Flexible and inexpensive: Improving learning transfer and program evaluation through participant action plans

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    Performance Improvement, vol. 49, no. 5, May/June 20102010 International Society for Performance ImprovementPublished online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: 10.1002/pfi.20147


    Chris A. Cowan, MDIV Ellen F. Goldman, EdD Melissa Hook, BA

    Action plans have been shown to improve transfer of learning and have proven an effective tool

    in training evaluation. This study describes how action planning was simply and successfully

    adapted to a preexisting curriculum with few additional resources. The decision to use

    participant action planning, the administration of it, and the participants and the sponsors

    responses are discussed, along with suggestions for future human performance technology


    PARTICIPANT ACTION PLANS can be a flexible andinexpensive performance improvement tool. They areoften dichotomized as either a participants to-do listswith little impact or are considered to be a complex andresource-intensive means for evaluating participants per-formance improvement. However, this understandinglimits an appreciation for how useful the process can bewhile still remaining flexible and cost-effective. Previousstudies have suggested that participant action planningcan improve transfer of knowledge (Foxon, 1987;Hollenbeck & Ingols, 1990; Swinney, 1989) and thataction plans can provide a practical and effective meansfor evaluating training solution outcomes (AmericanSociety of Training and Development [ASTD], 2008;Basarab & Root, 1992; Phillips, 1994; Youker, 1985).However, these studies are often perceived as limitingbecause (a) action planning definitions are too vague forperformance improvement professionals to apply theprocess, or (b) action planning is presented in such a waythat it seems it can only achieve measurable benefits ifsignificant resources are dedicated to the project.

    According to these sources, action planning is definedas a particular approach that helps participants apply whatthey have learned during training of their jobs. Participantaction plans have occasionally been mentioned in the per-formance improvement literature (Phillips, 2003; Swinney,1989), in which they have been called performance

    improvement plans. Further, the learning and develop-ment industry has highlighted them as a valuable evalua-tion tool (ASTD, 2008; Phillips, 1994, 1997, 2003). Youker(1985) went further by elaborating on 10 specific benefitsfrom the action planning approach to workplace learn-ing and training: (a) the transfer of learning, (b) verbaliza-tion and commitment from trainees, (c) practice forimplementation during training discussions, (d) contin-gency planning, (e) commitment to action, (f) expectationof a follow-up check on the progress of trainees actionplans, (g) motivation generated by follow-ups, (h) a sup-portive post-training atmosphere, (i) evaluation of behav-ior changes, and (j) a system for organizational change.

    This study builds on this previous work by describingthe design and application of a participant action plan-ning process used during a critical training program forprofessionals working with crime victims in Washington,DC. The process was adapted to fit within the evaluationdesign of the training solution, but quickly proved to be avaluable tool for improving learning transfer and pro-moting on-the-job performance.

    BACKGROUNDAction planning can be traced back to the 1950s when itwas used by Mosel (1957) to describe a strategy for over-coming negative influences of the work environment on

  • Performance Improvement Volume 49 Number 5 DOI: 10.1002/pfi 19

    the participants learning. The idea was that participantswould think through their learning by taking notes anddevelop a plan for applying their knowledge when theyreturned to work. The exercise would include a discussionabout what participants learned during the training, waysin which they could use that learning to improve their jobperformance, potential barriers and resources needed toimplement the proposed actions, and, depending on thecontext, a supervisory review of the plan for further devel-opment (ASTD, 2008; Basarab & Root, 1992; Hollenbeck& Ingols, 1990; Phillips, 2003; U.S. Office of PersonnelManagement Productivity Research and EvaluationDivision, 1980; Youker, 1985). By the mid-1970s, actionplanning had become a popular approach for improving,training transfer or transfer of training (Foxon, 1987,1994), the terms used to connote the application of atrainees learning back to their jobs. More recently, actionplanning was used by the coaching and personnel devel-opment fields to deal more intensively with an individualslong-term performance improvement (Dransfield, 2000;Hall, Otazo, & Hollenbeck, 1999).

