Imagine trying to learn to play the piano, improve your golf swing, or make a chocolate soufflé…without practicing. It’s absurd. But this is what training programs in organizations do every day; they put employees through workshops, seminars, product demonstrations, and e-learning without practicing application of the new knowledge and skills.
We know that for people to learn and retain knowledge and skills they must apply that knowledge and those skills during and soon after training. Whether learning how to use a software program, build a team, or solve a strategic problem, application of new knowledge and skills should occur as part of the learning process and within hours and days of the learning event, not within weeks and months, or never, as so often happens in organizations. This means that learners must have opportunities to apply that learning and bosses and supervisors must plan ahead with learners to ensure these opportunities during and after training.
The latest research on the brain suggests that repetitive practice strengthens neural connections which are the basis for memory. To remember “knowledge items” one has to practice using them in situations similar to what will be required in the workplace. Sometimes application can only be practiced in a simulated environment, but that can be sufficient. When pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger III, with his co-pilot and three flight attendants, safely ditched US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, saving the lives of 155 people, it was simulation training that saved the day. It would not be safe nor practical to practice actually landing an A-320 jet on water. Practice and repetition with a flight simulator and walk-throughs of cabin procedures prepared the crew for this extremely rare event.
Whether simulated situations or real situations, application is essential for learning. As Chickering and Ehrmann, wrote:
Learning is not a spectator sport. Students do not learn much just sitting in classes listening to teachers, memorizing prepackaged assignments, and spitting out answers. They must talk about what they are learning, write reflectively about it, relate it to past experiences, and apply it to their daily lives. They must make what they learn part of themselves.