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Ask the Experts: Will Thalheimer

Dr Thalheimer is renowned in the learning field for his work with learning theory (LTEM in particular), his learning performance insights and excellent books.

He has well over 30 years in the field and currently steers the helm as Principal at TiER1 Performance Solutions.

Thanks kindly for your time today Dr Thalheimer!

1 – You are an accomplished author and respected expert in the field with many companies (mine included) utilising your work. How did you get into the learning field and what kept you around?

When I was in my mid-twenties, I wrote down some goals I had for my life. Helping to educate others was on that list. At about the same time, I was getting my MBA and realized that studying business wasn’t my passion—useful yes, but not something I wanted to build my identity around. I found a four-course sequence on instructional design at the university I was attending (Drexel University in Philadelphia), and I got hooked on learning. As I was contemplating what I would do after getting my MBA, I decided I’d love job-building simulations. I thought maybe I could find a job that combined my love for learning with my business background. As I was paging through Training Magazine one day, I saw my future—an advertisement for a company that claimed to be “The World Leaders in Business Simulation.” It was four blocks from my apartment. The next day, I put on my one suit—A Brook’s Brother’s Suit my dad had bought me—and I walked down to the front desk of SMG (The Strategic Management Group) and told them I wanted to work for them.

2 – Newcomers to the field often find difficulty identifying the best learning theory to apply to their work. I enjoyed reading your paper on LTEM and wondered if you’d offer any guidance to new starters on using learning theory in their work.

The term “learning theory” drives me nuts! SMILE. Sorry! Almost every year for the last 25 years I’ve read over 200 articles from scientific refereed journals on learning, memory, and instruction. I love doing it. “Theories” are for academics! What we should care about is what works. What wisdom can we find in the learning research that will help us build more effective learning?

The word “theory” has too much of a whiff of uncertainty. We actually know stuff that works. We know that providing our learners with realistic practice—retrieval practice using authentic work-relevant contextual stimuli—is one of the best ways to support long-term remembering. We know that spacing repetitions over time—if not rote and boring—also supports long-term remembering. How should new folks learn about this work? Fortunately, we are in the golden age of non-fiction. There are plenty of articles and books. Read my article on the Decisive Dozen or check out my Learning Maximizers Model. Read Clark Quinn’s book on the Learning Sciences. Julie Dirksen’s book on How People Learn. Patti Shank’s books, the excellent book by Neelen and Kirschner. Read Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel’s book Make it Stick. Read Donald Clark’s book on Learning Experience Design. (And see my more complete list later).

3 – In LTEM, you have laid out a clear distinction between learner interaction and full learning transfer, with proper transfer requiring a prolonged application for learners to attain. Would you be willing to talk about an example of an L&D group properly achieving high levels of transfer?

LTEM (the Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model) was designed to add learning wisdom back into our learning-evaluation efforts. It’s got eight tiers, with Tier 7 focusing on transfer (behavior change) and Tier 8 focusing on the effects of transfer as it might impact learners, coworkers/family/friends, the organization, the community, society, and/or the environs. The most important part of LTEM is Tier 4, 5, and 6—because it separates learning outcomes into knowledge, decision competence, and task competence. This is vital because learning is a many-splendored thing.

Learning and development teams can only achieve transfer by having effective learning interventions. Indeed, that’s inherent in the definition of “transfer.” For learning to transfer, there is a causal chain to take into account. The learning materials must contain valid, credible, and relevant content. Learners must attend to the learning materials in a way that supports comprehension. They must comprehend concepts correctly and completely. They must be motivated to apply what they have learned. They must remember what they have learned—and remember the concepts and skills when they need them. They must successfully apply what they’ve learned and likely must overcome roadblocks to applying the learning, including both external and internal roadblocks (for example meta-cognitive issues). When this causal chain is broken, transfer is not going to happen.

