If you’ve chatted with me or my team, you already know that we’re BIG fans of learning reinforcement as a key component to our solutions to ensure behavioral change. Designing effective training is complex—it should tell a story, spark learners’ creativity, make them want to learn while having some fun doing it, and get them hands-on experience to apply what they’ve learned. And even then, it still isn’t enough if it doesn’t change behavior.
Think about a time when you saw a great speaker or attended a powerful session. Or maybe you read an article about the power of meditation and you decided you were going to adjust your morning schedule. Maybe you meditated the first morning, then the second, you missed the third day but got back to it on the fourth. Then, two weeks later meditation isn’t on your radar anymore except when you hear someone mention it and feel guilty you “fell off the wagon.” This gradual loss of knowledge or habit over time is one of the biggest challenges in designing effective training.
Effective training that changes behavior requires purposeful repetition of the correct behavior (along with a million other things—but we’re simplifying here!). However, learning reinforcement is about more than repetition: It’s also about layering the right topic in the right modality at the right time from the right source. As stated in Hebb’s law, “cells that fire together wire together.” We need to get the cells firing together and create the CORRECT wiring.
Here’s an example of a super simple blended program that includes learning reinforcement (no topics included so you can substitute your own). Click on chart to view it larger.
You can see in the learner row that they’re getting multiple touches to the content through video, eLearning, instructor-led training, social prompts, and sharing. Their manager is getting learning summaries and specific actions they can take to easily support and reinforce. Learning reinforcement isn’t rocket science, it just requires intentionality. Let me show you some specific actions you can take to make reinforcement a part of your standard learning practices.
Creating the change
In theory, learning reinforcement is fantastic! In practice, you have busy learners who are bombarded by media every day, hundreds of courses that you certainly don’t have the budget to go back and update, and an already overwhelmed team who aren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of extending learning journeys. Oh joy….
It doesn’t have to be that difficult, though. Let’s look at four specific actions you can take to implement learning reinforcement and make it a standard practice in your development.
1. Examine your technology stack
Bringing 15 people together for a class or assigning eLearning to 300 people is relatively straightforward. Creating a spread-out learning reinforcement program that includes multiple modalities, reminder emails, push notifications, manager reminders, and more is a bit more complicated.
Work with your learning technologists or your LMS admin to determine what features are available. You’d be surprised how many people we work with who genuinely don’t know what their systems can do because it’s either (1) turned off, or (2) no one showed them all the features that were there. Once upon a time I implemented SaaS products, and I can tell you that adoption is a HUGE motivator for your LMS team. Talk to them about what you’re trying to achieve and let them help you figure out how your system can do it.
We recently implemented a program with key manager role-plays for part of a micro-credential. The original client assumption was to assign this micro-credential activity and give managers an Excel document as a rubric. This document would have likely just become yet another form that eventually stopped being completed since “no one checks it anyway.” By leveraging features already in the LMS, we were able to drive completion, pull metrics, see who had (and hadn’t) completed the form, and identified that the teams who completed the micro-credential were more effective than others. While very helpful for program evaluation, it’s also arming the L&D team to have future conversations with stakeholders about this strategy and manager accountability.
Hot tip: I’ve seen some organizations where there’s a bit of a disconnect between the LMS team and the learning development team. Think about what motivates your LMS team and come to them with genuine curiosity and a collaborative attitude.
2. Include your managers
Managers must be a part of your reinforcement strategy. Whether or not you develop a reinforcement “tail,” I’ll still shout from the rooftops that managers are KEY to successful behavior change and should be included before, during, and after learning. However, since we’re talking learning reinforcement, we’ll focus on how to include them after learning.
Build the skills
If your managers are not effective at giving feedback, coaching, change management, and holding their team accountable, you will need to start there. Creating this culture of accountability and building the skills of your managers will only make your life as an L&D professional easier. This careful curation of leadership skills isn’t something that can be truly covered in a few sentences, however it is a key focus area.
Give them the knowledge
For your managers to effectively coach or hold people accountable, they need to know the right behavior/process/task.
“But my managers don’t have time to go to two days of class.”
Can you afford not to have a common language around this initiative? Are you OK if your learners leave the classroom and you hear, “Well, that’s not how I do it”? Or, what if they aren’t effectively supported through the change after the formal learning event and ultimately return to the previous behaviors? If they “should already know it” (scary phrase!), how do you really know that they are in full alignment with what you’re teaching?
Which leads me to…
Arm them with tools
Straightforward tools and reminders are incredibly effective ways to save your managers time and provide a consistent experience for employees.
