skill, focus on the entry condition. Where possible, build in visual cues. When teaching interactive skills, couple the stimulus with the skill. Finally, describe each element and detail and use contrasting to clear up any confusion.