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What are the Best Workplace Learning Theories?

Posted by

David Mangion

on 20 Jan 2020

The Best Workplace Learning Theories

Learning theories have been developing for decades, each has their own merits. We look at six of the most well established theories to explain how you can use them to improve outcomes.

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

  1. Bloom's Taxonomy
  2. The 70-20-10 rule for leadership development
  3. Micro-learning
  4. Storytelling
  5. Lateral thinking
  6. The Kirkpatrick model

1. Bloom’s taxonomy of learning


Originally created in 1956 by Benjamin Bloom with a team of collaborators, Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning is a hierarchical learning theory model which explains the way in which people learn, as well as what stages each learner goes through in order to master higher order skills.

Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning identifies three key domains:

  • Cognitive (knowledge-based)
  • Affective (emotion and attitude)
  • Psychomotor (action or behaviour)

When it comes to developing an e-learning course, it is the cognitive domain which is of most use to us. This domain consists of six successive tiers of cognition, starting from ‘Knowledge’ and ending with ‘Evaluation’. Generally speaking, the higher up the pyramid a learner goes, the closer they’ll get to mastering the subject.

Find out how to use Bloom's Taxonomy to improve learning outcomes.

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, who claimed that leaders learn in three very distinct ways:

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

The 70-20-10 concept makes it clear that formal training and coursework is 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 percent of training potential!

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

3. Micro-learning 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 percent 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 through 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 allow 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 which 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 of encouraging lateral thinking in the workplace include:

  • 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 how to encourage lateral thinking in e-learning.

6. Using Kirkpatrick's model to assess training effectiveness

After investing a considerable amount of time and money on 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 1950's by Donald Kirkpatrick, known as the Kirkpatrick model, which helps training course developers work out just how effective their courses are.

Kirkpatrick’s Training Model consists of four levels of 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 apply Kirkpatrick’s model to your compliance training

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If you've any questions or concerns about compliance or e-learning, please get in touch.

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