Here are a few examples of tools you could provide:
- Manager brief with a summary and follow-up questions*
- Leader playbook
- Short(!!!) video with quick hits
- Meeting “in a box” to discuss team-specific implementations
- Objection handling—what objections are we expecting and what are ways they can respond?
This is a key resource to not overcomplicate the language. Give them real-world scenarios—not fluffy corporate-speak they won’t actually use.
- Videos with examples of difficult conversations
- Provide activities that can be held during the next few months of team meetings
- Expected employee metrics and reports—with suggestions of how to apply and make recommendations based on the metrics they see
- Email templates for managers to send to their teams
- 1:1 prompts
- …and more!
Hold them accountable
It’s a manager’s job to ensure that their team has the vision & alignment, tools & resources, knowledge, and support to perform their duties. It’s up to the managers to give clear direction, set expectations, and hold their team accountable. If you are getting pushback from managers on supporting their team through change, I encourage you to discuss clear expectations with leadership.
3. Mindfully reinforce
“If everything is important, nothing is important.”
You’ve probably heard some variation of this phrase. If every piece of learning you roll out has a hefty reinforcement “tail” to it, your already overwhelmed learners are going to just see your communications as more “noise.”
On my phone I have some apps that send me notifications, and I literally just ignore them. “Why don’t you turn them off, Sabrina?” Is it because I’m lazy? No, it’s because in the moment I’m doing something else and it’s easier to just ignore it. The point is that they didn’t provide me the value I thought they would when I turned them on and now they’re just noise. Don’t become noise. Every communication from you needs to provide VALUE.
Identify what actually needs to be reinforced and establish a realistic cadence:
- How often will your learners engage in this behavior?
If I know this is a daily task, I may reinforce several times in the days after the session then maybe once after a couple weeks to make sure that they have the right behavior.
- Do we need to reinforce or curate an area where they know they have resources?
If this is an infrequent task, having effective job aids placed in a known location will be much more effective than sending emails that will go straight to the trash.
The root of the question is whether I need the behavior to be instinctual (unconsciously competent) or I need the learner to be aware and resourceful (consciously competent).
As you start establishing more programs, it’s helpful to develop a collision calendar of all learning programs/communications to see what your learners are experiencing.
4. Develop intentionally
So, you have the parts and pieces to begin planning and implementing reinforcement. How do you actually begin development? Don’t think about it too long! It may take some tweaking to see what works well with your organization, but the worst thing you could do is get stuck in analysis paralysis and not try anything.
Examine your current programs (this is the section with a million questions, but they’re good ones!)
- Talk to your stakeholders. Discuss with your managers, your learners, your leaders what they think would work best for them. What are managers doing now that you could simplify and standardize for them and their counterparts?
- Examine your current programs. Is there one with solid content but is not showing you the changes you were hoping? Is there “low-hanging fruit” where you can try out .earning reinforcement? Is there a program that is currently under development that would benefit from a reinforcement strategy?
- Measure. If you have enough learners for a control group and a reinforcement group, then measure the difference in success to give yourself the data to support future time and budget investment in learning reinforcement.
Embed learning reinforcement into your process
I’m a big proponent for “solve for the now and solve for the future,” which means we need to talk about your existing processes.
- Examine your intake forms. Are we having conversations with our SMEs and stakeholders at intake about what behavior we’re trying to change, how hard we think it’ll be, how often will they flex this new knowledge, and what will managers need for support?
- Examine your development templates for opportunities to add sections on reinforcement and manager support.
- Examine your development templates for opportunities to add sections on reinforcement and manager support. Wait — that was the same bullet as before… yes, yes it was. To create change we have to give our development (?) teams the resources to support and hold them accountable! Kinda hard to “forget” about reinforcement conversations when your development stakeholders are staring at an empty section of an outline under review.
- If you’re a learning leader, make learning reinforcement a continual topic of conversation. As you’re developing new programs, evaluate key reinforcement opportunities and the timing needed.
- Communicate this strategy to your leadership—bonus points if you can show them reinforcement in action with a small taste of a program.
- Establish manager support standards and gain leadership buy-in.
Apply it to yourself
Whoa, whoa, whoa—you don’t get to just stop reading this article without creating your own reinforcement/reminders to implement your own learning reinforcement strategy.
- Set a reminder for next week. What is one specific action you want to take?
- Set a reminder for three weeks from now with a link to this article and a specific goal you’d like to achieve.
- Send an email to someone from your LMS team to ask for some time to share ideas and brainstorm.
Learning reinforcement doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does have to be intentional if you want to jumpstart making your learning sticky.
*”Neuroscience for Learning and Development” by Stella Collins