By Harold D. Stolovitch, PhD, CPT, and Erica J. Keeps, CPT &

In this series of articles, we will address whole learning systems, some of are rarely used although they have demonstrated effectiveness. We're not certain why some beneficial systems aren't used more frequently, but our experience tells us that many people in the learning and performance world either don't know about them, don't know how to develop and implement them, or simply are fearful of rocking the boat.

Over the next five editions of the HSA e-Xpress, we will address five (of many) learning systems that have stood the test of time and have demonstrated effectiveness: natural experience, experiential learning, structured on-the-job training (SOJT), learner controlled instruction (LCI) and individual developmental plans. For each of these learning systems models, we have created an information chart that can familiarize you with them and help you try them out. In this edition, we present natural experience.

Natural Experience

What is it?

  • As its name suggests, this "system" is as close to the way we naturally learn as possible. The twist is that the placement and general set of natural experiences the learner will acquire are, to a large extent, planned.
  • The individual learner or group of learners is placed in the natural environment. Learners become part of the work or usual participant group (for example, railway office staff who process purchase requisitions from the operations workers are given hardhats, steel-tipped boots and appropriate clothing and are placed in the "yard" or on the line to work with the regular work shifts; police are placed in shelters for the homeless for two weeks as shelter employees).
  • Learning takes place in the real environment.
  • The learner learns through real-life, trial-and-error events and is treated as much as possible like the real worker, inmate, victim, counterperson or whatever role she or he is assigned - no privileges.
  • To the extent possible, learners share the same conditions as the "real people" for the duration of the natural experience.

With whom can it be used?

  • It is best used with people who will have to deal with those whose jobs, conditions or backgrounds are considerably different from their own. Generally this includes managers or professionals whose work requires them to understand with whom they'll be working or whom they'll be serving or managing.
  • It is also effective for preparing personnel who will be expected to function well in new contexts or cultures.
  • This can be effective as a prior step to full hiring and/or training. By spending several days or a week working in the district compound of a natural gas company, a few days in a call center or a month in a shelter for battered victims, the learners acquire mental models of the job, conditions and context. They decide whether the job fits them. It also provides an experiential base that makes subsequent training more meaningful.
  • Natural experience is appropriate in crosstraining situations: sales personnel spend time working in the distribution center and distribution personnel spend time working with the sales group, experiencing customer interface and competitive pressures.
  • Natural experience is also appropriate for management personnel who have not spent time "in the ranks" doing the front-line jobs.

For what type of content can it be used?

  • It is best used to acquire "life" experiences, as opposed to technical or specialized content knowledge.
  • Natural experience, as a learning intervention strategy, is best applied for acquiring knowledge of and ability to perform within unfamiliar contexts; under conditions dramatically different from those with which the learner is familiar; and frequently with people whose backgrounds, habits and culture are very different from the known.
  • This is a learning system that offers emotional dimensions. It is particularly effective where attitudes require re-examination and realignment with respect to a group of persons or a work/social/cultural/linguistic/geographic context.
  • The focus should be on social/cultural learning more than technical knowledge and skills acquisition although these may be acquired through natural experience (for example, learning how to adjust locomotive airbrakes while working in the railway yard; serving customers in a restaurant while learning what it is to be "in the hospitality business").
  • Learners can become familiar with the language and rudiments of a job if the natural experience is an initial exposure to a position.

What are the components?

  • Because natural experience is natural, there are few "components" required. The main component is the natural setting.
  • Appropriate clothing, tools and materials for the setting are needed.
  • Adequate time is needed to enable the learner to become used to the setting and able to function at a survival level within it, and to begin performing in some useful way.
  • A daily journal to record events, learning and reflections can be helpful.

How does it work?

  • The learner is assessed to ensure that he or she possesses sufficient capability (physical, mental, emotional) to benefit from the natural experience.
  • The learner is provided with a set of general objectives - a purpose - for participating in the experience. This includes some form of anticipated outcomes, such as a general mental model of the environment and people operating within it, an appreciation of the realities of the environment and people, a basic set of coping skills, a set of new concepts and vocabulary terms, and possibly an enthusiasm for making a positive contribution to improve the context or for functioning positively within it.
  • The environment for the natural experience is prepared to receive the learner. Co-workers and supervisors should know the primary reason why the learner is being placed in their environment
  • If necessary, the learner is briefed prior to the experience.
  • The learner enters the environment and tries to function within it.
  • During the experience, the learner not only acts to survive and contribute in a "natural manner," but also reflects on her or his experience there.
  • At the end of the specified time period, the learner leaves the natural experience environment to return to his or her usual position, or, is given with additional training before returning to the natural experience setting for ongoing seasoning.

What are the advantages?

  • Natural experience is the real thing and, as such, gives learners an opportunity to deal with the world as it is.
  • A dose of reality has a dramatic impact on learners. It can markedly alter attitudes and perceptions.
  • This type of experience can create a clear portrait of a job or work situation for learners and thus increase the meaningfulness and effect or subsequent training.
  • Natural experience requires the learner to act naturally. This permits the learner to assess whether this is the right job for her or him. It also permits the organization (of an educational institution) to determine whether a person possesses the right stuff for the work.
  • The cost of designing natural experience is generally very low.

