Any method of learning should support individuals, teams or the organisation as a whole to build capability that meets business need. As working environments become more complex and greater agility is needed to ensure capability among employees, it’s more important than ever to consider the breadth of different learning methods available.
This factsheet defines 'learning', 'training' and 'development' and examines the main factors to consider when choosing between learning methods. It gives an overview of the various types, from workplace-based learning, like on-the-job training and in-house development programmes, to externally-based learning, such as formal qualifications. It also looks at distance learning and explores emerging learning methods, including social learning, gamification and MOOCs.
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What are learning methods?
Learning methods may be defined as any interventions deliberately undertaken to help the learning process at individual, team or organisational level.
In rapidly changing business environments, employees need to be able to continue learning and adapting their capabilities to support the organisation’s strategy. Organisations can keep pace with changing needs by looking ahead to define requirements and initiate effective learning interventions that support business objectives. Read more in our factsheet on learning and development strategy and policy.
Defining training, learning and development
The terms ‘training’ and ‘learning’ are used broadly within the HR and L&D profession, but can be summarised as:
- Training is an instructor-led, content-based intervention designed to lead to skills or behaviour change.
- Learning is a self-directed, work-based process that leads to increased adaptive potential (as might be provided by coaching or mentoring opportunities or being part of an online community or personal learning network, for example).
- Development implies a longer-term or broader process – acquiring skills or knowledge by a range of different means such as coaching, formal and informal learning interventions, education or planned experience.
As these are broad definitions, it's important for organisations to know what these terms mean to them. There’s been a change of emphasis in recent years from a limited perception of formal training to a broader concept of learning and development: become learner-centred rather than trainer-centred.
With the shift in thinking from instructor-led, content-based face-to-face training towards a wider focus on learning and development (usually self-directed work-based experiences), people development has moved into a much wider, more holistic space.
The role of line managers in learning
The shift from course-led learning experiences to bringing learning directly into everyday work brings a greater role for line managers in the delivery of learning. This is a new role for many managers who still see learning as a separate activity provided by L&D and happening away from the workplace. See our factsheet on the role of line managers in HR and L&D.
Choosing learning and training methods
Many methods exist covering learning and training needs ranging from, for example, customer service training for call centre operators to continuing professional development programmes for specialist and professionally-qualified staff.
The choice of method for each particular need will depend on several factors including:
- the nature and degree of priority of the learning needs
- the required expectation and impact on performance post-intervention
- type of occupation and the respective needs and accessibility
- background of learners
- organisational culture and budget provision
- evaluation of the effectiveness of previous learning interventions
- complexity of knowledge, skill or behaviour the learning intervention covers
- learner preference, experience and perception.
Employees may prefer to learn from experience – being shown how and then given a chance for practice – rather than from formal classroom methods. Understanding the cognitive processes associated with learning is important when selecting, developing and delivering learning. Knowing your people and organisation well feeds into methodology decisions. For example, engineers may prefer structure and order and yet artists and designers may feel constrained by that. Learners need to relate to the learning interventions to maximise the performance required. However, it's important to note that preference sometimes this cannot be accommodated. A learner may like self-directed learning such as reading or watching videos, but to master a practical skill they have to practise it!
Our related factsheets on identifying learning and development needs, evaluating learning and development and costing and benchmarking learning and development will also be useful when making choices on learning methods.
Types of learning method
Although definitions and classifications may overlap, it’s possible to categorise learning methods in various ways including:
- internal or external provision of learning
- team or individual arrangements
- formal or informal techniques
- digital or face-to-face
- learning directly at the place of work or away from the workplace.
Increasingly we’re also seeing performance support tools and social learning opportunities arising.
The types of workplace-based and non-workplace-based learning methods covered below reflect the main types.
Workplace-based learning techniques
Typically, on-the-job training is learning through observing and/or being assisted by a colleague with more experience of performing a task. It’s usually:
- delivered on a one-to-one basis at the trainee’s place of work
- allocated time to take place, including potential periods when there is little or no useful output of products or services
- a specified, planned and structured activity.
