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Your Guide to Learning Transfer in 2023

Learning transfer is all about getting people to apply new knowledge or skills into the workplace. We look at what it is, and how to measure and improve it.

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Your Guide to Learning Transfer in 2023
February 23, 2023
Your Guide to Learning Transfer in 2023

Despite the effort you put into training programmes, they may not have the impact you want. Sound familiar? Usually, the reason is simple – most programmes are great at sharing knowledge but struggle to build skills. In this guide, we dive into learning transfer and what you can do to take people from knowing – to doing.

What is learning transfer?  

Learning transfer - the holy grail of L&D! In the workplace, learning transfer happens when people apply new knowledge or skills they’ve learnt into the flow of their normal work. It is behaviour change. To transfer learning, you have to take people from knowing – to doing.  

The conscious competence model is a useful one to help explain learning transfer. When learning a new skill, people go from being unconsciously incompetent, to consciously incompetent, to consciously competent and, ultimately, unconsciously competent.  

When you reach unconscious competence, you’ve genuinely transferred learning (that is, until you need to build on that skill further at which point you might go back a step or two!).

The sad truth about learning transfer

only 12% of learners transfer skills to the job

Learning transfer sounds straightforward, but it’s shockingly uncommon. In fact, only around 12 per cent of learners transfer skills from training to the job.  

As an L&D professional, this presents you with a dilemma. Should you send your people on the usual training programmes and make do with a 15 per cent return on investment? Or take action and decide to control the effectiveness of learning transfer?  

If you’re ready for a more proactive approach, we have the tips you need to ensure learning translates to the workplace.

3 pillars for the transfer of learning

There are three well-evidenced factors that encourage positive learning transfer. They’re evident in Dr Ina Weinbauer-Heidel’s research which identifies 12 levers of transfer effectiveness and can help you overcome the challenges of training transfer.

1. Learners’ motivation

Let’s say your staff are about to learn to navigate a new software system or the techniques to become a better manager. When they start a learning journey how motivated are they? Is their attitude: “Yes, I want this”, or is there a barrier?  

Learning transfer is affected by participants’ motivation – their willingness to engage with the learning and their desire to actually apply and master the skills they have acquired back on the job.  

2. Design and delivery  

This is not the time for surprises. Clarity is your friend here. Learning transfer increases when your people know what to expect before the training, and what is expected of them afterwards.

There’s also a huge dollop of “What’s in it for me?” If participants feel the learning is relevant to their day-to-day work – and if they understand how they and the organisation will benefit – the chances of positive learning transfer increase.

When it comes to training, you want your people to experience and practise their new skills in as close an approximation of their real job as possible.  

This is learning by doing.  

On our platform, we encourage learners to create work-based actions – they make a commitment to what they will do to start implementing a new skill.

It’s hugely beneficial because when new skills are tried out in a realistic context, participants can see how they will improve their working life.  

Stellar Labs GEAR model for learning design

Our GEAR model gives a practical framework for designing leaning programmes that result in transfer.

3. Organisational environment  

This is all about what happens in the workplace. Do your people have the opportunity to apply what they have learnt to situations in their day-to-day work? And – importantly – are they supported to do so?  

Buy-in from supervisors and other colleagues is vital. When an employee’s line manager expects and encourages implementation, and their peers back them to practice what they’ve learnt, transfer success is more likely to follow. Giving managers simple, practical help, so they can effectively support their team to practice and embed new skills on the job, is also necessary (and something that our Learning Transfer platform does).

Ina Weinbauer-Heidel talks about paying attention to people who do apply and who do support learning. Transfer behaviours need to be called out and praised.

When you establish an expectation of learning transfer within your organisation, you are more likely to get a positive outcome.  

Green Rocket signifying learning transfer

Practical tips for embedding learning transfer:

  1. Get learners to make small commitments, tap into motivations
  1. Help beat the forgetting curve by including spaced repetition so that new knowledge sticks
  1. Build in spaced practice to the learning experience. Getting learners to commit to work-based actions is where practice becomes skills on-the-job
  1. Help your managers and supervisors to provide the time, space and support that people need to successfully go from knowing – to doing
  1. Finally – don't stop at content! People need more to be able to change behaviour and build skills that stick.  

How can you evaluate and measure learning transfer?

  1. First step: prioritise your objectives. If you’re not sure where to start, consider the following: what is the desired business impact, the problem to be solved, and the expectation of stakeholders?   
  1. Next, set clear, realistic goals: what do you want your people to do when they go back to work?
  1. Plan for emotional impact. How do you want people to feel as they learn and transfer these skills?
  1. Then turn your attention to validation. You need to verify that the transfer is happening, to observe that someone has made a difference.  
  1. Finally, it’s about measuring success – linking your findings back to KPI’s and your list of objectives.

It’s a lot! But there is a way to take the strain out of evaluating and measuring learning.

Let neuroscience-backed tools take the strain

We know the ability to evaluate and measure learning transfer is vital to business success. It’s a subject close to our hearts here at Stellar Labs, and we’ve conducted extensive research on the matter in conjunction with the University of Antwerp.

One result is our white paper, The Learning Data Cookbook: Proven recipes for measuring the impact of learning.  

learning data cookbook

But we haven’t left it there.

With insights, research and tons of experience, we’ve built our Learning Transfer Platform.  

Our platform motivates, supports and guides people through the learning transfer process – taking them from knowing to doing. It engages them to learn effectively and efficiently, without being intrusive.

Then it unlocks the all-important return on investment. By aligning key organisational goals and objectives with data and learning analytics, you’ll see measurable ROI.

All this is done using an evidence-based process. Your people can master new knowledge and skills. And you can measure learning transfer and help your businesses establish a link between training initiatives and specific business outcomes.

stellar labs learning transfer platform

What are the barriers to learning transfer?

The challenge of positive learning transfer is real. There are a number of barriers that prevent your people from applying their newly learnt skills back in the workplace.  

Here’s what people need to beat the biggest barriers to learning transfer:

  • Time and focus to bring new knowledge to their job
  • Support and guidance to stay on track
  • Motivation when it becomes difficult
  • Encouragement to make a continuous effort (the temptation to revert to old practices can be overwhelming, particularly in high-pressure roles)  
  • Plenty of opportunities to apply their skills.

You can improve learning transfer in your workplace

Now you have a better understanding of the factors that influence learning transfer, you can close the gap between learning and job performance.  

Learning is an investment, and every L&D professional wants to get full value from the opportunities they offer.

Take a look at our learning transfer platform and see where it takes you.

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