What are the disadvantages?

  • It is a time-consuming means for learning. Given that a learner has to have sufficient time to orient himself or herself to new surroundings and people, adapt to these and then try to act in a useful manner, adequate time must be allocated for the experience to be worthwhile.
  • If the natural experience is very different from the world that the learner knows, she or he can be traumatized by the experience, with consequent negative results.
  • Both learner and receiving environment require some preparation, and this may decrease the naturalness of the experience.
  • If not exploited soon afterward, the value of the natural experience fades.
  • Natural means that there is a lack of predictability in outcomes. Negative learning may result (for example, unsafe ways of doing things, ways to get around the system, inefficient behaviors or unproductive attitudes).

What resources are required?

  • Personnel:
    • a performance consultant, managers and specialists to determine what the natural experience should be, its objectives, length of time and how the experience and learner should be assessed
    • an administrative person to set up the mechanics of the experience
    • a training professional to monitor and track progress
    • a host to welcome and orient the learners.
  • Time:
    • time to design and develop the objectives, process and procedures for the natural experience
    • time to prepare all parties involved
    • administrative and trainer time to prepare, run and monitor the experience and the learners
    • learner time
    • debriefing time.
  • Costs:
    • minimal costs because this is a natural experience
    • personnel and, in some cases, lost opportunity costs.

What are some examples?

  • Internships
  • Field placements
  • Practica
  • Assignment to a team or task force
  • Temporary job placement
  • Duty rotation
  • Field placement prior to new-hire training.

Be sure to catch the next learning systems model - Experiential Learning - in the October 2010 edition of the HSA e-Xpress.

This article is an excerpt from Harold Stolovitch and Erica Keeps' bestseller, Beyond Training Ain't Performance Fieldbook. Interested in learning more? Click here to order a copy of the book.


Talent Management is a monthly magazine directed to top-level management, senior human resources and workforce and organizational development executives whose task is to optimize the abilities of their human assets to drive and improve the execution of enterprise strategy.

Harold Stolovitch is the "Human Performance" columnist for Talent Management magazine. You can read his latest article, "How Well Do You Perform? Prove It" by visiting page 10 of the July 2010 digtial edition at For more information on Talent Management, visit their Website at If there are any topics that you would like Harold to address in his column, please email him at

Dr. Harold Stolovitch, Emeritus professor, Human Performance at Work and Principal of HSA Learning & Performance Solutions, has successfully developed workplace learning and performance professionals for over 40 years. He is an experienced keynote speaker, workshop leader, author and consultant who has worked with hundreds of major corporations and professional organizations throughout the world.

Harold is available for presentations, keynote addresses, consulting and workshops at corporations and professional organizations. Click here for more information.


Our Guest Author Series features articles by various professional colleagues. The latest in our series is by Linda Waddell., President of TecKnowledg-e Learning, Inc. ( and Danielle Turner, Principal of Velvet Pumpkin Productions ( Linda specializes in analysis, design and development of online workplace training programs. Danielle specializes in producing various types of videos for professionals and businesses. You can contact Linda at and Danielle at

Eight Tips for Multimedia Effectiveness in Performance-based Online Learning
By Linda Waddell and Danielle Turner

Remember the thrill of getting that giant box of crayons as a small child? You know that special box of crayons - the box with a very large palette of colours and hues. Not the box of ten shiny, perfect crayons that fit in the box with the wrappers still intact, but instead, the giant box of well-loved crayons with torn wrappers that never seemed to fit back in the box. That humungous box of crayons provided hours of amusement - even playing peacemaker in sibling crayon wars. Best of all, that box of crayons provided the basis for a lot of learning through color experimentation.

Just as with that box of giant crayons, online learning offers a palette of design opportunities to enhance on-the-job performance through the use of effective multimedia elements that stimulate the senses, emotions and promote learning. To help remain competitive in today's world, online learning has become an effective way for many organizations to provide rapid, cost-effective workplace training. Frequently, however, we observe the misuse of multimedia elements. Given the prevalence of online learning as a viable and important method of delivering workplace training, it is important to ensure that multimedia elements do not simply entertain learners, but add to a deeper understanding of required workplace performance.