This method may prove useful in certain circumstances and is usually immediately relevant to basic job needs. However, work colleagues or line managers who do the training need to ensure that:
- trainees are able to practise what they have learned immediately to enhance recall
- instruction is paced to avoid information overload
- the trainees current level of knowledge, skill or behaviour is taken into account and can be used in the training
- positive feedback is given to encourage the trainee.
In-house development programmes
This category covers a very diverse range of learning interventions that are longer-term, broader and/or of a higher level than basic on-the-job training. Development programmes could include techniques such as coaching and mentoring or secondment, often with more formal or off-the-job learning or educational arrangements. In-house programmes are often used for management or leadership development activities but are not limited to these.
Coaching and mentoring
Coaching and mentoring are development techniques based on one-to-one discussions to enhance an individual’s skills, knowledge or work performance – often for the current job, but also to support career transitions. Whilst there is much debate about definitions and who should/shouldn’t be a coach or a mentor, there is broad agreement on the following two descriptions:
- Coaching describes a relationship in which the coach will listen and question to enable learning to come from the 'coachee'.
- Mentoring describes a relationship in which a more experienced colleague (rather than line managers or external coaches) uses their greater knowledge and understanding of the work or workplace to support the development of a more junior or inexperienced member of staff by sharing experiences. Reverse mentoring may also be used to enable cross-generational learning.
Job rotation, secondment and shadowing
Learning from the experience of secondment - that is, the temporary loan of an employee to another department or role, or sometimes to an external organisation - is widely recognised as valuable for both employee development and organisation development.
Job rotation and shadowing are similarly useful forms of development, particularly in supporting employees in developing the skills and competencies required for moves to new or higher-level roles. The support process for the learners here is important and time needs to be factored in for achieving the desired performance outputs.
Learning methods away from the workplace
Learning away from the workplace is generally the easiest to record and cost, although this visibility doesn't mean it should be perceived as the main way in which learning happens.
Courses and classroom training
Formal courses away from the workplace have advantages in certain circumstances,. They offer:
- protected time for learning
- opportunity to practise, share ideas and experience in a structured risk free setting
- the capacity for a course leader to give feedback immediately and in a non-threatening way
- the ability to signal what matters to the organisation – essential courses in health and safety for example, send out a strong signal that this knowledge is important.
Internal courses provide an opportunity to focus on organisation-specific issues, which may increase the possibility of learning transfer. External courses involving interaction with people from other organisations may help individuals see situations from a fresh perspective and develop skills in a different knowledge-sharing context.
Formal education and qualifications
A variation on the theme of formal courses, vocational and management education may be a useful way of meeting learning needs while allowing learners to acquire qualifications. Understanding the application of learning and the actual skills developed will help decisions about the best course and/or qualifications to choose.
More information on workplace qualifications is available via links in Useful contacts.
Action learning and learning projects
Action learning is a form of collaborative learning where a small group of learners (an ‘action learning set’) meet regularly to reflect on real work issues. Its basic philosophy is that the most effective learning takes place when individuals are faced with a real problem to solve.
For example, putting managers to work in cross-functional teams, exposing them to different areas and enabling them to learn about other aspects of the organisation is a way of broadening their experience, though choosing the right project for individuals needs careful thought.
Distance learning and digital learning
Distance learning involves the use of learning materials delivered through the post or electronically. These methods are able to provide large groups with consistent material, and access is flexible so that people can learn in their own time, if appropriate. Against this, digital learning or other forms of distance learning do not appeal to everyone. One of the main issues is that learner motivation can slip without contact with fellow learners and tutors, so tutor support (remote or face-to-face) is important.
Effective distance learning engages learners in a forum or collaborative environment in some way, perhaps via interactive classroom or webinars, as well as through materials provided for self-directed learning.
Blended and ‘bite-size’ learning
Some forms of learning work best together in a technique that has become known as ‘blended learning’. For example, digital social learning is often more effective when blended with more formal types of learning. A blend offers an effective way of moving learning away from one knowledge dump event such as a one day course towards a programme which helps the learner to retain and use the knowledge over a longer time period.
