Training focus: Making the right choice

8th June 2013


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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Employee engagement ,
  • EMS ,
  • Management ,
  • Training



Selecting a staff training course that will help an organisation meet its learning objectives requires careful analysis, says Fiona Draper

Organisations and individuals are continually learning. Organisations are able to learn through the acquisition, development and utilisation of corporate knowledge. Meanwhile, an individual’s learning may be a change in skill, attitude, knowledge or behaviour.

Training may add new knowledge or skills or replace existing knowledge or skills. But how do you know whether training employees will actually enhance your organisation and expand its learning? And how can you select the most appropriate learning method?

In the loop

Organisational mandate and membership, culture, policy, decision-making model and methods of communication are all factors that influence the success of organisational learning.

Using existing knowledge and training experience as the basis for improving the efficiency of operations may be described as single-loop learning. It is an approach characteristic of stable markets and companies producing standard goods and services. By contrast, double-loop learning involves the exploitation of new knowledge to evolve new practices, perspectives and operational frameworks.

This approach is more appropriate for organisations that are facing significant or continuous change and where the enterprise is keen to differentiate itself from competitors by, for example, seeking ISO 14001 certification.

If it is to be successful, organisational learning must be translated into individual learning and the establishment of appropriate management practices, such as adapting local procedures and corporate strategies and policies. This process drives further demand for individual learning and is reflected in the continuous improvement feedback loop underpinning drivers for environmental vocational education and training (EVET), such as implementing a 14001-certified environment management system (EMS).

The individual learning that underpins organisational learning is influenced by a variety of presage factors – these exist before the student enters the learning situation and are identified as characteristics, such as intelligence and rationale behind course attendance.

Presage factors can be broadly divided into personal and situational factors, with the latter further subdivided into teaching and work-based elements (see below). The addition of work-based factors distinguishes vocational from non-vocational courses.

Plan, do, check, act

Evaluation should form an integral part of a training course, from its conception to the implementation of consequential organisational learning and the associated identification of further training needs. This cyclical process echoes the plan, do, check, act (PDCA) methodology underpinning 14001.

The process begins with a plan – that is, the clear identification of a return on expectation (ROE) and the associated intended individual learning outcomes of the course and their subsequent translation into organisational learning. A broad topic description, such as waste management or EMS, is not sufficient. The plan should focus on what you really want employees to be able to do. For example:

  • complete transfer/consignment notes correctly;
  • minimise waste production;
  • develop and implement an EMS;
  • act as an internal EMS auditor; or
  • obtain a recognised professional qualification.

Additional core questions to consider include:

  • What new skills/knowledge do you want attendees to have at the end of the course?
  • How will these individual attributes be measured and by whom? And how will they be transferred to the workplace?
  • What specific managerial/supervisory/peer support will be available for course attendees before, during and after the course?
  • How will you ensure that individual learning is transformed into organisational learning?
  • What specific managerial/supervisory/peer support will be available for non-course attendees to facilitate organisational learning?

IEMA’s environmental skills map provides an ideal foundation for this process. It offers a structured comparison of the competencies required at different levels in an organisation and by individuals at different stages in their careers.

Students may have additional motivational factors for course attendance to those of their employer, such as the potential for a new career path, or increased autonomy and responsibility in the workplace. On rare occasions, employers and employees may have contrasting ROE; for example, where the employer anticipates that a student will want a more senior and/or technical position on successful completion of an EVET course or vice versa.

Once an outline course plan has been created, the next step is to identify course content. This requires consideration of presage, course and post-course factors, which may positively or negatively influence the learning cycle. These include the student’s underlying rationale for course attendance, together with other factors, such as: prior level of knowledge/skills/experience; whether the course will be taught by a colleague or an external tutor; and how the course will be taught and assessed – most vocational students prefer collaborative and/or teacher-directed learning to self-directed learning.

The course plan is implemented during the do part of the cycle. At this stage, data needs to be collected to facilitate the evaluation process in the subsequent check and act phases.

This process should involve collecting data on both the student’s immediate and longer-term reaction to the course. The former is generally collected via individual student course review forms – colloquially termed “happy sheets”. However, these typically focus on the attendee’s affective (emotional) response to the course, its location and the course tutor. Better questionnaires ask attendees about their utility reaction, such as how useful the course was to them and/or to their employer.