    Within the discipline of training, however, action plan-ning became an explicit evaluation tool that was used tohelp professionals make better decisions about the effec-tiveness of training solutions (ASTD, 2008; Basarab &Root, 1992; Phillips, 1994, 1997, 2003). Throughout thisevolution, empirical research on the effects of action planning has been relatively scarce because practitionersand sponsors do not typically invest the necessary time andmoney needed to conduct rigorous empirical research onthe process (Campbell & Cheek, 1989). Despite this, partic-ipant action planning has remained a popular choice withlearning and development professionals as an evaluationstrategy (ASTD, 2008) and with coaches and personneldirectors as a means for long-term employee development(Dransfield, 2000; Hall, Otazo, & Hollenbeck, 1999).

    This study provides the view that action plans can beeffective as part of a comprehensive, resource-intensiveevaluation strategy, as well as a part of a simple, low-costaddition to the instructional design process. The studybuilds on the previous work with participant action plan-ning with specific distinctions. For example, Phillips(1994) describes a management training program atCola-Cola, where the evaluation strategy included the useof action plans to promote learning transfer and capture improvement measures across multiple levels of impact, including on-the-job performance, businessimpact, and return-on-investment. In this example, theaction planning process was systematically integratedwith multiple performance improvement designs and, assuch, required significant planning, design, and imple-mentation resources. In contrast, this study suggests that

    a simplified, condensed action planning process, wherethere is little alteration to preexisting curriculum and fewadditional resources provided to evaluation efforts. Forinstance, McGrath (1996) presents an action planningprocess for evaluating an instructors performance with aparticular course. Swinney (1989) describes the useful-ness of action plans for improving performance withfirst-line supervisors. Although his case is strong, it doesnot seem replicable in other contexts. Similarly,Hollenbeck and Ingols (1990) mention the successful useof an action planning process in Harvards AdvancedManagement program, though the specifics of that pro-gram are not provided. This study enhances these effortsby highlighting the versatility and simplicity of the partic-ipant action planning process while, at the same time,maintaining its effectiveness.

    THEORETICAL BACKGROUNDThe literature underpinning this study comes from twocomplementary disciplines: transfer of training andtraining evaluation. Broadly defined, transfer of trainingis the process through which skills or knowledge learnedin one task or context helps problem solving or perfor-mance in another task or context (Holding, 1991). For thepurposes of this study, transfer of learning is defined as aline of inquiry in human resources which uses psycholog-ical and sociological theories to explain how training par-ticipants transfer what they have learned during trainingback to their jobs (Baldwin & Ford, 1988; Broad, 2001,2005; Yamnill & McLean, 2001). According to Brown andSeidner (1998), four conditions must be present fortransfer of training to take place: (a) the person must havea desire to change, (b) the person must know what to doand how to do it, (c) the person must work in the rightclimate for change, and (d) the person must be rewardedfor changing. This highlights the contextual factorsneeded to ensure that an effective training intervention isconverted into improved employee performance.

    Additionally, Foxon (1987, 1994) makes a distinctionbetween two primary types of learning transfer: specificpoint transfer and the process model of transfer. In speci-fic point transfer, evaluators attempt to measure the appli-cation of learning at a specific point in time after the training event. The focus in the evaluations is whetherparticipants are using what they learned from the trainingevent back on the job. The process model, based uponLewins (1951) theory of force field analysis, conceptualizestransfer of learning as a diffuse, viral, and ongoing process(Foxon, 1994). The evaluation focus is not just on whetherparticipants are using the training on the job, but also onwhich skills have been used, how often, and why they are

  • 20 www.ispi.org DOI: 10.1002/pfi MAY/JUNE 2010

    not being used more often (Foxon, 1994). If Foxons secondconceptualization is correctthat learning transfer outsideof a laboratory and within real-world human resource con-texts is a diffuse and protracted processthen it may notbe surprising that empirical work on action planning andlearning transfer may often be neglected in favor of lesscomplicated time-intensive research.

    In summary, the literature has shown that the concep-tual connections among participant action planning,learning tran