Smart Training: A Learner-Guided Approach

Rather than define learning as formal or informal, why not provide learners directions that guide them to learn job competencies—especially, through job-based experiences?

The idea of guiding self-directed learning is a very practical approach. Rather than define learning as formal or informal, why not provide learners directions that guide them to learn job competencies—especially, through job-based experiences?

After years of designing and implementing competency-based training, I have come to support the research that says how you apply knowledge is linked to how and where that knowledge was acquired. I have found that 90 percent of job competencies are learnable on the job through guided job-based experiences involving observation and working with role models, inquiry, problem solving, analyzing processes, and social and collaborative learning activities. The other 10 percent typically represent behavioral or complex skills not easily learned on the job. Learning on the job and applying acquired skills under real job conditions creates opportunities not associated with traditional training approaches. This prepares learners for the job before they enter it.

Build a Learner-Guided System

Developing a guided learning approach consists of three elements:

  1. Creating a framework to guide the learner with a tool called a “training guide”
  2. Harnessing self-directed learning strategies
  3. Using technology to support the learning system

Construct Training Guides

A training guide is created for each competency and contains the following four parts:

1. Identify Job Competencies. A job competency is defined as the essential skill a competent employee should possess to succeed in his or her job. With a learner-guided system, competencies are defined using expert performer contribution. As defined here, a competency contains a behavioral (skill), cognitive (knowledge), and affective (attitudinal) component.

2. Develop Learning (training) Activities. Learning activities are developed for each competency. Here are a few key elements that are considered when creating learning activities:

  • Job competency elements (skill, knowledge, attitude) are broken down to determine how best they can be developed into learning activities. For example, skill development might involve observation, guided practice, assisting, and then performing on a job.
  • Key processes are examined to determine what role they play in designing learning activities.
  • Available resources are identified (people, sources of information, etc.) that support the nature of learning activities. Social, collaborative, and time-sensitive events also are determined to facilitate and guide learning.

A useful tool that aligns with learning activities is the use of a journal where learners answer pre-defined questions related to the importance, purpose, and relationship of the competency to key organizational aspects associated with each competency.

Note: A certain amount of creativity goes into creating learning activities given the differences in job competencies, work environments, role models, and other resources from one organization to another.

3. Create Standards of Performance. Each learning activity has a standard of performance to guide evaluation. Criteria such as timing, context, quality, correctness, etc., and the organization’s current or future policy and procedural standards are considered. In essence, a criterion-referenced approach is applied.

Managing the process of evaluation is greatly enhanced by using the idea of “learning contracts.” For each training guide, a designated coach/advisor/mentor signs off that the learner has mastered all agreed-to elements of the competency.

As learning activities are worked on, learners receive positive, immediate, and continuous feedback as they accomplish each training activity. Further feedback occurs as they master each competency.

By learning job competencies that are practiced on the job, learners achieve a high level of retention and application, which significantly enhances future job performance.

4. Assemble Supporting Resources. As part of the development process, a search is conducted to identify all organizational resources that may contribute to the learner-guided system. Think of job aids, documents, video and/or audio clips/lessons, process maps, and role models that exist in the job environment. In certain situations, it may make sense to create a resource that is not available but would contribute greatly to the learning process.

The benefits of constructing a learner-guided framework go beyond a mere training application. For individual employees, clear expectations of the training program, as well as the job itself, are set forth. For the organization, a competency model is developed that can be used for training, selection, career development, and performance appraisal.

Harness the Power of Self-Directed Learning Strategies

In its simplest definition, self-directed learning allows the learner control over multiple options for learning. To further increase the value of a learner-guided approach, the following self-directed learning strategies are prescribed:

Allow Self-Paced Learning. With employees becoming more diverse in the workplace, self-pacing recognizes that learners differ in how they learn and in the length of time it takes them to learn.

Advantages of self-pacing include:

  • Enhanced learning (higher scores and better performance)
  • Improved use of facilities and role models
  • Elevated motivation and morale of learners and coaches

Strive for Mastery Learning. In the Mastery approach, those who have difficulty in gaining mastery are given more opportunities to gain mastery. Typically, learners decide on the amount of practice needed and are responsible for requesting evaluation of competency completion.

Allow Individualize Instruction. Individualized instruction represents a process of custom- tailoring training to fit a particular learner. In a learner-guided system, individualization can be done at the beginning of training, with an assessment and then during training by allowing learners to by-pass elements of a program if they can demonstrate mastery.

Allow Learners to Self-Manage Their Program. With a learner-guided approach, employees decide how to organize training guides. They plan their time, schedule learning activities, select resources, and arrange performance evaluation. In essence, they practice management skills to successfully complete their training program.

Make Technology Helpful. The learner-guided approach views technology as a tool. In this capacity, technology serves two roles. First, as a resource for acquiring information through ubiquitous tools such as e-mail, Internet, and sources for information that support job-based learning. Second, as a tool to manage and facilitate learning outcomes for the learner and the organization.

The following are important ways technology can support a learner-guided system:

  • Create a depository of training guides—A place to store and have readily accessible training guides based on multiple jobs across the organization.
  • Organize the assessment process—Either before or during training, organize the results of assessment to document how learning was individualized for the learner.
  • Track learning results—Track successful completion of learning activities and competencies.
  • Create a resource library—A storage place for multiple resources ready to be accessed via links located in training guides when needed by the learner.
  • Make updating easier—Perform periodic updates of all elements of the learning framework.
  • Distribute program materials—Provide access to training materials and resources easily and quickly.
  • Facilitate feedback loops—Facilitate immediate and continuous coaching and create formal feedback loops based on milestones a learner accomplishes.
  • Support Journaling—Document and store “key points” for feedback and evaluation.

In summary, real accomplishments result when a learner-guided approach is implemented. On a personal level, learner-guided training projects I’ve been involved with not only produced significant reductions in training time and costs, they also had a big impact on employee retention.

Organizations that are working hard to make changes due to economic pressures, employee demographics, or a desire for their employees to assume more responsibility for their development should take a hard look at applying a learner-guided approach.

John H. Cox is the president of the Cox Learning Group. He’s made a career developing learner-guided systems for numerous organizations across sales, supervisory, management, customer service, and multiple front-line roles. He can be reached at or