Pass your learning test

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Written by Mark Simmonds on 1 April 2013 in Features

Mark Simmonds shows how L&D practitioners can take some direction from driving instructors

One quotation, two questions and a hypothesis.

The quotation first: "I know that half of my advertising budget is wasted, but I am not sure which half" is a comment often attributed to Lord Leverhulme, British founder of Unilever and philanthropist.

First question: As a trainer, how many times in your career have you attempted to get participants to pick up a new skill by relying on a one- or two-day training course or workshop alone? Second question: How long did it take you to learn to drive a car?

And finally the hypothesis: I believe that, if we could all take inspiration from the methods and principles used to help people pass their driving tests, we would ensure that a greater proportion of money spent in the world of capability development was not wasted, by realising that relying on the workshop, all on its own, is simply not enough!

"My goal is to learn how to drive safely"

When you start learning how to drive a car, you have one clear and unambiguous objective: you want to learn how to drive a car safely. This objective is clearly understood by both the driving instructor and the learner and, as a result of this clarity, the entire programme of learning is set up to meet this objective.

Too frequently in the world of training and learning, objectives are either unclear, unrealistic or misunderstood by the different stakeholders. Objectives drive learning design and content, and laziness in objective-setting will always lead to bigger problems down the line. The most common problem I encounter in this area is an overload of several 'application' objectives ("I would like to learn how to work together in a team more effectively", "I would like to be able to write a better marketing plan") without the time being available on the course to achieve them.

The warning signs in training documents and proposals are generally when you see five or six 'application' objectives optimistically packed into a one-day course!

Top learning tip: If one or more of your learning objectives require your participants to change their behaviour in the workplace, keep the number of these objectives in the intervention small.

One major and eight minors

Before you start learning how to drive, you are completely clear how success will be measured. You will take a driving test on a certain date and you will be told whether you have passed or whether you have failed. You will know, for certain, whether you have achieved your goal of being able to drive safely. The driving instructor is much more concerned that you pass your test than whether you like him as a person, which is why you never get given a form to fill in at the end of each lesson, asking for feedback!

In the world of L&D, the measurement of results and impact back in the business, say three to six months after the event, rarely takes place, but what always does seem to take place is the completion of the famous 'did you like me, the venue and the course' happy sheets!! In Kirkpatrick terms, lip service is always paid to levels 2 (retention of knowledge), 3 (change in behaviour) and 4 (return on investment), whereas level 1 (reaction to the learning event) still predominates!

I think that learning/training professionals often have the best of intentions in this area, but trying to evaluate effectiveness and impact always seems fairly low down the list of priorities. There is always the next wave of courses to organise and the cycle of waste continues.

Top learning tip: Agree with the key stakeholders what resource will be put in place and when to measure behaviour change and the commercial impact on the business of the learning.

Six months and ten lessons later

Typically, what does it take for an average person to learn how to drive a car? He is likely to have anywhere between eight and 12 lessons, each lasting an hour, spread out over a period of four to six months. As well as being able to drive a car on the road, he will also be asked to take an online theory test that will ensure he knows how the speed limit on a motorway differs to that on a dual carriageway, for example. In addition to this, he will go out on countless occasions with Mum, Dad or elder sibling to practise what he has learned in his lessons. He will watch other people drive, close up or from a distance, picking up both good and bad habits! And then, finally, on a given date, he will take his driving test and hope to prove to an unforgiving examiner that he has finally learned how to drive!

The pupil will have experienced a blended approach with a full variety of learning interventions to help him achieve his goal.

Admittedly, learning a new behavioural skill required in the workplace is probably not as difficult to master as learning to drive a car, but does anyone honestly believe that a one- or two-day workshop, on its own, will be sufficient to get somebody to change the way they do things? Would it not be more effective if L&D professionals talked about programmes of learning rather than defaulting to one-off workshops? Why doesn't this happen? There are probably three reasons.

Firstly, managers might genuinely not understand that learning a new professional skill needs more than just a one-off hit. "They have been on the course, so I can't understand why they cannot seem to write an insightful business plan!" Secondly, there might be good intentions all round but the reality of a hectic working environment can often get in the way when trying to co-ordinate and implement 'proper learning'. They fully understand the merits of a blended approach, but do not quite have either the tenacity or the perseverance to pull it off. Thirdly, and somewhat damningly, they might not really care. As long as the course scores 4.5, and as long as enough people get through the programme without complaint, that will be good enough for all concerned. Even though Kirkpatrick might be grinding his teeth as levels 3 and 4 once again bite the dust, life is too short to care too much!

It is also worth stressing that behaviour change in the workplace might not be too high up on the participants' agendas if it simply adds to their stress levels. It needs to add value to their working lives in the same way that passing the driving test adds obvious value to a 17-year-old's life.

Top learning tip: To effect behaviour change, agree a realistic programme of events right from the outset, rather than settling for a one-off learning intervention.

