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Transfer of Learning

Planning and Conducting Transfer of Learning


Any discussion of transfer of learning or transfer of training must begin by citing the two people that are the driving force behind the concept, Mary Broad and John Newstrom.  Broad and Newstrom defined transfer of training to the workplace as “the effective and continuing application, by trainees to their jobs, of the knowledge and skills gained in training - both on and off the job”.  Broad and Newstrom also stated that, in their experience with a wide range of organizations, transfer problems nearly always occurred when training employees.  Some people think that as little as 10% of training is transferred to the workplace, although this level may be higher immediately after training, and decline over time.  I had the great fortune to meet Mary Broad at an ASTD conference in Atlanta GA back in the ‘90s.  And yes, she was gracious enough to autograph her book for me which is proudly on display in my office.  After attending her workshop I became enthralled with the concept of transferring learning to the workplace and this concept has greatly influenced me in all of my jobs since then.  People who know me well will say that I’m always asking the same question when we develop curriculum, ‘how will they transfer this to their workplace?’


We have all attended training that we immediately “flushed” as soon as the class was completed.  On the other hand, there were classes that stuck with me till this very day.  For example, when I was in the Air Force, one of our skills to master in basic training was the care and firing of the M16 rifle.  As I was familiar with guns to some extent, having the good fortune to grow up in a family where guns were a tool like so many other things and were respected for their ability to execute a given task, just as a hammer or a screw driver.  But I had never held anything like a full automatic M16 before.  I listened raptly to every word the instructor said, thinking my life depended on it, and certainly my successful completion of basic training.  I remember to this day the instructor describing how to disassemble the carrier bolt assembly and how and why it had to be properly cleaned.  On the other hand, I completed (successfully) many classes during my Air Force career that I immediately dumped as soon as possible.  What made the difference?  Well, for starters, it’s my level of interest in the subject.  At the risk of offending some of my Air Force colleagues, I won’t say which classes I attended and had no interest in, but suffice it to say, there were quite a few.  So if I have an interest in a subject, I’m likely to pay attention and retain and hopefully transfer that learning to the workplace.  But what about those classes that I don’t have an innate interest in, yet still need to be able to employ the material?  How can the instructor get me to retain, and more importantly use that information in the work place?  That is the concept of Transfer of Training or in our more modern lexicon, Transfer of Learning.


Whatever the actual level of transfer of training, when training does not transfer, it is likely that employees will perceive training to be a waste of their time and employers will continue to question the benefit of their investment in training.  Broad and Newstrom outlined a series of strategies for managing the transfer of training that focused on three time periods (before, during, and after training) and on the responsibilities of three separate organizational roles (the role of the manager, the role of the trainer, and the role of the trainee).  The strategies suggested highlight the importance of viewing the transfer of training as a process rather than an outcome.  


Here is a chart showing the 3 people involved in Transfer of Learning and the 3 time periods with their appropriate actions.

















Successful transfer of training to the workplace is not solely determined by any one factor, such as performance of the trainer.  The employee’s level of motivation and ability to understand and benefit from their training are important determinants of the individual’s learning outcomes.  There are also organizational and contextual factors that are necessary requirements for the effective transfer of learning.  Therefore, this writing will describe a model of the transfer of training process that is based on the three training stages mentioned in Broad and Newstrom’s book.  It has become painfully obvious to me that most managers do virtually nothing to prepare a learner to experience the learning environment.  I have developed a guide (at the end of this document) that I have used very successfully to help managers prepare employees to attend training events.


