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Oh expert in the crystal ball, please tell all...tell all!

Questions abound in the learning and performance world. Here are a few we have been asked several times recently along with our answers. We welcome additional questions as well as comments and reactions to our responses.

To ask your question, please click on the crystal ball.

To access our archives, please click here.

I am teaching a class in training and development and am using your books, Telling Ain't Training and Beyond Telling Ain't Training Fieldbook for my graduate students in a Master of Arts program. On page 141 of the Fieldbook, you advocate selecting training topic assignments and then state "Distribute a 10-minute section of the training program to each participant." Where might one find appropriate topic assignments? Could you suggest several topics that have worked for you in the Video Practice Session (VPS) and provide an example. Answer

At the ISPI Conference in Chicago this past fall, you stated that learning styles are pretty much discredited now as they only account for 2% of learning effectiveness. You said there was no evidence to support them. Can you give more information on any academic literature to back up what you're saying? I agree with you but have colleagues who strongly disagree. Answer

Learning packets are one way in which our employees receive education on new topics. We struggle with finding a way to consistently and realistically determine how long it should them to finished the packet. Sometimes they are doing them at home and then they are paid for the time. So pay becomes a part of the scene and can cause problems when people feel the time estimated to complete the packet is in error. We also offer classes that require study time out side of the classroom. They are also paid for this time. We struggle with determining the correct time for this work as well. Any insights or experiences you have had with determining independent study time? Some staff feel they are not given enough time while others seem to need less. What is the most equitable way to determine these time frames? Answer

What is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness? Answer

I read your article "Keys to Performance Consulting Success." However, it still seems like there's a huge canyon to bridge between doing training-only and performance improvement. You have to acquire the skill set (hire new people) to get the clients for performance improvement. How do you justify acquiring the skill set if you don't have the clients? Answer


I am teaching a class in training and development and am using your books, Telling Aint Training and Beyond Telling Ain't Training Fieldbook for my graduate students in a Master of Arts program. On page 141 of the fieldbook, you advocate selecting training topic assignments and then state "Distribute a 10-minute section of the training program to each participant." Where might one find appropriate topic assignments? Could you suggest several topics that have worked for you in the Video Practice Session (VPS) and provide an example.

The VPS is like a shell. Any content that the participants normally teach is usable and can be placed within it. If a new course or program is being introduced, you would chop up the new program into discrete 10 minute chunks. Here are examples from some sessions:

  • A real estate company introduces a new program for certifying agents. The trainers are introduced to the program and trained on it. They then receive slices of the program for practice during the VPS.
  • Trainers are training in car dealerships. They are teaching about Warranty Claim processing. Again, they go through the program as learners and then examine the leader guide, are assigned parts of the course and teach a 10 minute slice during the VPS.
  • Recently, I had Store Managers from a successful bookstore chain. They developed their own 10 minute slices on things they teach to their staff. Topics consisted of: selling the customer card; inventory checking; book location; ordering books; handling customer complaints.
  • When I had a group of people who were not yet training in an organization, I had them select small topics for which they had expertise. Some examples were: decorating a cake; checking oxygen tanks before scuba diving; solving a math puzzle; how to read resistor codes; using a slide rule and other similar fun topics.

The key is for them to have a model for training, such as our Five Step Model in Telling Ain't Training, receive coaching and have opportunities to practice before they are videotaped. Then they are placed in a VPS setting. We find the VPS most useful when a company is introducing a new program to its trainers and after taking them through it, slice up the program and have them teach parts of it. It is also very useful to bring experienced trainers in for a training clinic. Have them select a part of what they already train and then have them go through the VPS for coaching.


At the ISPI Conference in Chicago this past fall, you stated that learning styles are pretty much discredited now as they only account for 2% of learning effectiveness. You said there was no evidence to support them. Can you give more information on any academic literature to back up what you're saying? I agree with you but have colleagues who strongly disagree.

