Fasten Your Seatbelt

What a plane emergency has in common with learning retention and application.

The one element many of us take for granted when we fly is the safety demonstration. Flight after flight, we become immune to the smiling, well-meaning flight attendants who simply want to ensure our safety in the event of an emergency.

Naturally, our eyes glaze over and we continue playing with our electronic devices. But what you may not realize is that the airline is providing us with a complimentary, instructor-led session (or an e-learning course, for flights equipped with seat-back video) about safety procedures (no prerequisites required).

This is not meant to be an interactive course. They’re not asking for our participation. Either you get it or you don’t. Chances are you get it, and, if something happens, you should be able to act accordingly. The problem? You and the airline really don’t know if this is true. The airline never tests how much you retain from this brief learning interaction.

Our immediate observation (and a reminder for learning professionals) is that not all learning must be interactive. Too often, learning professionals insist on interactivity. We are so adamant about “getting interactive” that we forget learning can occur through other means.

But what does a plane emergency have in common with learning retention and application? Let’s assess this learning interaction by the Kirkpatrick Four Levels of Evaluation.

First, the flight attendants didn’t evaluate your satisfaction with the instruction (Level 1). The flight attendants also don’t know whether you or any of the other passengers actually retained any of the learning from the safety demonstration (Level 2). Finally, the attendants can’t prove if passengers can apply the safety skills (Level 3).

Here’s the scary part of this article—hold on to your seat (pun intended). To prove passengers retain and apply learning from the demonstration, an emergency must happen!

We didn’t address business impact. It’s obvious that if passengers don’t learn the safety demonstration (Level 2) and an emergency occurs, they wouldn’t be able to apply the safety skills (Level 3). Obviously, this would have significant consequences for business performance (Level 4).

What can you take away from this unfortunate comparison?

1. Training participants want to learn new skills just like the passengers as long as it’s timely and relevant. While the safety demonstration is relevant for regulatory requirements, it became irrelevant for passengers after a few viewings.

The takeaway: Make your learning efforts relevant for employees and timely to business needs.

2. While many believe there is value in “course/ participant feedback,” the reality is that it’s not done well and usually is a time waster. Don’t believe us? Ask yourself, “What did I do with the last set of smile sheets?”

The takeaway: Stop doing Level 1 evaluations for every learning effort since feedback isn’t a measure for learning.

3. Not every learning effort needs a “test” (Level 2), but learners must be able to apply the learning (Level 3). If they can’t, then you wasted valuable resources (time, money, effort) on irrelevant learning and you didn’t make any business impact (your business leaders’ sole preoccupation).

The takeaway: Recognize that learning retention’s primary objective (Level 2) is identifying specific employee skill gaps leading to improving employee job performance (Level 3). Just like the airline, if people don’t retain the right knowledge to apply at the right time, then it ultimately will adversely affect the business.

Relevant learning efforts ensure that employees act accordingly just as passengers on a plane about to crash. More importantly, focus learning on what employees must improve that will make them more effective in their roles. Finally, build your business leader’s confidence that in good times or bad, employees can apply the learning.

The next time you fly somewhere, take the time to learn from your instructors, the flight attendants. They’re providing more than a safety demonstration. They ensure that, if the time comes, you can perform in the event any changes occur during the flight. Do the same for your organization’s employees when changes occur. Just make sure they fasten their seatbelts first.

Ajay M. Pangarkar, CTDP, CPA, CMA, and Teresa Kirkwood, CTDP, are founders of and They are employee performance management experts and threetime authors, most recently publishing “The Trainer’s Balanced Scorecard: A Complete Resource for Linking Learning to Organizational Strategy” (Wiley 2009). Help them start a “Workplace Revolution” at or contact