Changing Learner Behavior

Changing Learner Behavior

Design your training programs in a way that guarantees learners will behave differently back on the job.

Learner Behavior On-The-Job

Woman presenter holding a tablet in front of meetingMany trainers focus on what their program participants need to know. Outstanding trainers think deeply about how their training participants will translate knowledge into action on the job. Without changing on-the-job behavior, training programs are simply glorified amusement sessions or, even worse, boredom enhancers.

Effective training begins with proper design. You have analyzed your organization’s training needs and are now ready to write the program participants’ learning outcomes. It is at this point that it helps to clarify exactly what behaviors are required of the learners once they return to the workplace at the conclusion of the training. If you get this right, the major learning outcomes will largely drop out.

A statement detailing the required employee behaviors serves as the bridge between the organization’s objectives and the expected outcomes from the training program. Without using this bridge as an intermediate step, you may just fall in the water with no life jacket on hand!

Consider the following organization objective for an upcoming leadership development program:

All Division Heads publish in the company newsletter a Mission and Vision statement for their Division by end of year.

To achieve this objective, the required leadership behaviors might be:

  • critically review and note business operating environment and company strategy
  • conduct facilitation sessions with employees to explore unit’s mission and vision
  • clarify with employees and document unit’s vision and mission statements

Without teasing out the required behaviors to achieve the objective, the training course has a high risk of stopping at filling participants’ heads with all there is to know about missions and visions, how they work and why they are important. Without the link to the actions required to create them, that knowledge is in danger of remaining stagnant in participants’ minds.

Using Active Verbs

A characteristic of well-written behavior statements is that they contain an active verb and describe an action that is publicly observable. Here are examples of poorly written behavior statements:

  • understand UNIX commands
  • appreciate the importance of diversity in the workplace
  • feel team spirit

An outside observer would not be able to determine whether any of these statements were true of a learner until the learner performed an action. How would a learner demonstrate that they had each of the above attributes?

For the first example, the learner could demonstrate their use of specific UNIX commands to run particular tasks, such as incremental data backups. In that case, the behavior statement could be:

  • enter the keyboard command for running an incremental backup

Examples of other well-written behavior statements include the following:

  • conduct a SWOT analysis with senior managers
  • remove and replace an exhaust manifold on a four-cylinder engine
  • diagnose and correct common operating system errors
  • document health and safety polices for state branch
  • complete invoices and purchase orders online
  • isolate mains power prior to performing maintenance work

Review your own behavior statements for the presence of active verbs. Include them where they are missing. Continue to refine your behavior statements so they more accurately reflect the on-the-job behavior your organization needs learners to demonstrate.

Behavior Gap Analysis

For each of the required behaviors you identified for your program, perform a gap analysis. A gap analysis uncovers the differences between current behaviors and required behaviors. To perform a gap analysis, for each behavior, ask the following questions:

  • What is it that learners need to start doing that they are not doing now?
  • What is it that learners need to stop doing that they are doing now?
  • What is it that learners need to do in a different way compared with how they are doing it now?

My resource kit, Writing Learning Outcomes, provides examples and a template for you to record your gap analysis.

Working with Managers

Often, stopping or changing a current behavior is just as important as starting a new behavior. Work initially with the participants’ managers to extract from the objectives the required behaviors, and then work together in performing the gap analysis. If you have a group of managers, get them all together in the same room to thrash out the behaviors and the gap.

If the managers are removed from the day-to-day operations of the prospective training participants, then include in your meeting lower-level managers and supervisors. Also include subject matter experts and senior employees well-versed in the work practices to be discussed. For training participants themselves to have maximum buy-in to the program, invite one or two prospective participants to provide a sanity check on the meeting outcomes.

Meetings are a time-consuming part of the process, but well worth the effort. A clear understanding of what employees will be expected to do in their jobs will save much time and stress further down the track. Also, be prepared for managers unconsciously diverting the discussion back to content, with statements such as, “I think we should include the new invoicing system in the course”. Keep asking meeting attendees the question, “But what do you want training participants to be able do on the job?”

Focusing on workplace behaviors is a real paradigm shift for most managers, so they will need constant encouragement and gentle steering back on to the right path. If you have a number of clients and stakeholders, it may take two or three meetings or more to clarify all of the behavior requirements. At the conclusion of the exercise, confirm your findings with the meeting attendees. Write your answers into the template I provide in my Writing Learning Outcomes resource kit, noting any specific gaps and adding particular behaviors that require unlearning. These notes will prove invaluable when you go on to the next stage of program design, writing the learning outcomes.

For a step-by-step guide on writing behavior-based learning objectives and performing a gap analysis, check out Leslie Allan’s learning outcomes resource book. As you complete each step in the guide, you will write the results for your particular training project in the workbook provided. When you have finished working through the workbook, you will have a complete set of documented learning objectives for your project.
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