Pre-Training Actions

The kinds of goals that might improve trainee motivation when attending a course would be goals relating to the trainees’ level of participation in training and goals relating to the trainees’ acquisition of new skills.  Supervisors should assist prospective trainees to establish the following kinds of goals:

  • actively participate in all aspects of training

  • master each of the component skills taught in the training program

  • actively practice new skills at the first opportunity


Participation in decision-making.  Where possible, trainees should be consulted about decisions regarding their attendance at training courses, including whether they need to attend, when they need to attend, and what mode of attendance would be most suitable for them.  However, participation in decision-making may not have a positive impact on trainees’ motivation unless the trainees’ input is reflected in the training that they receive.  Steps that supervisors may take to increase trainees’ participation in decision-making include:

  •  asking trainees to nominate the kind of training they wish to receive, when they wish to receive it, how they would like to attend, and what they expect the benefits to be in terms of their work performance

  • finding out trainees’ reactions to previous training programs they have attended, especially reasons for any negative reactions, and

  • allowing trainees to develop their own training programs for specific job-related skills.


Pre-Training Actions to Improve Organizational Climate

The transfer climate includes situations and actions that convey the support of management for the transfer of training as well as the value that the organization places on trainees successfully transferring their training.  Other aspects of the transfer climate would include specific situational constraints that restrict use of skills in the workplace and the opportunities that exist for use of skills on the job.  Where there is a perceived lack of management support for the transfer of training or a perception that the transfer of one’s training is of little value to the organization, there is little incentive for trainees to invest the effort required to master the content of the training.  Therefore, prior to training commencing, it is important to ascertain the trainees’ perceptions of management support for the training they will receive as well as the trainees’ expectations that correct use of skills learned during training will be positively rewarded.


Supervisors can assist trainees prior to training by doing the following:

  • working with the trainee to identify external factors that may restrict the trainee’s ability to utilize their new skills in the workplace

  • assisting the trainee to identify organizationally valuable outcomes from training

  • contracting with the trainee to provide positive reinforcement and desirable rewards that should be contingent on the trainees correct use of the skills learned during training.


Actions During Training

There are some key actions instructors can take when developing and teaching classes. 

  1. use of identical elements (making the training setting similar to the work setting),

  2. teaching of general principles ( outlining a principle that can be applied across a range of problems or situations),

  3. provision of stimulus variability (using a variety of examples to illustrate a principle), and

  4. conditions of practice (how often trainees practice the tasks, what kind of feedback is provided, and how complex tasks are simplified).


Identical Elements.  As a trainer in the Air Force, it was never clearer to me than the necessity to “train like you fight” than when I was assigned to a European base at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.  Our ability to engage the enemy in combat was trained and practiced one week every month.  If we weren’t training, we were practicing or vice versa.  The transfer of learning occurred most often between highly similar situations.  When the physical characteristics of the transfer environment matched the learning environment, the actual learning was more successful.  This occurs because our equipment used in training was identical to that used in the employment of the fight.  It became clear as new people arrived at the base who had no similar experience that these new arrivals needed some specifics in order to maximize their success.  Trainers needed to: 

  • provide an explanation to trainees of any dissimilarity between the tasks performed during training and work tasks that would be performed after training, that is, in combat,

  • encourage trainees to focus only on important differences between training tasks and transfer tasks (such as the speed with which the training tasks are performed), rather than non-essential differences (such as using equipment that is not the same model but has the same features), and

  • ensure the procedures used in training were similar to those used in the work place, that trainees can make the necessary adjustments to accommodate the different procedures.


General Principles.  The teaching of general principles or problem solving strategies that can be applied across a range of problems or situations focuses on assisting learners to develop abstract schemas that can be applied across a number of different types of situations.  I always enjoyed doing this kind of teaching when I was teaching at the Air Force Senior NCO Academy.  Our leadership and management curriculum made great use of this concept in preparing Air Force leaders.  Case studies, role plays and similar methods were great tools to help teach, reinforce and assist with the transfer of learning to the work place for Air Force senior NCOs.  As with any good teaching, there are some fundamental rules that apply in teaching general principles:

  • capture the trainee’s attention, such as presenting a real-life problem that the trainee is familiar with,

  • provide feedback about the accuracy of the trainee’s entry level knowledge (this provides the trainee with an awareness of their training needs), and

  • direct the trainee’s attention to similar examples from their own experiences  so that the trainee can make connections between strategies that have been effective across different situations.


