When Students Fail to Learn, Everyone Asks, “What Went Wrong?”

A student becomes frustrated when she fails to learn

We hear it all too often in learning.

We work with our organization to create a requested program.

We deliver the program.

Yet a month later no one is using the learning.

The inevitable question is “What went wrong?”

Sending reminders is not the answer

Recently we have talked about the loss of learning and how companies are resorting to sending out reminders to stop the hemorrhaging of the information presented in a learning program.

We disagree with the notion that sending reminders is the answer. That’s simply a Band-Aid response that does not address why the hemorrhage happened in the first place. Let’s explain how we came to that conclusion.

Using the ROI by Design model, you define a clearly described outcome (a new knowledge or skill) that results from learning. That outcome becomes your unit of measure. With a defined unit of measure, when you deliver a learning program, you clearly see if you achieved the outcome.

This model allows for measuring new learning in both the acquisition and application phases of learning.

Specifically you can see if the student:

  • Learned the required outcome during the program (acquired the knowledge or skill)
  • Retained/applied the outcome (used it on the job)

The ability to easily determine if and when learning fails allows us to clearly distinguish if learning failed because the student did not learn or if it failed because the student did not retain/apply the information.

How we aid learning retention

Over the years, we have been able to gather a lot of data on the reasons for failure in both phases. Most of our experience does not support the “forgetfulness” theory.

To be fair, we know that students can forget what they have been exposed to in learning. In the ROI by Design model, we combat this proactively in three precise ways:

  1. Focus the learning program content on job performance requirements. This makes the content relevant to the student. It also provides innate motivation to learn. Most important, if you do not ensure the learning program focuses on job performance you immediately reduce transfer of learning. Why? Because otherwise students may not know how to apply the content to their job responsibilities.
  2. Verify the students do not already know the material before taking the program. For students, this ensures their time in the program isn’t wasted. It also improves their engagement and satisfaction with the program.
  3. Inform students that they will be measured on both their ability to acquire and apply their new knowledge and skill. Knowing that their learning and application will be measured makes students responsive and motivates them to pay attention.

In our view, including these three areas in our practice just makes good sense. It creates the best environment for an engaged student and positive results.

When students fail to learn the fault lies with learning acquisition and learning application problems

When measuring the results in the two phases of learning (acquisition and application), we have discovered very different reasons for failure. In learning acquisition, failure typically occurs for two reasons: poor instructional design or poor program facilitation. Either the designer did not plan well for learning to take place or the facilitator did not follow an effective plan.

In learning application, reasons for failure are more diverse but often fall into two categories:

  1. The job environment inhibited the use of the newly gained knowledge/skills.
  2. The student’s supervisor/manager did not support the use of the new knowledge/skills.

Barriers to application on the job are common. Some examples from our customers include:

  • “The tools to use a new process were not yet available on the job.”
  • “The old process is still being used and no one is asking me to use the new one.”
  • “The new way takes more time than the old way; we are not given more time so I am doing it the old way.”
  • “I get paid based on the number of calls I complete and the new process slows me down.”
  • “I know we learned to do it that way, but my manager does not care which way I do it.”
  • “I am not sure how to apply what I learned in class to my job.”
  • “Honestly, what we learned was just the latest flavor of the month. People will forget all about it soon so I did not feel the need to do it.”
  • “I just did not have time to practice the new method so I went back to the old way.”

Reading these examples, you can see how each could be addressed through manager support of the new learning. The manager can either validate the requirement or alter the job environment to enable application. None of these barriers include students “forgetting” material.

Sometimes there is an occasional exception to the rule

To be completely transparent, when I researched our customer experiences to gather examples, I found one example where failure was due to forgetting.

One of our customers is a drug safety company. We worked with their subject matter experts and created an onboarding course for their case managers. The onboarding course was the company’s certification that their case managers were proficient in their job.

When hiring, the company selected candidates who were either nurses or had previous experience in drug safety. In this new-hire class, half of the class had prior experience. When the class completed a pre-assessment (to show prior knowledge), the experienced half of the class had high scores.

Because the course was required to get certified, everyone had to complete the program. To help with engagement, the facilitator paired experienced people with inexperienced people. At the end of the course, everyone’s post scores were very high. Learning acquisition was a success.

However, when students were tested 6 weeks after the class ended, half of the class failed. Learning application was a failure! The facilitator was surprised. She had run the program for over a year with several new-hire groups and all had passed at the application phase. Since previous classes achieved application, she knew the job environment supported learning application. This poor result let her know a particular problem must have occurred with this class.

The facilitator learned that, when this class finished, students were diverted for two weeks to performing tasks not related to their recent learning, something not done with previous classes. This group of students were asked to help with data entry for two weeks before they began their regular jobs.

Students without prior experience with drug safety case management “forgot” much of what they learned in class. Those in the class with some background in drug safety retained much of what they learned, likely because they could associate new learning with their previous experience.

After this discovery, the customer altered their policies to ensure that students who complete the learning program immediately apply their learning on the job.

So yes, there are unusual situations where forgetting may be the issue, particularly when learning is not immediately relevant or there is a delay in the opportunity to solidify learning on the job.

If students fail to learn or apply learning, it’s your professional duty to find the real cause

Most of the time, forgetting the material is a symptom of a greater problem, and sending reminders is not the cure. A reminder system for learners masks the root cause and ultimately reveals that a program is not designed for learning or application.

In my opinion, it is far better to understand the underlying cause of failure than to excuse program failure as “forgetting.” The ultimate goal is not for students to actively engage with the content (via a reminder) but for them to apply what they learned. Actively engaging with the content does not equal results.  When programs focus on job application and near-term use occurs, learners retain their learning.

If you want to master instructional design techniques that ensure learning and support application then contact us at eParamus. You can learn the skills needed to create, evaluate, and measure your learning programs. The Measurable Instructional Design® Certification can set you and your learning programs on the right path.

Please follow eParamus on LinkedIn and feel free to connect with me, Laura Paramoure, PhD to tell me more about your training challenges.

Photo copyright: diego_cervo / 123RF Stock Photo


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