So let’s use an example when it’s relatively easy to test for transfer—and it’s never easy-easy. We’re training sales managers to coach sales reps. Transfer might involve them coaching their sales reps and helping their reps achieve more sales, stay longer with the company, feel better about their work, have happier customers, etc. We’d measure transfer at LTEM Tier-7. Are they coaching their sales reps? Is that coaching effective? A good measure of coaching might be a well-designed survey of the sales reps to rate the coaching experience. We could also measure the effects of transfer at LTEM Tier-8. Have the sales reps revenues increased? Have their profits per sale increased? Are they happier in their work or more confident? Do they stay with the company longer? Etc.

Determining whether the training actually made a difference is a complex issue. Believe me! Companies come to me and to my colleagues at TiER1 Performance and we guide them through a rigorous process of evaluation. Every time we do this, there are surprises and roadblocks. One of the biggest surprises for learning teams is that there are so many complexities—but that ultimately, by considering what is truly possible, we can get to beneficial outcomes in our learning evaluations.

4 – You have also written the popular book—now in its second edition—‘Performance Focused Learner Surveys’ which is an industry must-have. From it, we know that learner feedback is critical to our practice but what else should we be looking for in metrics to help us understand if what we are making works?

Learner surveys are often dismissed as gathering poor data, and often this is true. We practitioners are sceptical ourselves but those who have studied this most closely—scientists who have done rigorous studies—have found traditional smile sheets are virtually uncorrelated with learning results. But, learner surveys can be designed to get better data—thus the book. And critically, as change agents, we should realize that the best way to get leverage to make a learning-evaluation improvement is through a practice that is already being utilized. So, let’s not disparage our learner surveys; let’s make them effective and use them to build success and then ask to do more!

As I say in the book dozens of times, let’s not end with learner surveys. So, to reiterate briefly, let’s also measure decision competence (LTEM Tier-5), task competence (LTEM Tier-6), transfer into behavior change (LTEM Tier-7) and the effects of transfer (LTEM Tier-8).

5 – There have been a lot of great discussions online lately between the focus of engagement vs learning vs performance. What would be your take on where we should be focusing?

I think I’ve already hinted at the answer. These all fit into our causal chain. To get a full picture of how well we’re doing, we’d measure them all.

Let me point out a common mistake we make. We say something like, “Engagement and learning aren’t really important; let’s just measure performance.” But what if we measure performance? What don’t we know? What might we be missing that would have made the learning even more effective? If we measure performance outcomes, we may learn about performance outcomes (if we measure in a fair, unbiased, rigorous manner). But we don’t know about whether we might have been better able to motivate learners to apply what they’ve learned. We don’t know whether the learners are remembering as much as they might. We don’t know about other supports that might have been beneficial.

6 – The internet is also overwhelmed with buzzwords and easily digestible learning approaches. Are there theories and practices you believe learning designers should be avoiding?

Yes. There are many unhelpful ideas floating about. Learning styles, the learning pyramid (people remember 10% of what they see, etc.), Bloom’s Taxonomy, inappropriate references to neuroscience, the adult learner, etc. See Clark Quinn’s book on myths, De Bruyckere, Kirschner, and Hulshof’s two books on urban myths in learning and education for many more examples of what not to do. Let me add this is extremely important—to first do no harm.

7 – Technology is another area where the community is often divided. The current discussions on ChatGPT, VR/AR/XR and fully online learning are very hot both for and against. What is your take on technology in L&D?

You ask such simple questions. SMILE. This is a long discussion, and one I will be getting into much more detail in my forthcoming book, CEO’S Guide to Training, eLearning & Work: Reshaping Learning into a Competitive Advantage. What we preach at TiER1 Performance is that learning must come first—that technology should be used where and when it can improve learning and performance.

Technology can absolutely be a force for good. In a research review, I wrote that compared classroom training to eLearning, I found that while both could be much better designed, eLearning tended to outperform classroom training. The COVID pandemic certainly proved that we can build effective eLearning at scale. We’re still learning to get better at it, and the tools are getting better all the time, but technology certainly is proving generally beneficial.

On the other hand—and I’ve been around a long time—every time we introduce a new technology, we screw it up. This is normal and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. We have to learn and practice to get good at new skills.