Another key teaching technique we used very successfully and routinely was th euse of non-examples.  If you're not familiar with non-examples, I recommend reading Merrill and Tennyson's book "Teaching Concepts".  For me, this is the definitive guide in teaching examples and non-examples and can be easily extrapolated into most any teaching situation, not just concepts.  People generally remember "non-examples" at least, and often better, than the example of wht you are trying to teach.  Non-examples are also excellent when it comes to assessing learning as non-examples are useful as test item distractors.


Stimulus Variability.  The use of a variety of examples during training to illustrate a principle is a strategy that can assist trainees to develop an understanding of general rules that could be transferred to other situations.  The learner does this by learning to recognize the common features of the examples.  While the surface components may be varied to assist trainees to develop general rules, the structural components need to be consistent for transfer of learning to occur.  As an example of the difference between structural and surface components, consider a training program in how to provide performance feedback to subordinates.  The surface components of the examples could be varied to include a male supervisor with both male and female employees and then a female supervisor with both male and female employees, examples of supervisors providing both positive and negative feedback with different employees who either accept or reject the feedback, and a supervisor who is very formal and keeps at a distance from the employee versus a supervisor who is informal and choses to sit closer to the employee.

Trainers may incorporate stimulus variability into training by:

  • providing different examples during training and highlighting the important features of each example,

  • providing both positive (what to do) and non-examples (what not to do), and

  • being aware that trainees may experience initial confusion and require explanations in a different format in order to master the content.


Conditions of Practice.  Conditions of practice refer to how long trainees continue to practice the tasks, the frequency and type of feedback, how often the trainees practice their tasks, and whole versus part-task training.  The old Chinese proverb of what I see I forget, what I do I remember (or something akin to that) really holds true.  Giving learners the opportunity to use the learned content greatly enhances the transfer of learning process.  Worth mentioning here is the concept of “part-task training”.  PTT refers to the learner doing only a part of an overall task.  I believe this is useful, but not as good as a fuller, more immersive experience.  The curriculum developer has to be careful not to short change the learner when developing PTT.  There can be a tendency to omit the difficult parts of the task by claiming that those can only be conducted in the work place.  I recommend against this and encourage the use of a full learning process.  If there is a time limitation, then PTT can be a useful tool to break instruction into short time chunks and spread the training event(s) over several days or weeks as necessary. 

Goal Setting.  Setting specific goals for the transfer of training has been found to assist trainees to maximize the level of transfer that occurs when they can visualize success.  Trainees should set short-term goals as well as long-term goals because short-term goals provide trainees with more immediate opportunities for successful outcomes that will lead to further goal attainment.

Therefore, trainers should ensure that all trainees have: 

  • clear, short-term learning goals for the training program (for example, “I will complete all of the required units/modules in the allocated time”),

  • short-term goals for the immediate transfer of their training (for example, “I will begin to use my new skills at the first opportunity”), and

  • longer-term goals that focus on the continued development of the trainee’s level of mastery of the training content (for example, “I will seek feedback from my supervisor/peers after one month and continue to review my progress each month”).


Implementation Plans.  The crucial step is that trainees decide before they finish training what they will attempt after their training has finished.  Trainers could ask trainees:

  • what is the first thing you are going to do when you get back to your job?

  • when is the best time and under what specific conditions should you initiate use of the skills learned during training?

  • what specific goals do you have for the maintenance of your skills, and

  • what kind of positive reinforcement do you expect from your supervisor or peers?


Follow-on Support.  Follow-on support (FOS) is a key strategy for enhancing transfer of learning.  This strategy is designed to assist trainees in the period immediately after training.  The focus of FOS is to develop high levels of self-confidence and for identifying problematic situations.  For a trainee, it will be exposure to situations such as criticism from the trainees’ supervisor and/or peers, or coping with increased time pressures to abandon the learned content.

