Why Knowledge-Only Courses Fail Every Time and How to Fix It

Thinking PersonYes, we have all heard the saying that knowledge is power. But does that mean knowledge-only courses are the best path for success?

Some customers tell me they want to create a course that delivers only on knowledge objectives. They believe that providing knowledge without incorporating how the knowledge should be applied works fine. They think a general understanding of a subject fully addresses a learning need.

When I ask if their knowledge-only programs have worked or helped their company, they often fall back to anecdotal evidence. They tell me how a previous student said they liked their course. Another told them how helpful the learning was. In their mind, these reports justify the time and money needed to deliver their knowledge-only programs.

Knowledge Alone Won’t Deliver ROI

We can all agree that knowledge is power, but in the world of learning measurement, knowledge-only programs do not deliver a good ROI.


ROI is calculated using program costs and the dollar value of the changes that program delivers to the organization.

If someone takes a knowledge-only course, there is no way to clearly associate the learning to behavior change. If you can’t measure behavior change, you cannot figure a learning ROI. Without identifying a difference in behavior, there is no evidence of change due to the program and no associated dollar value to plug into the ROI calculation.

Knowledge-Only Courses Cause Learning Design Problems

When I work with customers, I ask them to design programs with application as the end result. In other words, design their program to include at least one behavior change.

If you don’t design for behavior change, you are left with two major challenges:

  1. Learners must figure out on their own what and how to apply what they learned.
  2. The learning program will show no discernible change in the organization.

It’s possible that knowledge-only courses may provide understanding of a concept. But my question to you is this: What is the benefit of understanding without application?

Creating knowledge-only programs also present challenges for your learning designers. With knowledge-only content, it is easy to fall into one of the following design traps:

  1. You lose focus and include content that may be interesting but not relevant in the work environment. For instance, consider if you are delivering a program on “reducing stress” because you want to improve the call center work environment, decrease mistakes, and reduce turnover. In doing your research, you may include information on relaxation techniques, which is reasonable content to include for the subject. Relaxation techniques may be good to know but unless you teach a specific technique that can be applied quickly at work, you have not provided information that can be used on the job.
  2. You create programs to deliver content that can easily be “read and understood” without the need to attend a class. Only complex knowledge needs to be delivered in a learning course because only complex knowledge requires a facilitator. Most knowledge (without application) can be “assigned reading” for the learner and does not require the help of a facilitator to understand the concept. Therefore the time and money spent on these courses is wasted.

I hope you now understand why knowledge is important, but is only one part of the puzzle in creating great learning programs. The way to fix it is to tie knowledge to application. In my next post, I’ll provide details on how to do that.

Would you like to learn more about how to create measurable learning programs? Do you need to create accountability through ROI? Contact us at eParamus. We’d love to help.

Please follow eParamus on LinkedIn and feel free to connect with me, Laura Paramoure, PhD. I’d love to know more about your training challenges.

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