Tips to Tie Action Learning Into E-Learning

Excerpt from Chapter 3 of “Making E-Learning Stick” by Barbara Carnes (ASTD, November 2012).

By Barbara Carnes

Action learning is a process by which participants “learn by doing”: that is, they acquire and apply knowledge through actions rather than traditional instruction. Research on action learning has shown that action-learning programs are at least 30 percent more effective than traditional lecturing. Action learning usually involves opportunities for small groups of individuals to solve real organizational problems while at the same time focusing on their learning. Developed first by Reg Revans in England in the mid-20th century, action learning has evolved into many different forms. But they usually share these characteristics:

  • Action learning scenarios present a problem, challenge, opportunity, issue, or task. It should be significant and important to the organization, group, or area of expertise.
  • While the problem can be tackled by an individual, ideally a team of four to six individuals works together to examine and solve an organizational problem. The problem should be relatively complex so it cannot be solved easily or quickly. The group can be made up of individuals from different areas of the organization, or from the same department.
  • The action learning process begins by posing questions to clarify the problem and then reflecting on possible solutions. The focus is on the questions and the reflection, which results in learning.
  • The process generates energy and creativity best when action can be taken and results can be reflected upon. There is equal emphasis on solving the problem and unearthing the learning that occurred during the process of solving it.

Action learning can be used as an activity or key learning strategy within an e-learning course or live virtual training. For example, you may design your training so the action-learning project is used as application practice following the presentation of structured learning content. While originally intended for live teams, action-learning projects can be adapted for an online environment, with a focus on either an individual or a team activity.

In a face-to-face environment, most action-learning experts recommend a coach to guide participants through the steps of problem analysis, and lead the discussion of how the solution was arrived at. In a virtual environment, a virtual coach could be assigned to the team, or the coaching role might be rotated among team members. As an alternative, a series of coaching questions can be posed so that, in effect, the training course becomes the coach.

To Use Action Learning with E-Learning

1.              Using focus groups, interviews, or surveys of management, identify significant problems in the workplace that would benefit from in-depth analysis and resolution.

2.              Determine whether the project should drive the course or the course should drive the project. In other words, should the project be introduced first and the learning content—whether extensive or brief—be provided after the project introduction, as the means to the end? Or should the learning content be presented first with the action-learning project appearing at a later point, perhaps as a capstone to the course?

3.              Develop a description of the problem to be solved. While a simple text explanation may be sufficient, video recordings from key stakeholders or knowledgeable individuals will add depth and meaning. Hint: Take a video camera to the information-gathering focus group or interviews mentioned in step one.

4.              Decide how to assign teams. Action learning is fueled by the synergy of individuals working together. A learning management system (LMS) or training coordinator could assign team members based on when they register for the course, or managers could assign teams based on a specific project or need that must be addressed. While it is not an ideal action-learning scenario, individual learners rather than teams could work independently on projects.

5.              Incorporate coaching into the action-learning project. If a virtual coach will be assigned, identify key points during the project at which the coach should be consulted. Coaching questions also can be incorporated at key points in the action learning process. The questions are meant to encourage participants to critically assess the problem and their attempts to solve it. For example:

  • What assumptions are behind the definition of the problem?
  • What types of feedback have been given to each collaborator?
  • What seems most difficult, so far, in the process?
  • What seems easy? Too easy?
  • What has the planning process been so far? How is it working? Does it need adjusting?
  • What aspects of the learning content come to mind when reflecting on the project work?
  • What aspects of the learning content have been confirmed or observed here?
  • Are there any alternative solutions to this problem? In other words, what’s the “second right answer”?

6.              Decide what will be done with the results of the project. Action learning projects work best when the team is empowered to implement the solution, evaluate results, and make any necessary adjustments. However, this may not be possible, especially in an e-learning environment. Given the situation, what could be done with the results of the action learning?

7.              When the project is completed, the course can be revised using another problem or opportunity. The same principles of problem-solving and course content are used.

Adaptations for Live Virtual Training

1.              Determine the best way to incorporate the action-learning project for live virtual learning. Several different action-learning projects and teams could be supported by a series of live virtual learning events, or the action-learning project could be assigned after content has been delivered, as a capstone of the class.

2.              When describing the problem to be solved, consider your training platform. For example, if it cannot support video, try using photographs accompanied by audio clips (record a telephone conversation or VOIP technology-assisted meeting).

3.              Live virtual training events offer great opportunities for coaching during action learning projects. Coaching questions and feedback could be the focus of live virtual sessions, or you may divide the time between content delivery and project coaching. You also may want to assign a virtual coach to step into this role during the training—someone who is knowledgeable about the project.


This may not be effective if:

  • There is little interest or support from management for forming teams to solve organizational problems, or implementing their solutions.
  • Project teams do not have the guidance, leadership, or self-direction to move through the problem-solving process.
  • The training topic does not lend itself to action learning. Topics that may not be a fit include ethics training, harassment prevention, and “how-to” technical training.
  • The training is being rolled out to large numbers of people, without the resources or opportunities to identify and solve problems.


  • Use live virtual sessions for project team meetings, in addition to or instead of learning content delivery. This will be easier if the technology platform allows for breakout groups. Otherwise, learning content can be presented first followed by separate “classes” for each project team, with the trainer rotating among the classrooms.
  • Develop an avatar to serve as a virtual coach as part of the e-learning course. This figure could deliver the reflective questions for consideration by the project team. This technique could be used in either an e-learning or a live virtual environment, but it may seem strange or impersonal when a live instructor is present.
  • Have multiple teams work on the same project and have them present to each other, to compare approaches.

Excerpt from Chapter 3 of “Making E-Learning Stick” by Barbara Carnes (ASTD, November 2012).For more information, visit

Barbara Carnes is a pioneer in the subject of training transfer, having written three books and a Ph.D. dissertation on the subject. Her experience includes more than 30 years of training with Sprint North Supply and Carnes and Associates, the training company she founded in 1982. Currently Carnes teaches human resource development graduate courses at Webster University, plus doctoral courses for The University of Phoenix. She regularly conducts train-the-trainer workshops and presentations; is actively involved with both ASTD and SHRM; and writes a newsletter, Sticky Notes.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.