Science starting to impact training and development

Ruth Clark, keynote speaker at next week's Canadian Society for Training and Development Knowledge Exchange conference, sat down with Canadian HR Reporter to talk about the evolution of the training profession

Ruth Clark isn’t under any illusion that we have learned all that we need to learn about learning. Far from it.

In her view the training profession is today where medical doctors were in the early 1800s — mixing science and hocus pocus, selling concoctions on hype and hope but, in small numbers, beginning to sort out what works and what doesn’t by testing them for replicable results.

Though the body of research is still small, it has been growing, particularly in the area of cognitive psychology, said Clark. As keynote speaker at next week’s annual Knowledge Exchange, an industry conference in Toronto organized by the Canadian Society of Training and Development, Clark sees it as her job to rally practitioners to apply science in the training they develop and deliver.

“Sometimes clients ask for the craziest thing, and I would be remiss if I didn’t explain to them that while I can give them what they want, it might not give them the results they’re looking for,” said Clark.

Clark sympathizes with training practitioners, particularly those who do not have the luxury to turn down a job they know will turn out bad. Much of the blame is on the time and cost pressures imposed upon practitioners, said Clark. No matter how versed they are in the science of instruction, if they have to put out an e-learning program for last week, they’ll have little choice but to discard research and throw together a PowerPoint presentation full of bullet points.

What does Clark want practitioners to remember of evidence-based e-learning instruction design? That working memory is different from long-term memory, and if a learner takes in too much too fast and overloads working memory, both systems fail.

Further, that there are different purposes of learning, and for each purpose there are particular instructional approaches that work the best. Clark’s contribution to this area of knowledge is what’s known as the four design architectures: receptive, directive, guided discovery and exploratory. Lectures and readings – the receptive method – are useful for briefing advanced learners, for example, but they’re not effective for teaching novices learning procedural skills. These latter would do better with step-by-step instruction that takes them from easy to hard, and that gives them ample opportunity to ask questions — what Clark calls the directive model.

And despite the relative newness of knowledge work, research also has quite a bit to say about how knowledge workers learn, said Clark. Pointing to a 1950s study on chess masters and chess novices, Clark said research has shown the importance of automaticity — the way learners store up chunks of knowledge that they’ve processed through experience and over time — and access them when needed.

But Clark stresses that there remains much that we don’t know. Things like how people learn in collaborative settings or how motivation works. But while discovering the science behind these crucial aspects of learning can be a challenge, applying what’s already discovered is just as important a challenge for the training industry.

Ruth Clark delivers her keynote speech at the CSTD Knowledge Exchange Conference at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Other keynote speakers at the two-day conference include Jonathon Levy, who’ll speak on a new model for knowledge work training, and Harold Stolovich, who questions the be-all and end-all of return on investment.

For more information on the Knowledge Exchange, which takes place Tuesday, Nov. 2, and Wednesday, Nov. 3, visit

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