I mentioned two different things. One had to do with sensory modalities. Some people are more visual than auditory...or kinesthetic. If you explore the literature on what are called ATI studies (aptitude by treatment interaction) you will come across significant differences with respect to favoring one sense over another, but there is not enough "power" in this difference to be overly concerned compared to many other variables that affect learning. That's why I recommend stimulus variation. This is pretty potent if done well and meaningfully.

This is different from "learning styles." Here is a previous question and answer from the Ask Harold Archives:


We frequently hear the term "learning styles" tossed around like "I know there are tests for people to identify their learning style" and so on. People use this to argue for one delivery media over another like "My learning style prevents me from engaging in e-learning!" I would like to know if there are any scientific grounds for the existence and definition of learning styles. If so, what are they and what are the main messages coming out of this literature?

There is a lot written on learning styles and a lot more folklore circulating about it. Here are two useful articles that deal with your question. The first, McLoughlin, C. (1999). The implications of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material, Australian journal of educational technology, 15 (3), 222-241, provides a good overview of the main currents and definitions of terms that are similar, yet different. These include: learning preferences, cognitive styles, personality types and aptitudes. It also examines two main learning style theoretical approaches, one that divides learners into wholist-analytic versus verbaliser imager and the other that suggests four categories: activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists. The second article, Stahl, S. (1999). Different strokes for different folks? A critique of learning styles. American educator, 23 (3), 27-31, questions the validity of the learning style construct itself. In the article, Stahl examines learning style inventories and questions their reliability.

My take on all of this is that there are individual differences that affect the way we learn. However, there are also many rules with respect to learning that apply to all of us as human learners. While it may be useful to factor in variations in learning approaches, it is probably more useful to apply those universal principles that research on learning consistently suggests result in higher probabilities of learning. What are they? Six simple ones:

  • When learners know why they are supposed to learn something (a rationale with a credible benefit to them), the probability of learning and retention increases.
  • When learners know what they are supposed to learn (a clear, meaningful objective), the probability of learning and retention also increases.
  • If what is to be learned is clearly structured and organized so that the learner easily sees the organization and logic, again, learning and retention probabilities increase.
  • If learners have an opportunity to actively respond and engage in the learning in meaningful ways, once again, learning and retention probabilities increase.
  • If learners receive corrective and confirming feedback with respect to responses they emit or activities in which they engage, their learning increases along with retention.
  • Finally, if the learner feels rewarded for the learning, has a sense of accomplishment or is given an external recompense for the learning that he or she values, learning and retention have an increased probability of occurring.

With respect to being more visual or auditory, while there may be significant differences among learners, more important, however, is stimulus variation.

Concerning the use of media or self-pacing, issues about learning tend to focus more on the design of the mediated or self-paced material than on the medium itself. Richard Clark has written extensively on media not being the message. If the mediated and/or self-paced material follows the universal rules and is well supported, it will work. Some learners who are not used to learning on their own may require additional support and control. Distance universities, such as the British Open University or Athabasca University in Canada, have learned how to do this well.

So, to conclude, there is a lot of folklore and some science concerning individual differences in learning. Best to apply universally sound methods to enhance learning. Vary activities to maintain interest and attention. Provide support and control mechanisms to help learners "stick with it." This way, you address all learning styles.


Learning packets are one way in which our employees receive education on new topics. We struggle with finding a way to consistently and realistically determine how long it should them to finished the packet. Sometimes they are doing them at home and then they are paid for the time. So pay becomes a part of the scene and can cause problems when people feel the time estimated to complete the packet is in error. We also offer classes that require study time out side of the classroom. They are also paid for this time. We struggle with determining the correct time for this work as well. Any insights or experiences you have had with determining independent study time? Some staff feel they are not given enough time while others seem to need less. What is the most equitable way to determine these time frames?

There are several methods for doing this, one of which is somewhat radical. A simple method, once the package is complete, is to ask a few (4-6) learners to go through it while someone who acts as a proctor is present. Time the learners and establish an average time. Of course, your learners for the trial should be representative of the range of learners in the entire population.

