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Tim Buff


Chief Learning Strategist

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Action Based Learning: Why we have to get training out into the real world


You can teach someone about fish – how they move, where they live – and you can impart a lot of relevant knowledge. But that someone won’t become a fisherman until they’ve gone out and successfully caught a fish.

Anyone involved in L&D in any of its many forms is acutely aware that people forget what you teach them. Often, it’s discouraging just how fast they can forget (or ignore) what they’ve just learnt. Getting learners to apply new knowledge is the essential step towards embedding it until it becomes a part of their ‘self’.

I’m fascinated by the ‘forgetting’ curve. It’s a powerful reminder that just throwing training at people in the hope that it sticks isn’t enough.

At the end of the 19th century, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus studied memory and knowledge retention, observing that spacing out learning interventions stretched the forgetting curve. I like the way Dr Will Thalheimer moves on from this and describes how to increase retention with spaced learning events, repetition and practice – all great techniques for combatting the tendency to forget.

Knowledge decay and continued learning curves

With the latest technologies for Action Based Learning at our disposal, we are now in a position to take the next giant step.

It may be serendipitous that a string of recent advances in learning technologies mean that Action Based Learning is now a real possibility.

Action Based Learning – OK, what is it?

You’ve learned all about fish. Your next task is to go down to the sea, climb in a boat and row out and catch one. Then you have to show me the fish you’ve caught and explain how you could do it differently (or better, perhaps?) in the future.

Learn it. Do it. Reflect on it.

We want learners to practise what we’ve told them. Experiment with their new found knowledge – try it on for size, see if it works, reflect on the results, let it become part of their existence. It shouldn’t be some dry piece of theoretical knowledge that they dredge up every few years and are not sure what to do with.

Action Based Learning is an approach that encourages the individual to take their formal learning out of the classroom, or the learning management system (LMS), and put it into practice. Learners should consider the results and reflect on that experience, with a view to improving future performance.

The very act of doing this ‘for real’ reinforces the learning, embedding it and making it part of their experience. It makes the learning come alive.

In some ways, this approach reflects the 70:20:10 model of learning which was originally put forward by Morgan McCall, Michael M Lombardo and Robert W Eichinger, in their 1996 book, The Career Architect Development Planner. The idea was that 70% of workplace learning was through actually doing the job; 20% was learnt from colleagues; and 10% was delivered via formal training.

Over the years there have been arguments about the research methods used, the resulting percentages and whether this process holds good in highly technical environments (for example, in the medical world). But the consensus is that there is a lot of valuable truth in the analysis and that we need to pursue the practical application of knowledge as the way to make it real.

The ‘10’ can be provided by classroom or eLearning; the ‘20’ by social interactions, either physical or virtually facilitated by the LMS – but the remaining ‘70’ needs a new approach.

Action Based Learning is just that. It aims to make the jump from the classroom / LMS into a practical application that makes the learning experience real – not just truly memorable, but intrinsic.

What do you need for Action Based Learning?

I mentioned the happy confluence of a number of learning technologies that are now making Action Based Learning a reality: 

  1. The first is something called Experience API. It’s an activity tracking standard which is rapidly replacing SCORM in modern learning management systems and enables any type of digital learning asset to be hosted and tracked on the LMS. Crucially, it also enables you to track events occuring outside of the LMS too. This means you are not limited to just eLearning courses, but you can also track videos, interactions with videos, PDFs, eBooks, slide decks, mentoring sessions and, importantly, external learning activities carried out independently by learners outside the confines of the LMS.
  2. The second is mobile. OK it’s not essential but with most users nowadays preferring to utilise mobile devices to access the web, a delivery solution that enables them to work on phones and tablets as well as their PCs and laptops from anywhere, is particularly relevant if you are encouraging them to apply their new found knowledge in practical situations. I’m talking about true mobile access here which, for me, means both online and offline use, even when the user is disconnected and out of signal.
  3. Thirdly, our learners need to show they’ve actually completed the training – not just claim they’ve done it. This means supplying some sort of evidence. This could be in the form of an essay, a spreadsheet, a report, a set of photos, a video, a scanned document, or any one of a range of permitted types of digital files. The upload facility needs to be ultra easy to use, as well as being secure and confidential.
  4. Finally, you need to allow for full mentor support. This means streamlined, highly ergonomic workflows that enable the manager, lecturer, tutor, mentor – or whoever owns the supervisory role – to review the submission, comment on it and feed back to the learner. In turn, the learner can comment, ask questions, clarify their thinking and update their submission. In some environments, this type of optional workflow won’t be needed but, where it is, this private two-way communication can be really valuable to challenge thinking, promote reflection and underline key learning points. Allowing this support to continue into the future, with a longer term mentoring relationship, can also be very useful.

Action Based Learning marks a dramatic shift away from the restricted learning traditionally offered in the workplace and opens up many new opportunities to be creative and challenging with our learning programmes, capitalising on the very latest technologies and the best educational approaches.


Without Action Based Learning, we are locked into a cycle of constantly trying to perfect a learning model which is fundamentally limited. In other words, we will keep trying to make our eLearning more and more engaging, more gamified, more fun, more media rich.

These are all positives in themselves but, no matter how good it is, eLearning can only ever give us the ‘10’ in the 70:20:10 model.

Are you satisfied with that? I’m not and that’s why I believe that Action Based Learning is the way forward for truly effective programmes that put learning into practice.

Author Profile Picture
Tim Buff

Chief Learning Strategist

Read more from Tim Buff

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