Cartoon showing an aerial view of students learning around a round table with laptops and notebooks in front of them and plants behind their chairs.
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Future-proof your workforce: Why active learning is key

2 Jan 2024

Active learning is about ensuring employees tangibly benefit from L&D programmes. Pearson’s HR lead Michelle Day gives her top tips for success.

With more than 1bn people projected to require reskilling by 2030, how organisations engage and educate their workforce is vital to future success – for employees and employers alike. Passive learning alone cannot equip employees with the skills and engagement needed to thrive. Incorporating active learning models into organisational learning and development (L&D) initiatives will enable the fast-paced skills development necessary to keep up with the evolving needs of the global economy and labour market.

Here’s the good news: employees want to learn. Pearson’s Skills Outlook: Employee View found that more than 80pc of US workers see continuous learning and retraining as essential to maintaining career momentum while the global economy pivots toward lifelong learning models.

Employees not only plan to prioritise learning – they overwhelmingly want to learn at work, and 92pc expect a steady and growing stream of employer-based L&D opportunities. The skills capturing the focus of workers are also those most prized by today’s employers. From problem-solving and decision-making to communication, collaboration and leadership, the top skills in need of development are all human skills.

Employer-employee alignment on skills development goals alone isn’t enough to enhance abilities and move business forward. Organisations must take action to evaluate and transform their learning ecosystems – starting with a greater emphasis on active learning.

Passive learning falls short

While they’ve long been part of formal education strategies, passive learning techniques – lectures, presentations and anything else where most training focuses on the instructor talking at the audience – can fail to draw in learners. These passive tactics often create an unbalanced dynamic where attendees view the instructor, who’s preparing the lesson, presenting the material and answering questions, not only as an immutable source of expertise but also as responsible for learning success.

When the material doesn’t match learner needs, and the instructor doesn’t engage the audience, passive learning methods can result in a worst-case scenario: Employees arrive not knowing why they need to be there and leave not knowing what they were supposed to learn. Learners don’t feel like they have a role to play in the experience, so they don’t ask questions, make suggestions or express their thoughts and reflections. This audience-only mentality disincentivises the engagement that often indicates interest and comprehension in an educational setting.

Passive learning never fully activates the learning loop where employees apply concepts, receive feedback and reflect on their progress. The result is a lack of long-term retention and a hampered ability to use skills on the job.

No L&D leader wants a training session to end this way. Team members should leave a training session equipped with renewed skills and knowledge to contribute to the organisation significantly.

By contrast, active learning puts ownership of development goals in the hands of the learner, encouraging interaction and fostering a more personalised, engaging and lasting experience that nurtures more significant takeaways.

Time to flip the script?

Active learning flips the script on traditional methods by making learners central to the process. Employees learn by doing, instructing their peers, collaborating and getting hands-on practice. This immersive approach helps learners retain more knowledge and apply it more readily to their daily work.

Active learning strategies boost comprehension and retention and provide hands-on experience for workers to excel in current roles while honing transferable skills for the future.

In addition to boosting comprehension and retention of hard skills, active learning is particularly effective at developing interpersonal abilities, which both employees and employers have identified as key to current and future success. When learners actively participate through peer teaching, group work, presentations or role-playing, they gain tangible experience using soft skills like communication, problem-solving, leadership, teamwork and more. The interactive nature of active learning provides built-in opportunities to practice crucial interpersonal competencies first-hand. Learners receive feedback from peers and instructors, helping them self-assess and improve. This real-world skill-building allows workers to enhance their emotional intelligence and teamwork capabilities.

Let’s look at some ways to incorporate active learning in workplace L&D initiatives so team members cultivate a sense of ownership in their own skills development journeys.

7 strategies to incorporate active learning

Prioritise competence, and confidence will come

While passive learners often feel more self-assured about their abilities after training sessions, research reveals active learners better apply lessons in real situations. This improved competence then drives enthusiasm to continue developing expertise through participation.

Engage knowledgeable team members

Empower employees to assume teaching and training roles, allowing experienced workers to mentor new hires, organise brown-bag lunches or lead informal knowledge-sharing sessions. This approach saves on external trainer costs and validates the value of employees and their expertise, boosting engagement, loyalty and motivation.

Foster better interaction with small groups

Small group settings mimic real-world work environments, facilitating the application of newly acquired skills upon returning to their roles. Group interactions foster deeper connections, enhance engagement and cultivate a sense of psychological safety, a crucial factor for optimal engagement, performance and productivity.

Include time for reflection

Learning activities incorporating brainstorming, doodling and written reflections enhance retention while combating fatigue and boredom. Dedicated reflection time encourages self-assessments, prompting learners to evaluate their learning process and effectiveness more critically.

Frame mistakes as growth opportunities

While corporate leaders, managers and ambitious workers can find it challenging to embrace mistakes, these moments are crucial for effective learning. However, learners will only feel comfortable stretching themselves and making mistakes if leaders and learning facilitators have created a safe environment where errors are acceptable.

Incorporate role-playing and simulations

Simulations and role-playing, though perceived as childish by some, are highly effective learning tools. These experiential activities become engaging and impactful when combined with a supportive learning environment and a culture of forgiveness.

Activities in this category provide opportunities to apply new knowledge and skills in a realistic setting, bridging the gap between training and on-the-job application and improving knowledge retention.

Embrace an organisational mindset shift to active learning

Create a clear feedback loop from learners to L&D managers by making employees integral to planning, executing and evaluating learning materials and programmes. Engaged employees will reward their employers with greater loyalty and on-the-job engagement. Involving workers in the decision-making around learning programmes encourages a more intentional and enthusiastic attitude toward learning.

As the global economy and job landscape evolve rapidly, successful organisations must prioritise effective reskilling and upskilling. Embracing active learning strategies boosts employee skills and engagement and positions companies for future success. By empowering workers and involving them collaboratively in learning programmes, employers can build motivated, agile teams ready to thrive amid constant change.

By Michelle Day

Michelle Day is VP of HR at global education company Pearson, where she leads HR for the workforce skills and direct to consumer divisions, plus corporate strategy, marketing and communications.

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