A second approach is to establish a time for each section of the packet (also based tryout testing) and to state up front that this learning package should take "X" number of minutes to complete. Create a matrix that contains the various sections and suggested time allotments. Explain that you are providing this in the interest of the learners so that in advance, they can budget sufficient time. Explain that this is based on tryouts and that it is 20% longer than the average time taken. Please make sure that this is true.

A third, more radical approach, but nevertheless perfectly acceptable, is to state that the job requires continuing education and that there are periodic tests which employees must complete. The results are placed on their records and considered an essential part of their performance evaluation. The requirement is for employees to pass the test. If they desire, they can request a self-study packet to prepare. It is free and contains all the content and sample tests to help prepare for the official test. This places the responsibility to learn on the learners themselves.

This last approach is more radical in that the requirement is not the training, but the passing of a test. This requires a system that makes continuing education essential and valued for the job and truly rewards success. You can even have it linked with professional CEUs from various organizations so that the learning and testing is officially and externally recognized.


What is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness?

Efficiency is productivity with minimum waste. It is the achievement of maximal results with the least amount of resources and energy expended. An example would be your attainment of a goal in the least costly manner with the least amount of your energy and resources used. Highly skilled persons usually perform tasks that achieve high results with far less effort than novices. Watch an expert swimmer do laps in a pool. She or he seems to glide effortlessly back and forth. Caloric expenditure is minimal compared to the novice who splashes around and is soon exhausted doing far fewer laps.

Effectiveness is achieving the desired result from the expenditure of resources and effort. Think of a medication for an ailment. If it is effective, it will cure the ailment. An aspirin for the common headache is a simple example. Taking a cough medicine for the headache would be ineffective.

In learning and performance, we strive to create interventions that exhibit the two characteristics of effectiveness and efficiency. Suppose a person had to be able to dial the correct number for a given emergency, but the number varied depending on the nature of the emergency. You could drill the numbers into the person's head and make him or her repeat these until a perfect result was achieved. It would be effective, but not necessarily efficient. Another way might be to provide a telephone with clearly labelled emergency numbers on it and spend a few minutes training the person on how to press the appropriate buttons. Hence, for a given emergency, the person would simply press the right button. Much more efficient than all the drill and practice and the possibility of error over time.

Remember, determine what will be effective first. Then determine the most efficient means for getting there. Focus effectiveness on results and efficiency on the means for attaining them.


I read your article "Keys to Performance Consulting Success." However, it still seems like there's a huge canyon to bridge between doing training-only and performance improvement. You have to acquire the skill set (hire new people) to get the clients for performance improvement. How do you justify acquiring the skill set if you don't have the clients?

I would imagine that you already have clients asking for your services. I am guessing that they are requesting "training." Your first step is to reassure them that you are there to help. Your response to their request is, "I can help you solve your problem." Then you begin probing for the true business need: "Imagine that whatever we do for you works perfectly and you're totally delighted. What is different in this scenario from the ways things currently are being done and accomplished?" By documenting the ideal and current you will begin to see (and perhaps so will your client) that there are other factors requiring attention beyond training. Now is the time to offer a broader, "performance" vision. And thus a client is born.

I know that this sounds a bit simplistic. However, the basic approach is sound. I recommend beginning with a current client who is open to this form of questioning and would be supportive to a broader, systemic vision of what is needed beyond checking off a "training box." Work with this client on a high-probability-of-success project. Then use the project success and the client to market to others. Write up the project for internal newsletters. Invite potential clients to a show and tell. Let your successful client be your advocate. If you build it and market it, they will come.

As for the skill sets, unless your current instructional people are too set in their ways, undertake a diagnosis of current competencies and examine those they require. Establish a development program for them. Without sounding too self-serving, please get a copy of our latest book Training Ain't Performance from www. astd.org. It includes a diagnostic tool and suggestions for becoming a performance consultant. The resources section offers a number of resources to help build your team. I hope this helps as a starting point.


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