The Beginner’s Guide to Learning Transfer in 2020

2021.09.30 Jonathan Deller
learning transfer

Are you frustrated with the gap between your organization’s learning initiatives and its business outcomes?

Do you feel powerless when a course or seminar doesn’t produce significant changes in job performance?

Does workplace training feel more like a cost than an investment?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, the issue may lie with learning transfer.

Learning transfer is a decades-old problem faced by organizations globally; how do you create tangible business benefits from training and learning initiatives?

In this beginner’s guide to learning transfer in 2019, we’ll explain everything you need to know about understanding and addressing this challenge. We’ll show you different techniques and activities that support learning transfer and show you how to choose the best approach for boosting learning transfer in your organization.  

In this guide, we’ll be discussing things like:

  1. What is Learning Transfer?
  2. Why measure Learning Transfer?
  3. How to measure Learning Transfer?  
  4. Popular Learning Transfer activities
  5. Comparison of Learning Transfer approaches
  6. Conclusion

Let’s begin!

1. What is Learning Transfer?

Learning transfer is a field of study that aims to measure and promote the transfer of skills, behaviors and competencies from training to the workplace.

The key question at the heart of this field is; to what extent do participants of a particular training course implement what they learn when they return to the workplace?

Unfortunately, the process through which people apply what they’ve learned in their daily job is far from smooth. An organization may pay for a professional training course that seems to run smoothly, yet find limited performance improvements. What gives?

We can all relate to this challenge. Think back to the last time you attended a training workshop or seminar. After an exciting and engaging learning journey, you probably went back to work feeling refreshed, inspired and ready for action.

But how much of what you just learned did you actually use?

90 percent?

50 percent?

Most likely, you became bogged down in your day-to-day duties and responsibilities, leaving you feeling hopeless and overwhelmed by the task of implementing your training.

For your organization, there may not be that much change between your pre- and post-training performance. If there was, how would they measure it? And how much would it cost to make such measurements?

This is the challenge that learning transfer aims to address: how to promote changes in job performance for participants of a training course. As we explained in our start-to-finish guide to transfer learning it's through a mixture of theory, research, trial and error, and investigation that learning transfer techniques and practices aim to improve the rate of learning transfer from the classroom to the workplace. 

2. Why measure Learning Transfer?

The business impact of learning transfer is significant.

A course with good learning transfer can help a business to:

  • Improve communication with employees
  • Improve leadership
  • Increase bottom-line sales
  • Enhance productivity
  • Reduce wastage
  • And more!

Yet the risks at stake can be equally great. Training with poor learning transfer can be a huge money drain for your organization.


Research has shown that only around 20 percent of learning typically translates back to the workplace. With organizations spending upwards of $140 billion on corporate learning and development each year, that’s a lot of wasted money that could have been better spent elsewhere.

learning transfer

No wonder many organizations view training as a necessary cost, rather than an investment.  

If your organization has paid for a training course in the past, how does it feel knowing that 80 percent of your investment went to waste?

The idea that learning doesn’t create performance at an acceptable rate has been widely researched and, largely, accepted. Most conservative estimates agree that at least 15-20 percent of learning investments that organizations make actually translate to work performance changes.

But it gets worse.

Research from Saks and Belcort shows that the use of learning on the job actually declines over time. In other words, 20 percent is the high point! After 12 months, less than 40 percent of the acquired learning and skills are still in use after the original training event.

The actual rate of learning transfer for any given course depends on a number of factors, so if you aren’t measuring learning transfer, you’re just guessing at what the rate might be.

The benefit of measuring learning transfer is to show that new skills, behaviors and competencies are actually being implemented in the workplace.

As an organization, focusing on learning transfer can help you understand which training courses are bringing results and which aren’t. If a particular training course or seminar has a poor rate of learning transfer, you can implement techniques and strategies to help boost learning transfer when you run it again.