Trainers should encourage trainees to identify specific situations where they may be at risk of failing to use their training and ask the trainees to develop an action plan that includes:

  • a description of the specific, challenging situation where they will be required to use their skills,

  • an explanation of what skills they will be applying,

  • the results that they expect from an improvement in their performance,

  • a description of any potential obstacles to the implementation of their, and

  • a description of how they would deal with those obstacles. 


Actions During Training To Improve Reactions To Training.

Training Cohort.  Training cohorts are small, often homogenous groups of trainees who are available to support one another.  Cohorts can be most any size as long as they are manageable by the members of the cohort.  The major factor in promoting cohort learning is the development of supportive group norms.  When group success depends on all group members improving their performance, it is expected that group members will encourage each other and support cooperative learning.  

Training Climate.  The training climate that is supportive and encouraging to interpersonal relationships in the training environment between trainer and trainee are associated with better levels of well-being in unemployed trainees, and with improvements in well-being across time.


Post-Training Actions

There are 11 basic categories of constraints, and these include:

  • job-related information

  • tools and equipment

  • materials and supplies

  • budgetary support

  • required services and help from others

  • task preparation

  • time available

  • work environment

  • scheduling of activities

  • transportation, and

  • job-relevant authority

While not all of these constraints are relevant to the transfer of knowledge and skills acquired during training, some factors are relevant to the design of training.  For example, “Are the tools and equipment the same as those used in training?”  Other constraints may affect the actual transfer of training, for example, the work environment and scheduling of activities (similar to opportunity to perform).  Constraints operate in all areas of the work environment and can be barriers to transfer of training.


In order for trainees to effectively transfer their training, the transfer climate must contain the antecedents necessary for the transfer of training and ensure that trainees receive suitable consequences such as positive reinforcement.  There are different strategies that trainers and managers should use to enhance the positive aspects of the climate for transfer and reduce the negative aspects of the climate for transfer.  Strategies to improve the positive aspects include:

  • providing trainees with specific goal cues that target improved performance resulting from transfer of training (these may be self-set or assigned goals),

  • providing trainees with social cues where supervisors and fellow workers are supportive of the trainees’ attempts to transfer their training,

  • providing trainees with appropriate task (or structural cues) such as access to equipment or resources that are essential to the transfer of their training,

  • providing positive reinforcement (such as recognition in a company newsletter or staff-member-of-the-month scheme) to those trainees who demonstrate better performance through the transfer of their training, and

  • making a link between trainees’ transfer of training and their access to further training as well as their future job success.

  • Strategies to reduce the negative aspects include:

  • reducing the likelihood of trainees being criticized by their supervisors or peers by using an approach where all members of a work unit are trained at the same time, and

  • reducing the likelihood of continued poor performance after training through improved monitoring of post-training performance.



The major impact of post-training actions are the effect of the organization supporting implementing the content learned in the training event.  There’s nothing worse (OK, maybe a few things) than coming back from training and being fired up ready to employ new skills and your boss saying, “ok, glad you’re back and enjoyed the training, now get back to work and keep doing what you were doing”.  This kind of emotional killer is more than detrimental to the trainee, but even more so to all others in the work center who might have desired to attend training. 


Using the Broad and Newstrom “pre-training, training, post-training” plan can greatly improve the learning process and help ensure transfer of learning to the work place.  Like so many things a manager must do to be successful, this takes time and effort on the part of the manager.  Most managers don’t have the resources to prepare themselves, let alone their employees, to properly prepare to attend training.  Using the checklist at the end of this document can help by providing a framework for the manager to engage in a meaningful dialog with the trainee before and after the learning event takes place.  But reality is reality and that reality is there will be managers who do supportive pre and post-training activities and there will be some that ignore any attempt to expand their skills to assist their employees.  There are still many managers who see that if a person is in training they are not being productive, when in reality, any training should be geared to improving productivity and tied to the organization’s success factors.  Here is a graphic to summarize the activities needed to support successful transfer of learning, and also a checklist that can be used to assist managers in preparing trainees to attend a training event.  You can find my Transfer of Learning Manager's Guide on the SAMPLE PRODUCTS page.  



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