Volume 80 | Issue 3
May 2012

Helping trainees transfer skills in the workplace

Rebecca Grossman & Eduardo Salas

College unions spend time and money training new and retraining returning student staff members each semester. A concern of trainers and supervisors is if the training will transfer to the workplace. How can it be ensured that trainees will use learned skills on the job? How can professionals know the investment in training will pay off? The answer lies in the science of training. Decades of research show that various factors influence the transfer of training and there are specific actions that can enhance it. 

Factors influencing selection of trainees

Whether training transfers to the workplace relies on the trainees. Specifically, the characteristics of the people who are being trained can influence how much is learned and whether it will be transferred.

The cognitive ability of the people being trained has one of the strongest relationships with training outcomes. Cognitive ability is essentially a measure of a person’s overall intelligence—it influences how much they can learn, how much they can remember, and how well they can apply what was learned to a new environment. Training scientists have found that the cognitive ability of the people being trained predicts whether what is learned in training will be transferred to the workplace. It is important for trainers to be aware of the influence of cognitive ability when selecting who will participate in training.

Additionally, if trainees believe in their ability to learn from training and to transfer what they learn, they are more likely to do so. A recent study by Brian Blume, Kevin Ford, Timothy Baldwin, and Jason Huang in the Journal of Management provides scientific evidence for the relationship between self-efficacy and the transfer of training. Self-efficacy is a person’s belief about whether he or she has the ability to perform a certain task. This is important because if trainees do not believe they can learn from training or they can successfully use what they learn on the job, they likely will not. If trainees are confident in their abilities, however, they will be more motivated to learn from training and to use their new knowledge and skills. The more motivated trainees are, the more they will transfer training. Related to self-efficacy is trainees’ level of motivation, which is important for transferring training as it influences the amount of effort that people expend toward achieving a goal. The training literature shows that both the motivation to learn and the motivation to transfer can help determine whether training is transferred to the job. While both types of motivation are important, a study by Dan Chiaburu and Douglas Lindsay in Human Resource Development International shows that motivation to transfer is more important, as it is likely to prompt trainees to use what they learned once they return to the work environment.Training 

The final trainee characteristic that should be considered is perceived utility. An article by Raquel Velada, Antonio Caetano, John Michel, Brian Lyons, and Michael Kavanagh in the International Journal of Training and Development shows that trainees’ beliefs about how well training content matched the requirements of the job significantly influenced how much was transferred. Perceived utility is basically how valuable or useful trainees believe it is to participate in the training. For trainees to perceive it as useful, it should be clear that training would help them perform some aspect of their job that is required and that can result in an outcome that is valuable to them. For example, if a job requires workers to meet a sales quota, and they receive a bonus for exceeding that quota, they are likely to perceive training that teaches them how to improve their sales skills as highly useful. Training literature supports the idea that perceived utility can improve the transfer of training.  

Based on these characteristics, it is important to consider who will be trained. This means that union and activities professionals should assess the degree to which student staff members possess the characteristics described, and use that information to select which employees will participate in the training. For example, if a training program is particularly difficult, professionals should select trainees who have high levels of cognitive ability. Alternatively, with the exception of cognitive ability, trainers can enhance these characteristics before the training takes place. Students can participate in goal-setting activities to increase motivation or can learn about the importance of the skills that will be trained to enhance perceived utility. Being aware of these characteristics can help supervisors take actions that can ultimately improve the transfer of training.   

Training techniques to help transfer

Not surprisingly, the actual training plays a big role in whether it transfers to the workplace. One of the most effective strategies for training is behavior modeling. In this approach, the trainer provides clear descriptions of the behaviors that trainees are supposed to be learning and presents models of the behaviors being performed. These models might involve the trainer actually acting out the behavior or presenting a video that demonstrates the behavior. Following this, the trainees spend time practicing the new behaviors, and the trainer provides feedback. A study by Paul Taylor, Darlene Russ-Eft, and Daniel Chan in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that behavior modeling increased the transfer of training the most when the models of behavior included both positive and negative examples, when trainees were able to create their own situations for practicing rather than using situations that were created by the trainer, and when trainees set goals for exactly what they wanted to learn from the training.  

