Acquiring Cognitive and Behavioural Skills – is eLearning the answer?
“Can cognitive and behavioural skills be learned via short online eLearning modules?”
It is an interesting question and something we have often considered, having been asked by several clients if we could turn our training programmes into short, bite-size eLearning modules.
The perceived benefits of eLearning
It is easy to understand why clients and those responsible for training might prefer online programmes for their organisations:
1. Individuals are time-constrained: bite-size modules are easy to get through
2. Cost effective: less time spent out of the office, not forgetting commuting costs and infrastructure costs associated with classroom learning
3. Short attention spans: shorter modules suit those who might struggle to remain attentive
4. Accessibility: employees can access training materials 24/7 from wherever they are and on different devices
5. Preferred learning style: eLearning (including gamification) is a “preferred learning style” for some employees, particularly tech-savvy millennials
6. Clear metrics and reporting tools (i.e. usage rates, pass rates): particularly beneficial if training is either compulsory or to be used as a key part of employee evaluation
7. Easy to keep materials up to date: recent changes and new modules can slot neatly into an existing training portal or LMS (Learning Management System) – particularly useful if dealing with legislative updates
The difference between ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Skills’
Despite these perceived advantages, it is clear to us that, while online learning is very well suited to acquiring knowledge and theory, it is poorly suited to developing behavioural and cognitive skills and then to ensuring the learning sticks.
Fundamentally it’s because the acquisition of knowledge is very different from the acquisition of skills.
When it comes to behavioural and cognitive skills, the right context and environment is critical. To acquire and then become proficient in behavioural and cognitive skills requires learning, practising, coaching and on-going feedback in real-life situations or simulated environments that are as closely aligned to real-world interactions as possible.
As Christian Jarrett recently wrote for the British Psychological Society:
“Improving our mental abilities as applied in real-world settings requires practice and experience in those domains. A person who spends many hours on brain training games but never engages in any real-world challenges is like the karate pupil who has only ever performed solo exercises in the dojo. Woe betide them if they ever find themselves in a fight.”
What’s more, recent research has found that taking part in online ‘brain training’ exercises simply makes you better at brain training exercises…
“When you spend time completing mental exercises on your phone or computer, you will most likely only become better at those exercises or very similar tasks. Currently available evidence suggests you probably won’t see consequent improvements in your performance at work.”
Example: The UK Driving Theory Test
A good analogy to demonstrate this difference between skills and knowledge could be drawn with the Driving Theory Test currently taken by learner drivers in the UK.
The UK Driving Theory Test, taken on a computer, consists of two parts: firstly, a multiple-choice test on all aspects of the Highway Code and secondly, a ‘Hazard-Perception’ test, which asks participants to watch videos of a car driving and click as soon as they become aware of an impending hazard – You can try a few hazard perception tests for yourself here.
Clearly the first part of the test is perfectly suited to online learning and testing. Participants can learn the required theory and then test this knowledge – for which there is a right or wrong answer. It is easy to see how a similar test might be applied in a business context to learn and test essential knowledge such as legislative updates and internal HR policies.
On the other hand, the ‘Hazard Perception’ test neatly sums up the problems associated with learning behavioural skills on a computer or through online ‘gamification’.
While the simulated driving video gives learners the opportunity to practise spotting hazards in a safe, controlled environment (no doubt a very sensible idea for learner drivers!) in no way is it a substitute for actually driving on real roads with real people, to have to take real decisions in real time, with very real consequences.
In short, it is no substitute for the real thing.
What’s more, as we previously intimated, research suggests that practising hazard perception tests simply makes you better at hazard perception tests… “When you spend time completing mental exercises on your phone or computer, you will most likely only become better at those exercises or very similar tasks.”
No one can claim to be a proficient driver having passed an online hazard perception test. In the same way within a firm, no one can claim to be a proficient presenter having learned the key theories behind body language and status following an Internet search.
Becoming proficient in a skill requires significant amounts of practice in real situations (or simulated conditions that match real scenarios as closely as possible) with regular feedback and coaching.
Computers and eLearning platforms can teach knowledge but they are a long way away from properly replicating the emotions, the hormones, the physical reactions, the unknown responses and other behavioural complexities that occur in human interactions.
In a business context you could take an online course to learn the theory behind presenting with impact or watch a webinar on how to manage critical conversations but there can be no substitute for applying and practising the new behavioural skills in a real-life context.
