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Forget me not: So what is goal-based learning?


Rob Hubbard explains why most isolated learning interventions are doomed to fail - and what you can do about it.
Do you remember everything that you come into contact with? No? It's just as well. If you consciously remembered every sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, feeling and word you would probably lose your mind. We subconsciously filter the input we receive and prioritise what we remember.
So what sticks? Essentially, we pay most attention to those things that matter to us as individuals. These include physical dangers, opportunities to reproduce, things that touch us emotionally, align with our values and beliefs, or things that we have a great interest in. If something doesn't fit one of more of these criteria we have a hard time remembering it (how often do you forget a password?).
We know from studies as long ago as 1885 that we forget things at an alarming rate. Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered the exponential rate at which we forget. There are arguments about how steep the forgetting curve is, however as individuals we all know that we forget very rapidly.
To reliably remember a fact or learn a skill we need to cover it multiple times. We need to practice. Think of any skill you possess. Were you brilliant at it the first time you tried it? Probably not. Did your performance improve with practice? Yes. Did the majority of this practice take place in a classroom or on a computer? Probably not. It most-likely took place in the real world.
"Think of any skill you possess. Did your performance improve with practice? Yes. Did the majority of this practice take place in a classroom or on a computer? Probably not. It most-likely took place in the real world."
Unfortunately, most corporate training falls well and truly outside of the criteria that are likely to interest us. Worse still, most training, whether classroom or online, tends to be delivered in one hit - it is a standalone training intervention with no follow up. And organisations wonder why they spend huge sums of money on training but see little performance improvement in their people.
Fortunately it doesn't have to be difficult or expensive to make training in any form more effective. You need to understand a little about how the brain works and you need a methodology that builds on this.
One such methodology is 'goal-based learning'. It is fundamentally about putting learning into practice and is focused on the implementation of learning rather than the initial training delivery. Here's how it works: 
  1. Within a subject area identify all the real world things that an expert in that subject would be able to do. For example; someone who was an expert in communications would be a great listener.
  2. Design a goal for each of these real-world things, in our example this could be 'Be a better listener'.
  3. Now design real world activities that would help someone achieve that goal. In this case the activities might be 'Remove distractions and focus on the speaker' and 'Active listening practice'. For that activities create simple step-by-step instructions and add in prompts to encourage people to reflect on how they did in the practice activity. Encourage them to repeat the activities.
  4. Now think about what people need to know in order to complete those practice activities and get that across to them in the simplest way possible.
From the users' perspective:
  • Instead of being sheep-dipped through topics that may or may not be of value to them, they select goals that they want to achieve. They could select these goals with their line manager.
  • They set timeframes and work towards the goals over time, seeking support from their peers, tutor or line manager as required.
  • Their performance improvement is measured using the same tools that their organisation already use to measure performance. If none exist, a simple 360-degree survey can be used to ask colleagues to rate their performance.
This methodology can be used with instructor-led training, online training or a combination of both. It blurs the line between 'work' and 'learning' and gives organisations a way to measure success. I encourage you to try goal-based learning out for yourself and compare the results to how you currently deliver training.
Rob Hubbard is the chair of the eLearning Network and managing director of LearningAge Solutions. He blogs at

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