The Problem of Anticipation Learning

The solution is training that focuses on learning at the point of need, so-called “teachable moments.”

By Dan Cooper, CEO,

Q: What training is the biggest waste of time for learners?
A: A one-day Excel class.

We’ve all been forced to take it some time or another. Heck, some of us have had to teach it, too. It’s that software training class taught in a computer lab full of PCs. You spend the day explaining arcane commands and wandering around helping students with happy fingers dig their way out of menu hierarchy messes. By the end of the course, your attendees supposedly are ready to do spreadsheet battle. They are setting up complex formulas, automating tasks with macros, using pivot tables. They are pushing Excel to its limits with confidence.

Then everybody goes back to their jobs. Voice mail is maxed out. Their e-mail inbox is several screens long. Work is backed up. The boss is asking when key reports will be finished. Life is back to normal and then some because the attendees have been away for a day.

About a month or so after the training, a co-worker comes up to one of your graduates asking how to set up a pivot table and a pivot chart report. In the time since class, the Forgetting Curve has been steadily at work. All those commands, if they haven’t already been forgotten, are now a confused jumble of menu options. Your student has to go back to the Excel help system to even remember what tab the pivot table menu sequence resides in.

Sound familiar? This happens with more than just PC skills training. It occurs with any content that involves detailed information and complex processes or has intervals so long between performance repetitions that the methods are forgotten in between.

The answer to this is supposed to be a refresh learning process, right? It turns out there is certain content where that isn’t enough. Unless delivery methods are changed, even refresh learning still is delivered periodically, which may not be sufficient for some tasks.

The problem is that most training is “anticipation learning” (i.e., content delivered long before employees actually need it). Like in the Excel example, this gives the Forgetting Curve time to do its work, where the bulk of that forgetting happens soon after the training event. If those new skills are not used immediately on the job, or if a refresh learning event doesn’t take place in the interim, new skills are lost and have to be re-taught.

Contrast this with training that focuses on learning at the point of need, so-called “teachable moments.” What’s required is content with characteristics we call J4 Learning:

Just as needed.

Training is most effective when it is delivered to address a worker need. Learning how to do a pivot table might be useful, but if none of the Advanced Excel Training attendees actually need to create a pivot table when they return to their jobs, then it’s not compelling content.

Just in time.

Training is most effective when it is delivered immediatelywhen needed. By that, I mean within seconds. That’s the only way to defeat the Forgetting Curve. Even a one-day class has an overnight usage delay built in, with the inevitable loss of a significant portion of the information. Remember, the largest block of forgetting happens soon after the training event.

Just enough.

Trainers tend to clump huge amounts of content into learning events in order to completely cover a topic and all its ramifications. It’s supposedly the “efficient” way to teach. But most learners find only a small part of it helpful.

That’s why you so often hear attendees say something like, “It was a useful seminar. I got two or three really good ideas out of it.”

Sixteen hours spent to get a couple of useful ideas? Are you kidding? You could have conveyed that in 10 minutes. How can the Training function survive with such inefficiencies?

Workers want to learn just enough for the task at hand, do it, and then go on to the next job. They don’t want a history of electricity starting with an ancient Egyptian battery. They just need to safely install a replacement compressor pump. All that other information might be useful someday, but they know they won’t remember it by the time they’re in the same situation again.

Just right.

Employees simply need help. They want training that is easy to learn from, that can be taken right at the point of application, and that can be completed quickly. This is training with the very attributes I have been talking about—compelling, task oriented, results focused, and short. And if it is to be delivered at every possible point of use, it has to be designed for deployment to mobile devices.

Reducing program length is not just about cognitive load and attention span. The issue of anticipation learning is one more reason why training needs to be designed to a 10-minute target time. It’s the perfect format for J4Learning.

Let’s go back to our Advanced Excel Training example. Instead of sending people to training in a PC lab, what should organizations do? Online Excel training courses are hours long, more complicated than a classroom course because there is no wandering tutor to help, and just as forgettable as the computer lab version. Excel’s online help system may not provide enough information for users to figure it out on their own, and an Internet search often turns up an overwhelming amount of sometimes conflicting information.

The best solutions are computer-based training products that have divided up all the functions of software such as Excel into hundreds of short training programs. Each teaches a single task and shows the operations in a screen-capture window. Learners can place the course window and their own application window side by side and follow the tutorial, stopping it when needed to perform the functions as they are being shown.

What I’m talking about here is a blurring of training and performance support. Ideally, both of these functions can be done with the exact same training products.

With solutions like these, it’s not a matter of remembering at all. Once a task is completed, employees can forget about how to do it, knowing that they can quickly re-teach themselves should they need to do it again.

Dan Cooper is CEO of Fast 4ward your learning—find out more at

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