The following eight tips present recommendations for using multimedia, online learning programs to increase workplace performance:

  1. Ensure multimedia elements provide value. To be considered for inclusion, a multimedia element should promote knowledge construction and a deeper understanding of job concepts and job processes.
  2. Ensure you create context for visualizations. A picture really is worth a thousand words. Animated/annotated diagrams and pictures provide excellent means for learners and build a mental image of hard-to-understand, abstract workplace concepts and processes. Diagrams and pictures deliver to learners a glimpse into the internal workings of things otherwise not perceived by the naked eye. However, as a caution, ensure you incorporate the context for these pictures and diagrams so that workers understand the performance connections.
  3. More is not necessarily better. You do not have to employ all 64 crayons to make the point.
    1. Do not clutter the screen. Focus on the object of discussion clearly and concisely. Consistent navigation with clear instructions about where to click to see more allows the learner flexibility and control. Linear presentation-style slideshows are sometimes a form of instructional rigidity. While they may assist in image-building, they lack flexibility to delve deeply or explore the content - enhancements that stimulate retention and performance.
    2. More multimedia elements do not increase learning. Multimedia elements (also known as "seductive elements") such as music, animation or pop-ups in a course do not necessarily improve workplace performance, unless those elements add value in specific ways. See point number 1.
  4. Video can be a powerful learning tool if used properly. Video has the capability of affecting several senses simultaneously. It can even motivate learning through emotional channels.
    1. Write a script and/or lesson plan for the video portion and ensure the video content connects with the learning objectives.
    2. Know your learning audience well. The content of the video has to intrigue the learner sufficiently to pay close attention to what is being presented. Dialogue, images and humor must match learner demographics.
    3. Sound quality of your video must be excellent. The picture can take a hit of bad lighting and your learner may still watch, but tainted sound guarantees an abandoned video.
  5. Be careful with the use of "talking heads." All too often, we hear people question the value of a talking head. My friend, Harold Stolovitch, always emphasizes that "Telling Ain't Training." He's right. A talking head ain't training, either. If you plan to use a talking head, be sure to engage the learner. The learner should understand the purpose of the talking head. Don't just insert it into your learning material without careful consideration of the desired impact.
    1. Limit the duration of the message. No one wants to sit motionless in a classroom with non-stop talking for long periods. Learners in an online environment have the freedom to ignore the message, so keep it short and to the point. If the necessary content is long, consider breaking it into a series of shorter videos.
    2. A talking head can add workplace relevance and can add value if it presents an important element of applicability for actual workplace performance by providing context or validating the importance of the concept. You can increase impact by including text or questions on the screen that lead the talking head into the next topic or by adding other engaging visuals to the video.
    3. Use caution when considering an animated cartoon character. If you are considering making the talking head an animated cartoon character, analyze your target audience and the subject matter. The younger, multi-tasking, computer-proficient, gaming generation of today may accept a cartoon character, but other audiences may not. In addition, the serious nature of a subject may dictate that a cartoon character is an inappropriate choice and may lessen credibility for the lesson.
    4. Add relevance by showing workplace performance. Seeing is believing. Demonstration videos can be very effective. Consider including video or photo content with a speaker demonstrating actual workplace situations while the speaker continues with the message.
  6. Be careful with the use of sound. As mentioned earlier, sound quality has no room for error. Make sure the quality is perfect. You can't have any exceptions with this rule. Overuse of sound dulls its effectiveness. Poor choices of sounds can mislead learners.
  7. Incorporate practice, practice, practice. If practice is done with a performance-based focus, simple or complex simulations and scenarios provide an engaging way to see how certain concepts can be applied in different workplace situations.
  8. Plan your use of multimedia elements. The most important component in producing an effective online learning experience continues to be the quality of instructional design and content - the actual media is a vehicle.

Just like the giant box of crayons, visual and auditory multimedia elements can enhance the online learning experience, as long as these elements add value by increasing learning and overall performance.

Over the last few years, we have been including articles from respected members of our field in the HSA e-Xpress's Guest Author Series. These have been very well received by our subscribers. We are looking for articles and/or book excerpts that would be of interest to our readers. If you have an article and/or book excerpt that you would like us to include in our Guest Author Series, please contact Erica Keeps at Along with your article, we will include your bio, company name and contact information including a link to your Website. You are welcome to submit a previously published article and we will be sure to include a reprinted with permission statement. Articles should be about 750 - 1,000 words.

Here's where Harold Stolovitch will be presenting in the near future:

  • ASTD Telling Ain't Training and More... Conference - September 28 & 29, 2010 in Denver, CO
  • ASTD Telling Ain't Training and More... Conference - October 12 & 13, 2010 in Arlington, VA
  • ASTD Telling Ain't Training and More... Conference - October 14 & 15, 2010 in Atlanta, GA

Click here to view HSA's Events Calendar to learn where and when Harold will be speaking as well as to read session descriptions.

Do you have any burning Human Performance Technology questions? Visit the Ask Harold section of HSA's Website and ask your questions for Harold Stolovitch to answer. Here is a recent submission that might intrigue you:

I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction in finding a case study (or studies) that compare the learning results of Instructor-led Training (ILT) versus Web-based Training (WBT)? I am currently working on my Masters thesis in which I am comparing the two, and I am trying to find some numbers that back up my theory that ILT is more effective because of the live human interaction, etc. I remember you mentioning at a conference I attended that well-designed WBT is just as effective as ILT, but I'm still skeptical. Any resources that you could recommend would be greatly appreciated.

To read the response, visit Ask Harold. To ask your own question, just click on the crystal ball at left, fill out the form and click on submit.

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