ChatGPT—or more generally “generative AI”—is all the rage. My prediction is that these new technologies will create incredible benefits, but early on they will also create many harms. As learning professionals our job should be to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms. This will be tricky because we’re going to need to be knowledgeable about human cognitive functioning and biases—and most of us are decidedly ignorant about all that.

8 – With many companies moving their L&D learning to fully online approaches, how do you think our roles will function in the next 5 years?

How will our roles function in the next five years? Just fine thank you! We’ve already seen our foci changing. We are using more research-inspired learning designs. In our latest TiER1 Learning Trends diagnostic survey, we found that scientific research was the most trusted source of information for people in learning and development. Another thing that is changing—albeit too slowly—is better learning evaluation. More of us are becoming sensitive to the learning side of learning evaluation.

The online learning tools will improve, and we’ll keep learning how to utilize them more effectively. Let me use myself as an example. Three years ago. before I joined TiER1. I offered an online course called Presentation Science. The testimonials from learners were outstanding. Many people loved it. And I still teach it, but I keep changing it to make it better. We are pioneering and though we may never get to the promised land, we do keep improving our tools and craft.

9 – You also have a new book coming out soon, are there any good previews you could give us?

Oh, I mentioned the book earlier, the CEO’S Guide to Training, eLearning & Work: Reshaping Learning into a Competitive Advantage. People can learn more at But here’s the gist. One of the biggest problems we have in L&D is that we have a dysfunctional relationship with senior leaders. They don’t really understand our work and we don’t communicate with them effectively. I’m writing the book as if I’m writing to CEOs. I’m going to tell them they are messing up the way they are managing their learning teams. I’m also going to tell them how we as learning professionals are messing up in some of the ways we work and in the ways we communicate to them.

My hope is to help us bridge the gap, to enable us as learning professionals to reach our potential as agents of performance improvement.

10 - All the best teachers are themselves great learners, or so my experience has shown me. How do you keep up to date and are there particular people you follow online?

I read a ton of scientific research. I listen to audiobooks all the time on the learning sciences, on the performance sciences. I talk with my colleagues at TiER1. I work with clients. By helping clients build more effective learning or better learning evaluation I’m learning constantly, building new solutions, and seeing what works best.

My recommendation for L&D professionals is to read the research translators as a first step. Look for books by Ruth Clark, Mirjam Neelen, Paul Kirschner, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn, Patti Shank, Donald Clark, Karl Kapp, Jane Bozarth, and others. Read the non-fiction best sellers on learning like Brown, Roediger, McDaniel; and Richard Mayer. If you have time and inclination begin reading in the performance sciences and about behavior change (so many books now), like Wendi Wood’s Good Habits Bad Habits; David McRaney’s How Minds Change, Adam Grant’s Think Again; Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge; Cialdini’s Influence; Milkman’s How to Change. And if you really want to go to fundamentals, read Kahneman’s two recent books, Thinking Fast and Slow, and Noise.

11 – Lastly, what other advice would you offer to new designers coming into the field?

Well, I’ve already said this, but “Keep Learning!” If you think you’ve learned everything you need to know from your graduate program, forget about it! There’s more to learn, and probably there’s a bunch of stuff you learned that is wrong or already outdated.

Also, spend time learning about the learning myths. One of the most important things you can do as a new person is to avoid common mistakes. First do no harm is good for medicine and good for learning and performance as well. Find yourself a good place to work. In the 2023 TiER1 Learning Trends report we found that some organizations are more innovative than others. Some enable us to work on many more types of learning. Some are more effective in using learning to improve work performance. Some use better learning-evaluation methods (thus enabling our own learning). Some create a better sense of belonging. Some offer more transformative professional development. In some, you’ll be able to do your best work. Your work context matters. Find a great place to work and then in a few years find another great place to work.

You can find Dr Thalheimer's Performance Focused Learner Surveys book here as well as his personal website, full of lots of excellent information and guidance, here.

(Note: I do not gain any financial benefit from these links, They are solely provided for your ease of access).

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