The one-hour driving lesson

The shark has often been described as the perfect killing machine. If you dissected a one-hour driving lesson, you would see the perfect learning machine in action! Here are eight good reasons why:

  • the lesson is 1:1 and can therefore be completely tailored to the individual
  • it takes place in the same environment in which the learner will be practising his skill once he has passed his test
  • for about 80 per cent of the lesson, the learner is learning by doing, and for the remaining 20 per cent, he is reviewing how he has performed, parked in a lay-by! Best practice learning! In the words of Pablo Picasso, "I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it"
  • there is not one ounce of waste in the lesson. Every second, every minute of the hour is spent doing something that will help the learner achieve his stated learning objective
  • the driving instructor insists on getting the learner to repeat each skill (three point turns, reversing round the corner, for example) until he has mastered it
  • the driving instructor will always be very careful not to overwhelm the learner with too much information at one go, ensuring that the lesson remains single-minded, in terms of its learning objective
  • each lesson builds on the last, and the driving instructor will always ensure that skills practised in the last lesson are practised again in subsequent ones
  • finally, the lesson lasts an hour only - long enough to make real progress, short enough not to place unrealistic demands on the learner's time. There is no chance that you will find the learner fiddling around with his BlackBerry during the lesson!

Now, if you take each of the eight characteristics of the perfect learning machine in action and carry out an honest audit of any training courses you have run or attended, how would these courses stack up? Speaking personally, I have room for improvement!

Top learning tip: Force yourself to reduce the amount of time you need to carry out each learning intervention by half because it should make you more efficient and this will be in everybody's interests!

The driving instructor, the 17-year-old and Mum

In order for good learning to take place, it is really important that the right stakeholders get involved at the right time, each making the right contribution.

The driving instructor is likely to have had experience of driving cars for many years and he will also possess the qualifications necessary to teach beginners. He will come from the local area and will therefore be completely knowledgeable about all the roads that you will need to master. He will be operating in a competitive market place, so he cannot afford to be bad at his job. And finally, the way in which he is likely to have secured the contract will have been through referral and, therefore, based on his reputation. The strong likelihood is that he will be perfectly equipped to help you reach your objective. How many trainers have you come across who have credentials to the same degree?

The 17-year-old will more than likely be desperate to learn to drive. A rite of passage, he will not want to be left behind in the peer group race. He will be old enough to drive and the tuition will, therefore, have arrived on a just-in-time basis. The driving instructor will have neither a 'prisoner' nor a 'holidaymaker' in the car, but rather somebody as eager to learn as anybody! How often are we as trainers confronted by participants who really should not be in the room or don't want to be in the room?

The third stakeholder is likely to be either Mum or Dad. They will have discussed, along with their child, which one of them is likely to be best suited to helping out with the teaching duties. Once the choice has been made, the duties are always likely to be taken very seriously for a number of reasons: Firstly, a parent's biggest nightmare is the thought of their child getting involved in a serious accident early in their driving career, so the more help and guidance they can be given the better. Secondly, learning to drive is expensive, so the more of their time they can commit, the less reliant they will be on the driving instructor. Thirdly, the quicker they pass the test, the earlier they can help out with taxi duties in the household!

How much of a role do most line managers really play back in the workplace in the embedding of learning? How much thought goes in to who should be the ongoing coach or mentor back in the workplace? What incentive is there for this person to take on the role?

Top learning tip: As the trainer, engage the line managers/mentors before you train the participants.

Drive, drive, drive…

This is the really impressive bit. The learner passes his test and has therefore achieved his objective of being able to drive safely. The learning programme has succeeded.

What happens next is that he continues to drive and put into practice all the skills that he picked up during the preceding six months. There is absolutely no holding him back! What' s more, Mum and Dad continue to monitor the newly-qualified driver, passing on little gems of wisdom where appropriate, admonishing when necessary. And if the young driver steps out of line, or forgets any of the skills that he learned, he usually comes face to face with the dreaded speed camera, unmarked police car and the ensuing penalty system. In other words, there is plenty in place to ensure that safe driving continues to take place.

And consider this fact. Having learned to drive a car, how many people forget how to drive a car? None at all! What a great testament to the embedding process. Bring this all back into the world of the workplace and think how much is ever put in place to ensure that learning takes root, where newly learned skills become engrained in the DNA of the individuals within the hectic working environment.

Let's face it, the poor participants often never receive the necessary support and guidance back in the workplace for any sustained period of time and, to compound things further, they often find themselves bombarded with yet another corporate initiative that simply serves to muddy the waters even more!

Top leaning tip: As the trainer, make sure you understand how, and how often, the participants will apply the learning before you start to design your learning interventions.

Don't waste the money!!

The model for learning how to drive a car is extremely robust simply because it follows many of the best practice principles of learning. The proof is in the results.

Now admittedly, learning to write a business plan or how to work effectively in teams, for example, probably does not demand such a rigorous or comprehensive learning solution, because it's not quite as difficult to master. But it probably does deserve more than a two-day workshop!

Even if L&D professionals were prepared to adopt only half of the principles discussed in this article, there's a good chances that we would not find ourselves being forced to admit that 50 per cent of the money that was spent in our industry was a complete waste!

About the author

Mark Simmonds is founder of marketing training company brandtalk. He can be contacted on +44(0) 1525 240724 or at


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