Deciphering Learning Behavior Patterns to Make Training Engaging and Useful

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May 2, 2019

In today’s highly competitive business and talent landscape, promoting continual employee learning and development is essential. By engaging with employees at the right time, in an effective manner and with educational content that’s most relevant to them, HR leaders can satisfy both employee demand and organizational needs.

Too often, organizations and their HR leaders focus measurement of their learning initiatives solely on completion and/or compliance metrics. While completion may be an adequate metric for many required experiences such as new hire orientations, safety certification courses or manager development programs, this same measure is too often applied to non-required training as well. Completion alone doesn’t provide HR leaders with insight into impact or any useful evaluation of learning design and delivery. Furthermore, most employees don’t consume content and learning experiences in just one way, which can mean that completion actually misses the point entirely.

Four learning types

To successfully promote company-wide learning and development, HR leaders need to focus less on completion and compliance, and instead gain strategic and actionable insights into how employees consume educational content and engage with learning resources. There are a variety of interesting learning behaviors worth exploring, however, four are a good starting point.

Linear learning — Employees who are new to or less proficient with a topic usually prefer educational experiences catered toward linear learning. This approach is structured and presents limited content in an easy-to-understand manner following a predesigned sequence. For example, linear learning may involve an employee starting at chapter one or the introduction video of a course and taking the sequence as presented.

Nonlinear (or performance-adjacent) learning — Nonlinear learning involves employees jumping into a learning experience (e.g. a specific chapter of a book or part of a video course) to obtain a needed definition, answer or tool, and then quickly returning to their work to apply that new found knowledge. Nonlinear learning often occurs amongst employees who are more advanced in their level of proficiency in a particular topic and no longer want or need to be as structured in their consumption.

Deepening — When employees are focused intently on developing a skill and building proficiency in a very specific topic area, deepening learning behavior occurs. Deepening behavior can at times be very similar to linear learning given its propensity to occur when a new skill, concept or technology is being learned, however, employees who are deepening aren’t necessarily consuming content in a structured and sequential order. Rather, deepening is categorized by the employee who has a particular level of existing expertise on a certain topic and is focused on continuing her engagement with content or experiences on the same topic. Deepening behavior suggests, though doesn’t necessarily always prove, proficiency building.

Broadening — Broadening behavior is observed when an employee is beginning to show a sustained interest in a new topic area within the learning tools or resources provided. Broadening behavior may be indicative of an employee who is being asked or is self-driven to learn about new areas for professional or personal reasons. It could also mean an employee is drawing connections from different topics that aren’t obvious to others. Over time, broadening trends can suggest what’s top of mind for the most progressive employees, which can enable HR leaders to stay ahead of employees’ learning needs and be ready when those needs become mainstream.

Equally important to understanding and catering to key learning behaviors is recognizing that employees’ learning behaviors can and will change based on any given topic, an employee’s level of proficiency, the broader context (i.e. the priorities in an employee’s life and work) and the immediate context (i.e. what’s needed or possible in the moment). Also, it’s worth noting that employees can exhibit any number of the four key learning behaviors for one topic and another of the four for a different topic at the same time. For example, perhaps a software developer who is new to Agile methodology may engage in linear learning, while also exhibiting nonlinear and deepening behaviors as they learn more about Python, a subject they’re already well-versed in.

Understanding learning behaviors offers critical, long-term benefits. By continually working to understand employee learning behavior patterns, HR leaders can drastically improve learning efficacy by better determining what learning experiences to buy or build. Further understanding learning behaviors can help HR leaders align human capital initiatives to strategic corporate goals by helping keep HR informed about those areas of existing focus and emerging focus. Understanding key learning behaviors can also allow HR leaders to more accurately identify and design learning experiences for different proficiency levels, understand how employees are progressing through content and learning experiences and identify any areas of stagnation or lack of focus – and ultimately help their employees be more productive and engaged at their jobs.