We Know What Makes Learning Effective. Why Don’t We Do What It Takes?

Excerpt from Hands On Technology Transfer Inc.’s white paper “We Know What Makes Learning Effective. Why Don’t We Do What It Takes?”

Although high-minded people have been talking about the process of learning for at least 2,500 years, humans did not seriously start trying to figure out the biological, psychological, and sociological mechanics of education until the 1800s. It’s a small wonder that, overall, we’re still not very good at it.

How We Learn

We do know a few things for certain. For example, we know that the hunter-gatherer societies in which humans lived for the first 190,000 years of our 200,000 year history lacked any formal education. This was so despite the fact there was much to be learned about what species were valuable, how they behaved, when they were likely to be around, where they could be found, how to create tools, and so on. We know that with no formal educational system, children in hunter-gatherer societies were given great freedom to educate themselves through self-directed play and exploration, while certain details were handed down from parents to children. We evolved such that those who were successful in learning through observation and practice, and who learned well from their parents and elders, were most likely to survive. It’s fair to say that we evolved in such a way that we learn best through face-to-face teaching and actual practice.

Practice Is Crucial

About 2,500 years ago, someone in China (not Confucius, although people like to say it was) said something very much like, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Whoever it was, they were on to something.

We have known for a long time that we learn better when we both watch a lesson and apply a lesson, but it’s only recently that we have come to understand why. It turns out that when we both observe and practice, we engage not only more of the brain, but parts of the brain that otherwise would be completely uninvolved. Therefore, when we later try to recall a lesson that was learned through both observation and practice, there is more information in the brain available for retrieval.

If there were merely a slight advantage to adding experiential learning to a lesson, it might not be worth the effort. But again, we recently have come to understand just how important the hands-on part is. In a recent study that involved more than 27,000 students, it was demonstrated that students who engaged in training that included not only the viewing of lectures but also the completion of hands-on activities retained six times as much as those who only read the material or watched a video. The study also made it clear that the best outcomes (by far) are achieved when students both watch the lectures and complete complex activities. There are no effective shortcuts.

There’s a Problem

Unfortunately, the inclusion of comprehensive, challenging, in-depth learning activities presents an additional roadblock: Students routinely need help, which is best provided by an instructor, subject matter expert, or other easily available expert facilitator. Most providers of self-paced training treat such facilitation as an additional or unjustifiable cost or inconvenience. Why is that? There are many reasons.

Expense and convenience. First of all, it is time-consuming, expensive, and difficult to develop good lab exercises. Consider the time, effort, and cost that go into creating the virtual lab environments that are so often used instead of authentic lab environments. Those expensive pseudo-solutions are attractive only because even at their high cost, they are still less expensive than developing exhaustive exercises and providing real-world lab environments, not to mention providing the facilitation that is needed for success.

My Dad used to say, “Never patronize an establishment that places their convenience above yours.” I have found that to be sage advice, so I prefer that my trainers do what they know will provide the best learning experience, even if it is inconvenient and expensive for them to do so.

This trend toward light labs is particularly prevalent in e-learning. It’s so tempting to create a completely self-contained course that can be rolled out over and over again without the involvement of actual instructors or subject matter experts. Frankly, this is only possible if the labs are all but worthless.

Appearance-based training. In the marketplace, it’s important for trainers to be able to say, “We provide lab exercises.” Unless those who are purchasing the training are spectacularly meticulous about researching the quality of the lab exercises, there is little incentive for providers to do more than make the labs appear to be useful.

Wishful thinking. It would be wonderful for everyone if training were easy. We’d all be thrilled if students could develop a deep and broad understanding of complex technical topics by watching an online lesson, answering a few multiple choice questions, and walking through a carefully sandboxed software simulation. To believe such a thing is possible is just wishful thinking by both sellers and buyers of such training products.


At this point in history, for the first time we not only know what activities are most effective for transferring knowledge from teacher to student, but also why those activities are effective, and how much more students learn when the proper activities are included in the training experience. Training is most effective when humans interact with humans, but even more important, training must include comprehensive, challenging, in-depth learning activities in a realistic (not simulated) lab environment that necessarily includes expert facilitation. A few multiple choice questions and impossible-to-fail lab exercises are no substitute.

To view our recommendations on how you can identify training that will deliver the effective results you need, refer to our report: Six Questions You Must Ask to Ensure Your Training Will Build Competence.

Excerpt from Hands On Technology Transfer Inc.’s white paper “We Know What Makes Learning Effective. Why Don’t We Do What It Takes?” For sources and a complete version of the white paper, visit: https://www.traininghott.com/White-Papers/Why-Dont-We-Do-What-It-Takes.htm.

Colin E. Grant, the chief education officer at Hands On Technology Transfer, Inc. (traininghott.com), has worked in the field of technical education for almost 40 years as a technical trainer, programmer, course developer, media developer, manager, executive, entrepreneur, editor, and author. Contact him at: colin.grant@traininghott.com.

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