What makes people apply what they learn during training


  1. When assessing how much people transfer learning to their jobs, it helps to distinguish between what people could do, from what they will actually do on the job.
  2. Smarter and conscientious individuals are more likely to try harder in applying knowledge and skills they’ve acquired through training in a sustained way.
  3. Increasing people’s self-efficacy, communicating clear expectations for training, and providing consistent workplace support, is likely to lead to higher transfer.

“American companies spent $156 Bn on learning programs in 2011, a staggering sum […]. Most of that money and time is wasted. Not because the training is necessarily bad, but because there’s no measure of what is actually learned and what behaviours change as a result.”

Laszlo Bock, in Work Rules

The science of learning transfer

In 2015, Huang and colleagues published a meta-analysis pooling together findings from the best 144 research studies on learning transfer. They looked at the predictors of what people could potentially transfer (maximum transfer), and what they will actually transfer on the job after training (typical transfer). This Evidence Summary will help you making more informed decisions in hiring future employees, and getting better value from your training budget.

What you need to know about maximum and typical transfer of training

To ensure people put maximum effort in transferring learnings to their job (that is, they really can do something differently), you should focus on increasing knowledge and skills acquisition. The old fashioned approach of making people sit for a short period of time and drown in lots of concepts doesn’t help. Instead, content should tailored to their job, bite-sized, and then tested on the job. Ultimately, giving them opportunities to practice and receiving feedback will help them turn knowledge into skills.

Furthermore, some individual differences predict the extent to which people can do something differently back at their tasks. People with higher cognitive ability are more likely to learn more, and better. Similarly, those with higher conscientiousness – as measured by the Big Five personality inventory – are more likely to set goals to apply new knowledge and practice new skills over an extended period.

On the other hand, when it comes to what people will actually do differently, motivation to transfer, post-training self-efficacy, and perceived workplace support are the predictors you should look at. These are individual’s attitudes organisations can wisely leverage every time it comes to learning. Ensure you set clear expectations around your training, as it may help enhance employees positive attitudes towards transfer.

Takeaways for practice

What most trainers, managers, and L&D consultants may miss is to make the most out of the time spent on learning. This Evidence Summary highlights the factors you can work on to ensure your spend isn’t wasted. These factors are relevant in hiring, training, and performance. Still, the best way to see ROIs is to evaluate training activities.

Recruiting and selection

  • Transfer of training is a result of the interplay between individual’s cognitive abilities, personality (i.e., conscientiousness) and motivation factors, so you should assess these aspects in hiring.

Training design and delivery

  • If you need your employees to perform specific and critical tasks (like selling) you should pay particular attention to creating the conditions for maximum transfer. Make sure your employees have frequent opportunities to practice, experiment and receive feedback in a track of continuous improvement.
  • To ensure that employees will apply what they learned in their daily practice, focus on self-efficacy and motivation to learn. Self-efficacy means building a “can-do attitude”: managers and trainers can boost self-efficacy by showing people that something they are doing today was acquired through training in the past, thus reminding them that they are mastering this new skill. In fact, making clear to trainees why the training is useful for their work will help reinforce their motivation to apply new knowledge.
  • Workplace support affects motivation to transfer too. This concerns your efforts throughout the organisation that signal to employees how much learning is important.
    • Ensure Senior Managers provide resources and endorse training activities. This goes from setting time for employees to spend on learning activities, allocate some time of skilled managers’ to teach others the skills they have mastered, or simply open up training sessions welcoming guest speakers or trainers.
    • Ask managers to communicate their expectations for employees to put their learning into practice. Prompt managers to ask learning-oriented questions frequently, and help employees set goals for future transfer.
    • Build a culture of psychological safety in teams, so that people feel they can take risks, try new behaviours and propose new ideas.

Trustworthiness score

We critically evaluated the trustworthiness of the study we used to inform this summary. We found that it has a moderately high (80%) trustworthiness level. This means that there is a 20% chance that alternative explanations for these results are possible, including random effects.

Learn how we critically appraise studies to assign them a Trustworthiness Score.

We aim to provide you only the best available scientific evidence to inform your decisions.

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Bock, L. (2015). Work rules!: Insights from inside Google that will transform how you live and lead. Hachette UK.

Huang, J. L., Blume, B. D., Ford, J. K., & Baldwin, T. T. (2015). A tale of two transfers: Disentangling maximum and typical transfer and their respective predictors. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30(4), 709.

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  1. Thank you for the article! Please take a look at: “Effective in-service training design and delivery: evidence from an integrative literature review” by Julia Bluestone, Peter Johnson, Judith Fullerton, Catherine Carr, Jessica Alderman and James BonTempo. This is a comprehensive meta-analysis of research. 🙂

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