Error management is another approach. Taylor and his colleagues found that transfer was greater when error management training was used than when it was not used. Additionally, in the 2007 CIO Magazine article, “Management Techniques for Bringing Out the Best in Generation Y,” Deborah Gilburg, a specialist in generational dynamics advised: “Experiential, team-based training gives millennials opportunities to make and process mistakes in a safe learning environment and successfully transfer their new knowledge and skills to their workplace.” When applying this technique, professionals allow students to make errors while practicing new skills, and then provide instructions for how those errors should be handled. Instead of only focusing on the correct way to perform a new behavior, error management also explores what can go wrong if the behaviors are performed incorrectly.

Another way to improve training transfer is to conduct training in an environment that realistically represents the actual job setting. For example, consider an employee who works at the information center that is extremely chaotic, where he must juggle multiple phone calls, emails, people walking by, etc. If that employee is trained how to improve his customer service and practices in a setting where he has no interruptions, he may have trouble transferring his new skills to the real work environment. It is important for student employees to learn and practice in a realistic environment.  

These are just a few techniques that trainers may employ to ensure that trainees effectively transfer what is learned. Allowing trainees to practice skills and providing feedback as well as training employees in a work-based environment are methods often referred to in training literature. 

Creating a culture favorable to transfer

No matter how good the training, students will not transfer new knowledge and skills to the job unless their work environment encourages them to do so. Certain characteristics of the work environment can make the transfer of training more or less likely.  

Support has shown to be one of the strongest relationships with transfer. In Human Resource Development Quarterly, Susan Cromwell and Judith Kolb found that trainees who received high levels of support from their supervisors transferred more knowledge and skills to the workplace than those who did not. Supervisors can provide support by helping employees set goals for how to use trained skills, by providing recognition and rewards when trainees do use the skills, and by using the skills themselves to set a good example. Coworkers can provide support by motivating each other, sharing tips and information, and coaching one another when using new skills. 

As reported by Yobome Gilipin-Jackson and Gervase Bushe in the Journal of Management Development, trainees need opportunities to perform to enhance the transfer of training. This might not always happen. If an organization requires employees to participate in training but their direct supervisors do not support it or are not interested in it, trainees may not be given opportunities to use new skills. This is particularly salient when considering the content of campus-wide student employee training programs. 

The final suggestion is to remember that students can continue to learn once the formal training period is over. A post-training discussion can help employees by clearing up any remaining questions and reinforcing what was learned. Training also can be followed with additional practice opportunities and feedback from supervisors. Job aids and tools that provide information and tips may help trainees transfer what they learn to the job. A review of two decades of training literature in the International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology found that these kinds of follow-up activities help increase the transfer of training.

Final thoughts

For the daily business of a college union to run smoothly, it is essential for student employees to transfer skills learned in training to the workplace. Fortunately, the science of training has identified a variety of factors that play a role in whether training is transferred. Knowing the characteristics of the trainees will assist in determining if the knowledge acquired is likely to transfer. Certain training methods, such as behavior modeling and error management, may help a trainee transfer skills more successfully. And ensuring that the trainee has an opportunity to incorporate news skills is imperative. Ultimately, this information can help improve student employees’ ability to apply the concepts discussed during training.

Contributor biographies 

GrossmanRebecca Grossman is a doctoral student in the industrial/organizational psychology program at the University of Central Florida and a graduate research associate at the Institute for Simulation & Training. Her current research focuses on team processes in multicultural and virtual teams and how such processes can be improved through the use of training.


SalasEduardo Salas is Trustee Chair and Pegasus Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Florida. Salas earned a Ph.D. in industrial/organizational psychology at Old Dominion University, and has since coauthored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters on topics such as teamwork, team training, and performance assessment.