It is for this reason that all our training programmes are highly experiential, are rooted in real-life situations and include simulated role-plays, live case studies, opportunities to apply the theory in practice with feedback and coaching from both our experienced tutors and preferably senior representatives from the client firm.
Ensuring the learning sticks through “Deliberate” Practice
Another vital objective of those responsible for sourcing behavioural skills training is to ensure that learning ‘sticks’ well beyond the learning event. Once you have invested in a training programme, you need to ensure that participants continue to use and refine the newly acquired skills rather than simply go back to working in the way they have always done.
Neuroscience and behavioural psychology shows that to develop behavioural skills requires on-going practice with regular critical feedback. Once again, the right context is of key importance. Participants need to practise in an environment that takes them out of their comfort zone. It is clear that eLearning simply does not provide these necessary conditions.
As the well-known behavioural psychologist K. Anders Ericsson wrote (along with Michael J. Prietula and Edward T. Cokely) in the influential HBR (Harvard Business Review) article “The Making of an Expert”:
“The journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice and honest, often painful, self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice – practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort.”
Revisiting the perceived benefits of online learning for cognitive and behavioural training
In light of recent research, let’s return to the perceived benefits of online learning but in the context of cognitive and behavioural skills training:
1. Individuals are time-constrained: True. So spend your time updating your knowledge of professional standards or legislative updates – time spent acquiring behavioural or cognitive skills through bite-size eLearning modules is likely wasted.
2. Cost effective option: It might appear so in the short term but what about when you need to invest more money because participants have forgotten what they learned? How about the prospective client you lost because your people didn’t have the chance to practise applying the learning in a real business situation?
3. Short attention spans: Shouldn’t businesses be trying to increase attention spans rather than pander to a negative trait? Similarly, learning and refining cognitive and behavioural skills takes time. As K. Anders Ericsson et al. wrote “There are no shortcuts.”
4. Accessibility: Yes, employees can easily access online training materials but, as we have seen, context is of key importance for learning and embedding behavioural skills and eLearning platforms are highly unlikely to provide the context required.
5. Preferred learning style: The notion of a “preferred learning style” has recently been found wanting according to the British Psychological Society:
“Time and again laboratory tests have failed to find support for the concept of learning styles… In fact, the most effective learning modality usually depends on the nature of the material to be learned.”
6. Clear metrics and reporting tools (i.e. usage rates, pass rates): It is entirely possible to monitor, measure and reward the use of behavioural and cognitive skills. The type of behaviours the top firms measure and reward might include: client loyalty, business development, people development, responsiveness, collaboration, new relationships, trust, service innovation and successful projects.
Can cognitive and behavioural skills be acquired via short online, eLearning modules?
There is a well-quoted aphorism that says: “You can lead a man to knowledge but you can’t make him think.”
It’s easy to apply a similar logic to the acquisition of cognitive and behavioural skills using online modules: eLearning can lead a man to knowledge but only practising in the right context will really make him think.
So returning to our original question at the beginning of this article: can cognitive and behavioural skills be acquired via short online, eLearning modules?
We would have to say “No.” As yet we have not found an acceptable online solution for learning and development managers. While you can acquire basic theory and knowledge of behavioural and cognitive strategies and frameworks, as we have seen this is very different from acquiring skills.
“But of course you would say that!” you might counter and, while we would be very happy to be disproved, we can understand why you might think we are not entirely impartial in our assessment.
If you don’t want to take our word for it, here’s what a group of independent and objective academics have recently found in the journal “Psychological Science in the Public Interest October 2016”:
“We know of no evidence for broad-based improvement in cognition, academic achievement, professional performance and/or social competencies that derives from decontextualized practice of cognitive skills devoid of domain-specific content.”
For those responsible for learning and development – the verdict seems clear.
 “Brain training exercises just make you better at brain training exercises”, October 7, 2016: https://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/10/07/brain-training-exercises-just-make-you-better-at-brain-training-exercises/
 “The Making of an Expert” K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, Edward T. Cokely; Harvard Business Review July-August 2007
 “It feels as thought we learn better via our preferred learning style but we don’t”, October 5, 2016: https://digest.bps.org.uk/2016/10/05/it-feels-as-though-we-learn-better-via-our-preferred-learning-style-but-we-dont/
 “Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work?”, Daniel J. Simons, Walter R. Boot, Neil Charness, Susan E. Gathercole, Christopher F. Chabris, David Z. Hambrick, and Elizabeth A. L. Stine-Morrow: Psychological Science in the Public Interest 2016, Vol. 17(3) 103–186
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