If learners have the prerequisite skills and knowledge for a particular course (classroom, eLearning, etc.), they should be ready to learn, right? Not quite. There are other factors. Too often, we don’t look deep enough at how we can best get learners ready to learn. Here are nine questions to consider:

  1. Do learners have the right prerequisites? Yes, I just mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating. If learners can’t handle the content because they lack prerequisite skills and knowledge, it’s a non-starter. If this is your situation, stop here and don’t continue until you’ve assured that learners know what they need to know before starting a new course.
  2. Are learners resistant to the content? Sometimes, learners just don’t want to learn what you plan to teach them. They might not believe in it, may think it’s just the “flavor of the month,” or perhaps are fearful that what they are about to learn might make their jobs more difficult. This is not a learning issue as much as it’s a management issue. Communication and support may be critical in helping learners overcome a negative disposition about the course. Testimonials, front-line manager support, help lines, etc., all can make a critical difference here.
  3. Are learners resistant to technology? For learning programs that involve technology, such as eLearning in all its forms, technology resistance can come from fear, lack of confidence, a preference for another approach, or just plain disdain. If we understand the nature of the resistance, we can take steps to reassure users and help them be successful with technology. But be careful—resistance to change (they can but don’t want to) and inability to change (they want to but can’t) are different; be sure you understand each learner’s trepidations before you act.
  4. Are the learners motivated to learn? Closely related to possible resistance is concern about motivation and incentives. What’s in it for them? Articulating benefits within your communication plan is a good start. Showcasing success stories is another effective approach. Sometimes, motivation can come from within, e.g., the desire to do a good job, improve performance, or help the business. But other times, incentives—perhaps in the form of money, perks, or opportunities for advancement, along with management recognition—can also help. Knowing where and how to apply incentives is key. Overdoing it can be as bad as ignoring incentives. And if you think simply mandating the training will solve this problem, think again. You may get people to show up, but if they don’t value it, what’s the point?
  5. Are the goals of the learning clear? This also gets at motivation. Why would anyone want to learn something new if the reasons for learning it are unclear, confusing, contrary to expectations, or not relevant to them? This is more than instructional objectives. Goals focus more on the big picture. They answer questions for the learner like, “Why am I here?” and “How will this improve my performance?”
  6. Do managers support the learning? Talk is cheap. Lots of managers will say they support learning, but for many, their actions tell a different story. Executives who praise learning and then cut learning budgets send mixed messages that discourage employees from taking time out of work to learn. But the biggest area of support comes from front-line managers and immediate supervisors. If they don’t support learning, it’s going nowhere. This is why it is often prudent to train managers first, to make sure they understand their role in the learning process. Finally, if you’re not appraising managers on how well they support and facilitate learning, they’re likely not going to do much of it. You get what you measure.
  7. Is there time to learn? Related to management support, learners should feel comfortable taking the time to learn, and the organization should clearly support reasonable time away from the job in order to learn. If learners view going to class or learning online as unproductive or a waste of time, chances are no one will do it.
  8. Are the right learning resources readily available? Obviously, learners must have access to the right learning resources, but if they have to wait for access to a needed course rather than having access at the moment of need, their enthusiasm for the course might wane. And, more importantly, when learners return to the job after the course, do they have access to materials or tools that can help them integrate what they’ve learned into their work?
  9. Do learners know how to learn? At the heart of learning readiness is the ability of individual learners to take control of their own learning. Unfortunately, there are too many training environments that, after years of lecturing at employees, have so diminished those workers’ ability to learn on their own that their expectations of the value of learning decline. If we don’t create opportunities for employees to ask tough questions, do their own research, think on their own, be creative, or learn with others, we significantly diminish the value and the benefits of learning. This is why good instructional design is so important. Designing challenging, engaging learning programs can help build higher-level learning skills in people. And the ability to learn in class can, and should, transfer to the ability to learn on the job.
The success or failure of any learning program is not just dependent on the quality of that program, although if the program isn’t very good, not much else matters. But if you have a good and important course, getting employees ready to learn matters a lot. Readiness to learn can magnify the impact of great training. Lack of readiness can kill it. This is not something the training and learning organization can do alone, nor should it. This is a challenge to the organizational culture and the leadership provided by those who run it.