Distractions to making learning stick.

Brain scientists and psychologists regularly confirm that although we think we can “multi-task” and do/think about more than one thing at a time, in truth we can’t think about more than one thing at any one time. We’re just not wired that way.

This has huge implications for learning and development.  Most of us are finding that in face-to-face classrooms learners are distracted (and distract themselves) with checking email, IMs, and text messages while they are in class as well as on breaks.

It’s just as well that we can’t see participants in webinars and e-learning classes because if we could, I have no doubt that we would see a lot of multi-tasking not to mention phone and in-person interruptions from coworkers who don’t realize the participant is in a training session (and perhaps some who do).   Personal disclosure:  while I try to avoid it, I have been known to figure out a way to navigate away from webinars that didn’t hold my attention.

In my dissertation research on training transfer, I identified participants who had transferred their learning back to their jobs (via self-report and subordinate-report, since the training was on management skills) and organized them into a high transfer group.  I also identified participants who had not transferred their learning back to their jobs.  Without knowing who had transferred and who had not, I conducted focus group interviews and probed for key factors that may have influenced whether or not the learning had transferred and was being used.  One of the questions I asked was, “What did you do on breaks?”  Here’s what I found:

  • 59% of the low/no transfer group said they called their offices/voicemail on breaks (this was before email was easily available via phone), and almost the same percent of the low/no transfer group said that the training was close enough to their offices that on breaks they went back to their desks to do work.
  • Much lower percentages of the high transfer group called their offices frequently on breaks or went back to their desks to do work.  One of the trainers in my study had some games that were related to the topic and she encouraged participants to play these on breaks.  A significantly higher number of participants in the high transfer group had been in this trainer’s classes, because their response to my question “what did you do on breaks?” was: “played games and talked about the training”.

I have not found any other studies on how distractions affect training transfer.  While it’s never a good idea draw conclusions based on a single study, it is reasonable to believe that distractions interfere with learning and therefore with making the learning stick.

So what’s a trainer to do?  Here are a few thoughts:

  • Ask managers to limit interruptions when their employees are in training.  Suggest that they arrange for work coverage or not expect employees to respond to communications while in training.  See the side column for a new tool that may help!
  • For webinars and e-learning, include a screen and/or verbal message that says when they are “signed in” to training, that they “sign out” of other job activities so they can provide their full attention to learning, and their manager, department, and organization can get the most out of this investment in training.
  • In face-to-face classrooms, to the usual “Please turn off your cell phones” message, add:  “and refrain from texting or emailing during class and on breaks.”  You’ll probably want to add a brief explanation based on the information in this Sticky Note.

It often feels like an uphill battle for participants’ attention.  But think about it this way – isn’t the purpose of training to learn skills that will be used to do their jobs better?   And what happens when people take training and don’t learn these skills?  The company, the department, and the manager all lose, right?  So if they – participants, bosses, senior leaders, and the organization – want to get a return on their investment in training, they need to minimize distractions and interruptions during the learning.

Until next time…

Barbara

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