Why Training Doesn’t Always Stick: Keys to Make Sure It Does
Science tells us why spray and pray training doesn’t work.
Posted July 1, 2019
I’ve spent the last 20 years traversing North America and beyond conducting trainings for all kinds of organizations. Some are one-day trainings, others intensive three-day workshops. When I started doing this, the field now known as implementation science didn’t even exist. But since then, much research has been done to study whether trainings like this are effective by examining whether people actually do anything different after learning new things. We’ve done our own empirical research as well. And the jury has been back in for a while now: spray-and-pray training doesn’t work! Trainers like me swoop in and spray training over a group of people and head back home praying that what we’ve taught will stick. The data going back almost twenty years now suggest that people’s knowledge of the content taught will definitely increase if they like the topic and presentation is interesting. However, very few people will actually do anything different. One study from 17 years ago in schools showed that only 5% of participants do anything different even though they learned a lot. Imagine all of the time and money we waste on professional development seminars that fall prey to this reality!
But don’t worry–there is good news! Best practices from implementation science provide a clear path forward that mirrors what I’ve learned the hard way over the past couple of decades. You need to pay attention to four key things if you want training to stick:
1. Start by assessing readiness
I’ve seen so much valuable time and resources wasted over the years by organizations jumping headfirst into training when they really weren’t ready yet to take on something new. If they had attended to some of things getting in the way before launching, it would’ve gone much better. Sadly, if someone or someplace isn’t ready, their experience will be negatively impacted and they will think the training “doesn’t work” or “isn’t worth it,” and it may be hard to come back to it successfully again later.
2. Get Training AND Coaching
The good news here really shouldn’t be a surprise to us. When we try to teach ourselves to do new things, what we are really attempting to do is change our brains. And we’ve actually learned a lot in the past few decades about how to change the brain. We know that we must follow the principles of neuroplasticity which tell us that one massive dose of information (like a whole day) in an artificial environment (like an auditorium) without opportunity for real-time practice can’t possibly change the brain. On the contrary, we need to provide ourselves with lots of small doses with spacing in between and opportunities to practice in the actual environment in which we are trying to utilize the new skills we have learned.
Fortunately, that same research I cited above showed that if you follow training with access to regular coaching where people are practicing in their real environment, 95% of people start to implement what they’ve learned. Amazing! So, whether you are a leader who seeks out professional development for your staff or an individual looking to learn anything new, make sure to follow your initial dose of learning with opportunities to practice repetitively in small doses with guidance and feedback from an expert.
3. Monitor How It’s Going
If you are trying to learn to do something new, you better have a way of monitoring how well you are doing it. In implementation science, we call this “fidelity monitoring.” It’s amazing how often we spend lots of time and money trying to teach people new things but don’t invest in any way of evaluating whether it's working, i.e., whether and how well people are doing that new thing. So, make sure you have a way of assessing how well people are doing it so you can adjust your training and coaching plan accordingly.
4. Become Experts
One of the most frustrating things I’ve witnessed in our work is how hard it is to make something stick for the long haul. Sustainability. We’ve had situations where we work with programs for years to get them really good at our approach, and then the leader retires, the second in command moves to another organization and all of a sudden all the progress fades away. The secret to sustainability is making sure you create a team of culture carriers who are your local experts and carry the torch long after the initial training and coaching are done. We accomplish this through our certification program where we ensure organizations end implementation with a team of certified experts.
Implementation Science and You
You can apply these lessons to anything you want to learn or any behavior you want to change. It is especially important to be mindful of these factors with the hardest things to make stick.
So, the next time you want to learn something new or change your own behavior, keep these four keys in mind. And if you are trying to do the tough work of changing a whole system, it’s even more important to follow these guidelines. Good luck!
Fixsen, D. et. al (2005), Implementation Research: A Synthesis of the Literature
Joyce, B., & Showers, B. (2002). Student Achievement Through Staff Development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Pollastri AR, Ablon, JS, Hone M, eds. Collaborative Problem Solving: An Evidence-Based Approach to Implementation Across Settings. New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media, 2019.