Practical Learning Transfer techniques to bridge learning to performance

While the exact number varies by study, research consistently shows that less than 30% of learning is applied on the job(1). Put differently, that means that 70% of learning is likely waste or learning scrap(2). Many TD practitioners’ reaction to such data is to design and deliver better training. Unfortunately, that doesn’t solve the problem, because the challenge is to change the training design focus from input of new knowledge to application or learning transfer.

Technique 1: Understand the Minds of Users Applying Learning on the Job

As trainers and instructional designers, we’ve always carefully design training so that participants aren’t under-stimulated or overwhelmed, bored or too challenged, tired through repetition or confused by variation. However, before shifting our focus to learning transfer, we didn’t fully understand how our participants felt, thought and behaved when applying learning on the job.

Over time we realized that the most important thing to improve transfer is to understand what learners do on the job and what’s going on in their minds. They might think to themselves, “Should I try those skills? No, too busy, maybe next time.” Or, “What did I learn in training? Hmm, I don’t remember. Oh well, I’ll do it the regular way.” Or even, “I’d really like to try those techniques from training. But, you know, I’m just not ready yet.” Watching learners in action, talking to them when they’re working and putting yourself in their shoes are all effective ways to get learning transfer started.

Technique 2: Identify common transfer problems

Once you’ve started understanding the problems learners have applying training on the job, you’ll quickly realize that the reason learning doesn’t get transferred into behavior and results is almost never that the learners are lazy or unintelligent. Looking closely, you’ll also see some important patterns. For example:

  • When there’s a lot to remember, learners tend to forget
  • When they need a lot of practice to master skills, learners won’t improve unless they have opportunities to practice those skills
  • When learners must change their mindset, they’ll often have doubts and second thoughts about whether they can actually do what they learned

Through our decades of experience, we’ve confirmed that different types of training content have predictable learning transfer obstacles. Once you’ve identified the problems you’re likely to face, you can start planning to address them.

Technique 3: Match solutions to transfer problems

After you’ve identified the learning transfer problems that learners face on the job, it’s surprisingly straightforward to design tactics to avoid them. For example:

  • If learners forget content, send them a series of spaced reminders
  • If learners don’t have frequent opportunities to use the new skills, involve managers to create chances for them to practice
  • If learners need practice to attain a higher level of ability, follow up with exercises they can use to build their skills

Fortunately, choosing the right learning transfer solution becomes fairly obvious if you understand the application problem. 

In summary, as talent development professionals we must help learners not just develop skills, but also transfer those skills into behavior on the job and get results. In most cases, the learning is successful but the transfer effort needs improvement. These three practical transfer techniques will get you started, and hopefully lead to better results for you and your organization. 


  • So what is a good transfer of training estimate? A reply to Fitzpatrick. A. M. Saks, York University, January 2002
  • How much is scrap learning costing your organization? K. Phillips, ATD, August 2016

The original article was published on the ATD website in support of our session at ATD ICE 2019.

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