The Best Workplace Learning Theories

Posted by

David Mangion

on 15 Apr 2024

Learning theories have been developing for decades. We examine the six most well-established theories and explain how they can help improve outcomes.

best workplace learning theories

When designing employee training, a primary goal is to ensure that knowledge is actually retained and not simply forgotten shortly afterwards.

If your training processes don't deliver, at best, your employees will perform inefficiently, wasting valuable company resources. However, at worst, failing to comply with the law may lead to substantial fines, damage to your reputation and even potentially a prison sentence.

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Key structured workplace learning theories

To ensure this never happens to you, when designing your learning processes, you can take guidance from these established learning theories.

  1. Instructional design
  2. The 70-20-10 rule for leadership development
  3. Microlearning
  4. Storytelling
  5. Lateral thinking
  6. Kirkpatrick Model

1. Instructional design

Instructional design is the method by which a course is created. Many theories have emerged over the years, from which we've created some best practices.

The term has been around since the 1940s when several psychologists and educationalists created training materials to assess the learning abilities of soldiers fighting in World War II.

What is the basic premise of instructional design?

In recent years, instructional design has become more closely associated with workplace training, particularly around legal and compliance topics.

But the primary functions of instructional design remain the same:

  1. Analysing learning needs
  2. Developing better learning experiences

There are strong similarities between the major theories, although each takes a slightly different stance. Each provides a taxonomy for the stages of the learning process, from the identification of training needs and the creation of learning materials to the practical application of knowledge.

We've examined four of the key models to create best practices for using instructional design.

2. The 70-20-10 rule for leadership development

Another powerful learning theory, the 70-20-10 concept, was created over 40 years ago by the Center for Creative Leadership, which claimed that leaders learn in three very distinct ways:

  • 70% of learning is from "challenging assignments" – learning by doing.
  • 20% of learning is from "developmental relationships" - learning through people.
  • 10% of learning is from "formal coursework & training" - workshops, exams etc.

The 70-20-10 concept makes it clear that formal training and coursework are only part of the learning process. However, the sad reality is that many businesses only focus on this part of learning when allocating their budgets, missing out on 90 per cent of training potential!

Here’s how you can put the 70-20-10 concept into practice:

3. Microlearning to combat the 'forgetting curve'

According to Hermann Ebbinghaus's "forgetting curve", time has a tremendous effect on our memory. His theory claims that our ability to retain information decays rapidly at first and then evens out with the passage of time.

What's more, we are said to lose around half the information we learn within an hour and will have only 20% remaining just a month later. Scary!

Thankfully, several learning theories have been created to help counter our natural forgetfulness, with one of the most useful being ‘micro-learning.’ By incorporating micro-learning into your training programmes, you’ll be able to provide your staff with a steady stream of education throughout the year, helping to minimise knowledge gaps while reinforcing crucial concepts.

Micro-learning offers employers a seemingly endless number of formats, many of which are accessible to all and will work on most types of devices.

Here are some of the best ways to include micro-learning in your training programmes:

4. Maximising training impact by great storytelling

Stories help us connect with people and the world around us, which is why including the power of stories in an e-learning course will make its contents far more compelling and much harder to forget!

Here are four ways that you can use storytelling for maximum impact:

  1. News Stories
    If learners see a story about the devastating consequences a breach of conduct had on a company or individuals, they'll be less likely to breach it themselves in the future.
  2. Simulations & Scenarios
    Practical simulations will make your course much more engaging and will give learners important practical experience, thereby boosting their confidence.
  3. Serious Games
    Come up with a story that revolves around the target area of your training module and allows your learners to navigate their way through a series of challenges and choices. Seriously fun and seriously effective!
  4. The Back Story
    Explaining why certain rules exist and how they relate to your staff may encourage a change in perception, leading to your employees concluding that the rules are actually working for them instead of against them.

5. Encouraging lateral thinking in learning

Lateral thinking is a concept that was introduced to the world by Edward de Bono back in 1973. It is basically a way to solve problems by using a creative and indirect approach to reasoning and involves using approaches typically incompatible with traditional methods of deduction, such as holding conflicting ideas in your mind.

Thanks to the importance of thinking outside the box, more and more e-learning courses are looking for ways to incorporate De Bono's ideas. Getting learners' creative juices flowing is a challenge since so much creativity is innate. However, there are ways to modify your e-learning course to help people to think more laterally.

Ways to encourage lateral thinking in the workplace

  • Asking staff to find alternative solutions to everyday problems
  • Giving your workers a platform for debate
  • Encouraging staff to draw 'mind maps'
  • Fostering a culture of curiosity, where staff are rewarded for innovative ideas
  • Posing thought-provoking questions

    If you'd like to improve your training by introducing lateral thinking, we have six tips on how to encourage lateral thinking in e-learning.

6. Kirkpatrick Model for training evaluation

After investing a considerable amount of time and money in developing a tailored e-learning course for your company, how can you gauge how much of an impact it actually has? In short, how can you be sure it was worth the effort?

Leaders in the e-learning industry often refer to a model designed in the 1950s by Donald Kirkpatrick, known as the Kirkpatrick model, which helps training course developers work out just how effective their courses are.

The Kirkpatrick Model lists four levels of training evaluation:

  • Reaction: What did learners think and feel about the training?
  • Learning: Did learner knowledge increase as a result of the training?
  • Behaviour: Did behaviour/capabilities improve, and have they applied what was learned?
  • Results: What effect has the training had on the business or working environment?

Find out how to use the Kirkpatrick Model to evaluate compliance training

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