This check phase is critical. Prompt comparison of the results collected in the do phase with the anticipated ROE in the plan stage will allow adjustments to be made before other employees attend the same course, allowing the employer to act on the feedback provided.

The root of all learning

Acting on course feedback requires root analysis; for example, the student’s affective response may be positively or negatively correlated with learning. Enjoyment of the course may stimulate learning, as exemplified by the following quote from a student following an IEMA Associate certificate course: “Great course, I’m now absolutely certain that I want to get into environment management as a career.”

Conversely, the student may also be stimulated to learn by a negative reaction to a challenging learning environment or assessment process, as in the following example: “The section on waste made my toes curl as we clearly weren’t doing it right, but we are now.”

Friction between teaching and learning styles may be constructive and stimulate students to use learning and thinking strategies they have not used previously. It may also be destructive and inhibit learning if the tutor overrides a student’s own preferred learning style – the student may enjoy a humorous lecture, but fail to learn as much as he/she would have done via a student-centred mode of learning. A student may also enjoy a course, but provide poor feedback due to low course utility (usefulness) and ROE.

The course assessment process may lead to student dissatisfaction, even where students are successful. Individuals generally have a preference for either a deep or a surface approach to learning (see panel, above).

Applying a deep approach is generally linked to greater success in assessments that foster active and long-term engagement with learning tasks, such as essay-style questions and work-based assignments or projects.

Deep learning is, however, associated with poor performance in assessments that emphasise memory recall without practical application – for example, purely fact-based multiple-choice questions, which favour a surface approach.

Students who would normally adopt a deep-learning approach may adopt surface-learning strategies, such as rote learning, to be successful in this type of assessment. They may also, for example, complain about lack of preparation time for the course assessment, feeling rushed or frustrated at not really understanding the course.

The primary motivating factors for adopting a deep-learning approach are intrinsic and include personal development and interest in the subject matter. Surface learning is associated with extrinsic motivational factors: a student who has no interest in the environment may attend an EVET course simply to satisfy a requirement by the employer to do so.

An excessively large curriculum, lack of independence when studying, and conflicting demands on time from home and work may encourage even those with a strong preference for deep learning to adopt a surface approach, as this response from student who failed an Associate certificate exam illustrates: “The course was great, the tutor was great, everything was great. I should have passed … but I was catching up on my emails and phone calls every night. I tried to remember as much as I could, but I didn’t get the context.”

Taking the long view

It is not sufficient to focus only on the student’s immediate reaction to the course. An analysis should also be undertaken of the longer-term learning and associated behaviour changes in the workplace, together with consequential organisational changes. Asking course attendees to complete a bespoke action plan of how they are going to implement what they have learned in a given timeframe is a simple and effective way to achieve this. Linking some of these goals to the employer’s anticipated ROE and to the available post-course support increases the effectiveness of training. Examples of actions chosen by attendees on the Associate certificate course include:

  • perform an initial environmental review;
  • establish an EMS;
  • develop a feasibility study to determine whether 14001 certification is appropriate;
  • review environment information from suppliers;
  • audit contractors’ environment activities;
  • create an environment training programme for all employees;
  • undertake internal and/or external waste management audits; and
  • implement a waste minimisation programme.

Root cause analysis of the factors that positively and negatively influence learning transfer and subsequent organisational learning will identify where modifications may be necessary to course material, delivery and assessment; the organisation’s support for attendees before, during and after the course; internal processes used to manage change and organisational learning; and the ongoing support for sustainable development.

Return on investment

As with the purchase of any service, it is essential to generate a good return on investment (ROI). Using a structured approach to course evaluation based on the PDCA cycle can help ensure a healthy ROI. Implementing sustainable development necessitates organisational change. Organisations vary in their requirements, depending on their perceived environmental burden, their level of commitment to its reduction and opportunities in the marketplace.

Using the PDCA approach will optimise the opportunity for the transfer of individual learning to the workplace, the development of organisational learning and the identification for further appropriate education and training.

Deep and surface approaches to learning

Deep approach is associated with … Surface approach is associated with …
The long-term retention of knowledge The short-term retention of knowledge
Fundamental understanding of core concepts Factual knowledge
Relating new knowledge to existing knowledge and previous experience Focusing on the formal demands of the training course assessment
Relating theoretical ideas and concepts to everyday practical experience Concentrating on facts and details rather than reflecting on underlying issues and arguments
Organising and structuring the course content into a coherent whole Trying to remember as much as possible, especially with regard to the assessment


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