A related approach is to offer small chunks of formal training of an hour or two and in varying formats, perhaps linked with other techniques such as online resources.
Organisations often gather teams together at the end of projects to review how they’ve worked and to record ‘lessons learned’. These events allow for participants to learn better ways of working together or improve processes. They can also help the learning and development of individuals and teams, and create useful learning assets to be shared amongst future project teams.
Self-led knowledge management is increasingly commonplace. Social tools, self-authoring tools and learning management systems allow learners to be curators of knowledge and to share amongst their networks. L&D professionals are moving to become facilitators rather than controllers of this space.
Recent developments affecting learning methods
Developments in fields such as neuroscience are influencing how learning initiatives are best optimised for learning retention. Insights from neuroscience can be applied to both which learning method is selected, and how the learning is designed to enable it to stick.
'Gamification' is the process of applying game design theories to everyday situations, including business. It can support learning and development by enabling employees to build competence in a safe environment. Gamification is starting to be introduced to both physical and online learning to encourage greater learner engagement and retention. Whilst often perceived as applying to digital learning, simple gamified principles such as a leader board or competition ideas are easily incorporated into offline learning too, playing towards competitive human nature.
Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are free-open access courses available to anyone. They’re available in business or language skills as well as a vast range of other topics which can be good at getting adults back into the habit of learning. Organisations can connect employees to existing MOOCs or create bespoke corporate MOOCs.
Social learning and content curation
Many organisations are introducing online collaboration tools which enable employees to learn from each other through sharing material. Social media platforms support the development of online communities of practice where shared ideas support learning and practice.
There are also free tools such as animation, infographics, video, word clouds, and self-authored e-learning, which enable anyone to create learning content. In some cases this means that the L&D function has moved into the role of 'content curator'. Rather than selecting and designing learning methods, they are providing the tools and content for employees to direct their own learning.
Useful contacts and further reading
Books and reports
BEEVERS, K. and REA, A. (2016) Learning and development practice in the workplace. 3rd ed. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
BUTLER, L. and LEACH, M. (2011) Action learning for change: a practical guide for managers. Cirencester: Management Books 2000.
McGONIGAL, J. (2011) Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world. London: Penguin.
OVERTON, L. (2014) In-Focus: lessons from MOOCs for corporate learning [online]. Towards Maturity.
RADOFF, J. (2011) Game on: energize your business with social media games. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing.
PAGE-TICKELL, R. (2018) Learning and development: a practical introduction. 2nd ed. HR Fundamentals. London: CIPD and Kogan Page.
Visit the CIPD and Kogan Page Bookshop to see all our priced publications currently in print.
MATTOX, J.R. (2012) Measuring the effectiveness of informal learning methodologies. T+D. Vol 66, No 2, February. pp48-53.
VAN DAM, N. (2012) Designing learning for a 21st century workforce. T+D. Vol 66, No 4, April. pp48-53.
VAN DAM, N. (2013) Inside the learning brain. T+D. Vol 67, No 4, April. pp30-35.
ZIELINSKI, D. (2012) Group learning: use social media to engage employees in knowledge sharing. HR Magazine. Vol 57, No 5, May. pp49-50,52.
CIPD members can use our online journals to find articles from over 300 journal titles relevant to HR.
Members and People Management subscribers can see articles on the People Management website.
This factsheet was last updated by David Hayden.
David Hayden: L&D Consultant/Trainer
David is part of the CIPD’s L&D Content Team. He leads on the design and delivery of a number of L&D-focused products as well as keeping his practice up to date by facilitating events for a range of clients. David began his L&D career after taking responsibility for three Youth Trainees back in 1988 as an Operations Manager, and has since gone on to work in, and headed up, a number of corporate L&D teams and HR functions in distribution, retail, financial and public sector organisations. He completed his Masters degree specialising in CPD and was Chair of our South Yorkshire Branch for two years from 2012 before joining as an employee in 2014. David also has a background in 'lean' and has worked as a Lean Engineer in a number of manufacturing and food organisations. Passionate about learning and exploiting all aspects of CPD, David’s style is participative and inclusive.
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