Measuring learning transfer also helps justify the cost of training prior to implementing it. Similar to conducting an ROI analysis, you can prove that a particular training was effective and justify spending money on running it again.

Learning transfer is extremely helpful for organizations who bring in third-party training providers. You can use the rate of learning transfer to decide whether to continue or disband a particular training program. It can also help you choose between multiple training providers to find which one offers the best value for your investment and which can help you create the results that you, as an organization, need. 

3. How to measure Learning Transfer?

To measure learning transfer, you need a methodology. As we discussed in our post about the top three learning transfer strategies from the best businesses, there are many different methodologies to choose from, but in general they all feature the same characteristics. A methodology is a set of rules, tasks, and activities that you have to follow and implement in order to track learning transfer.

Some methodologies may be familiar to you:

In this beginner’s guide, we’ll focus on the Kirkpatrick model as it’s by far the most popular and commonly used methodology for measuring the effectiveness of training.

If you’re new to Kirkpatrick, it has four specific levels of assessment:

  • Level 1: Reaction
  • Level 2: Learning
  • Level 3: Behavior
  • Level 4: Results

Here, we’ll briefly explain how the model is applied.

Level 1: Reaction

After the training has finished, you ask participants to complete a short survey or questionnaire. This gauges their reaction to the training.

For example:  
What did they think of the trainer?
How was the venue?
Was the class or group size acceptable?

Level 2: Learning

The second level of evaluation measures the learning that took place. There are many approaches, including asking the participants to complete a short test or quiz or asking them to perform a manual test or task. The purpose of this level is to measure whether learning took place.

Level 3: Behavior

The third level of evaluation takes place a while after the training has wrapped up. You measure the extent to which the learning resulted in on-the-job changes. There are a variety of approaches when conducting a level three evaluation, such as peer observations, self-reflections, and appraisals.

Level 4: Results

The final Kirkpatrick level looks at results. This considers whether the training produced any behavioral changes and measures them against the stakeholders’ expectations. In other words, did the training accomplish what key stakeholders in the organization wanted it to?

You’ll notice that the Kirkpatrick Model actually has three "levels" devoted to measuring learning outcomes and only one measuring performance outcomes.

So, who actually measures learning transfer?

Depending on the size of your organization, you or your employees may conduct a learning transfer analysis yourselves, or you may hire a learning transfer specialist to do it for you.

The complexities of measuring learning transfer depend largely on the nature of the learning.

If you are measuring learning transfer of a training course that focuses on simple, manual tasks such as using a particular item of machinery, this will be quite simple to measure. Participants can either use the machine or they can’t.

But if you’re measuring the learning transfer for a management training course that promotes abstract, hard to measure qualities such as leadership, initiative and communication, results may be more difficult to measure and obtain.   

To address this challenge, a number of training evaluation models have sprung up, each with their own advantages and drawbacks.

  • The Phillips ROI Model adds a fifth level to the Kirkpatrick model and measures return on investment (ROI) of training.
  • The Kaufman Model also adds a fifth level to Kirkpatrick and aims to evaluate the impact of the training on both the organization’s customers and on society.
  • The CIRO model is specifically aimed at evaluating management training.
  • The Brinkerhoff Model (or the Success Case Method) aims to show how well a corporate training works and why, or why not it is working.
  • The Anderson Model of Learning Evaluation (the Value of Learning Model) focuses on aligning an organization’s training programs with its strategic priorities.

These methodologies, and others, all have the same basic goal: to measure learning transfer and help businesses establish a link between training initiatives and specific business outcomes.

training effectiveness

4. Popular Learning Transfer activities

Now that’s we’ve looked at what learning transfer is and how to measure it, it’s time to look at the million-dollar question; how can you improve learning transfer?

After all, if you can improve learning transfer, you can – in theory at least – get a better return on your training investment.

Over the years, many theoretical models have been developed that suggest ways of enhancing learning transfer. As we explained in our post about learning transfer system inventories, even if you’re completely new to learning transfer, you’ve probably heard of some of the most popular approaches:

  • Extended learning
  • Transfer climate
  • Relapse prevention

In this guide, we’re using the term Learning Transfer, but all three of these approaches have essentially the same goal; to improve learning transfer. 

Before we look that the specifics of these theoretical models, it’s worth noting the obvious challenges of using them to measure learning transfer. Many of these models are difficult, or even impossible, to implement in a practical setting. Given the large numbers of complex factors at play, results may not be reliable.

Some common learning transfer activities include:

  • Pre- and post-training test or survey
  • Post-training only test or survey
  • Multiple Repeat Measures
  • Non-equivalent Comparison Group
  • Randomized Control Trial
  • Self-report
  • Peer-Evaluation
  • Supervisor Evaluation
  • Evaluator or Trainer Observer
  • Survey
  • Observation
  • Interview
  • Embedded in Training
  • KSAs (Knowledge, Skills, and Attributes)
  • Goal-based behaviors
  • Competency-based behaviors
  • Intention goals and beliefs

While we don’t have the scope in this beginner’s guide to examine every type of learning transfer activity, we can offer a brief overview of the three most popular and effective types of learning transfer assessments.

Example #1: A post-test survey

Post-test surveys are one of the simplest, cheapest and most popular options for measuring learning transfer. You ask participants to complete a short survey following training. Research has shown that reflection is a powerful component in learning transfer. It encourages people to have effective conversations with themselves and hold themselves accountable for change. This approach is undoubtedly one of the most popular ways of encouraging learning transfer.

Example #2: A peer-observation

A slightly more complex learning transfer activity is the practice of peer-observation. Here, you ask a participants’ colleague to observe them at work and note the skills, competencies, and behavior they observe. A pre- and post-observation discussion can help the participant to reflect on their behavior. Research from the Harvard Business Review found that reflecting on learning was far more influential than learning from experience.

Example #3: A behavioral assessment conducted by a trained evaluator

By far the most costly, time-intensive and complex type of evaluation is one conducted by a trained evaluator or a Trainer Observer. This type of workplace assessment offers some of the more accurate results but is the most expensive option. 

5. Comparison of Learning Transfer approaches

With so many learning transfer approaches on offer, the elephant in the room is: which one is best in 2019?

To answer this question, Wilson Learning published a far-reaching report that identified and compared 32 existing studies that examined a total of 66 learning transfer activities with aim of finding whether learning transfer can have an impact on the effectiveness of learning.

As each study used a different statistical method for calculating the performance impact on training, Wilson Learning calculated a ‘difference score’ using the available data to compare across studies. The study found that learning transfer results in a significant impact on the effectiveness of learning and that, were all studies implemented simultaneously, the cumulative impact would have been almost 190 percent.

If your organisation is looking for maximum success with learning transfer strategies, the top learning transfer activities are:

Practice and Modeling
The report found that the transfer of learning from training to the workplace was highest when more practice and behavioral modeling was offered during learning. The more accurately that the practice replicated real-life situations, the greater the transfer of learning would be.

Motivation to Learn
Activities that help motivate learners such as promoting lifelong learning, addressing learning anxiety and helping learners appreciate the value of learning, were some of the most effective transfer learning approaches.

Manager Support and Coaching
By comparing the results of eight studies, the Wilson Learning report found that the more management an organization has that are trained to support and coach the skills their employees learn, the more likely these skills are to be used and sustained in the workplace.

6. Conclusion

If you were curious about learning transfer in 2019, hopefully this beginner’s guide has answered some of your questions. We’ve shown why it’s important, how it can help businesses and the top learning transfer activities that work in 2019 and beyond.

Want to know more?

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Now that we have used Kodo for a while, we see how easy it is to follow the learning impact and transfer of learning to the workplace. The insights we receive help us to continuously improve courses and programmes.

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Kristoffer Laag
HR Strategist